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Shifting Alliances in Iran

Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, University of Hawaii
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 23, 2013

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Ahead of the June 14 presidential election, Iran's influential Guardian Council disqualified two candidates seen by the regime as potentially disruptive, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The decision is a major setback to "reformists, centrists, and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives [who] managed to form an alliance behind his candidacy," says Farideh Farhi, a longtime expert on Iranian politics. As to who will win, she says it is up in the air, and will depend on alliances struck in the coming weeks. Farhi says the outcome will reset the country's direction after a tumultuous few years, but basic disagreements with Washington will persist.

Earlier this week, the Interior Ministry in Iran announced the list of candidates that will run in the June 14 presidential election. Notably, former president Rafsanjani, now seventy-eight, has been barred from running again by the Guardian Council. How important is this decision?

It is an important decision in terms of its effect on the mood of the country. The decision by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani to run quite unexpectedly created excitement in an election that previously seemed lackluster. Reformists, centrists, and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives managed to form an alliance behind his candidacy. Suddenly, there was a potential for the success of a well-known candidate explicitly running on a platform of moderation against what he identified as a record of extremism and hardline policies in the past eight years.

"[The Guardian Council] engaged in an overtly political act of disqualifying a well-known and experienced candidate."

The excitement he generated ultimately frightened the Guardian Council regarding the possibility of this election getting out of control. So it engaged in an overtly political act of disqualifying a well-known and experienced candidate, and in the process qualifying at least one candidate, Saeed Jalili, with very little executive experience. There are many centrists, reformists, and even conservatives within the Iranian political spectrum who are in a state of shock or disbelief.

Rormer president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. (Photo: Raheb Homavandi/Courtesy Reuters

The former aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was also excluded, and he's appealing to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be reinstated. Does he have any chance?

I don't think so. His disqualification was expected, and his candidacy was overshadowed by the excitement generated by Rafsanjani's registration as a candidate.

Let's talk about the eight people who were cleared as presidential candidates. I suppose Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator, is the most known in the outside world. Is he the favorite right now?

At this point, it's unclear. A variety of polls by a number of news agencies do not show him as the leading candidate. While these polls are not reliable, they uniformly show that the most popular conservative candidate is the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. He has been part of a group called Two Plus One, or Coalition for Progress, that also includes former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former speaker of the parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.

The agreement among these three conservative candidates is that they would all campaign, but at one point, two of them will withdraw in favor of the candidate with the best poll numbers. So far, however, even with Ghalibaf's better poll numbers, the other two have been hesitant to withdraw.

So we just have to wait and see, probably until after the televised debates, whether any one of these conservatives will rise to the top, and also whether Jalili, who has positioned himself as a hardline conservative that will continue the policies of the past eight years, will also withdraw in order for conservatives to unify behind one candidate. In short, there is still quite a bit of competing left among the conservatives.

Another conservative candidate running as an independent is Mohsen Rezaee, who also ran in 2009. He probably will stay until the end of the race but does not have much of a chance.

What about some of the more centrist candidates?

Another candidate running as an independent is former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani. He is a centrist and has made very clear that his foreign policy approach and domestic policies would be quite different from President Ahmadinejad's. He had previously said that he would withdraw in favor of Rafsanjani, if he was qualified. Now that Rafsanjani is out, Rowhani would like to present himself as the main alternative candidate to the conservative slate.

But he is also competing against another candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, who was President Mohammad Khatami's first vice president. He is running as a reformist. And here lies the challenge for the reformist and centrist groups that had managed to coalesce around Rafsanjani's candidacy: They must first decide whether they can agree to throw their support behind the candidacy of one of the two; and secondly, whether they can generate the kind of excitement that was behind Rafsanjani's candidacy.

Neither of these two men is very well-known outside the capital of Tehran. Their campaigns will not get television coverage comparable to their conservative rivals, and their campaign rallies and means of communications with voters will, in all likelihood, be restricted. Rafsanjani's name recognition was a significant counter to these usual methods used by the conservative establishment to guarantee a win. But this is a luxury neither Rowhani nor Aref have.

Do you think Khamenei has a favorite?

Some observers are presenting Saeed Jalili as his favorite. But just a short while ago, former foreign minister Velayati was presumed to be his favorite. Guessing what Khamenei thinks is difficult, although it's a safe bet that his preference lies within the conservative slate. Beyond this, he may be willing to let the competition among conservatives take its course, or he might wait until the last minute to decide himself. It is this lack of clarity about his preferred candidate that creates uncertainty about whose name will eventually come out of the ballot box.

"Pushing for the candidacy of someone with little economic experience when economy is the most important campaign issue is probably not the wisest thing to do."

The problem with the assumption that Jalili is already Khamenei's preferred candidate is that among the approved candidates, Jalili is by far the most inexperienced. In fact, he has not held a single executive post throughout his short career and knows nothing about domestic policies or management of the economy. Even in comparison to the relative newcomer Ahmadinejad in 2005, Jalili is inexperienced.

Khamenei is already faced with criticism, even if not openly expressed, for the support he has given to men who have not done a good job managing the Iranian economy in the face of severe external pressures and economic sanctions. Hence, pushing for the candidacy of someone with little economic experience when economy is the most important campaign issue is probably not the wisest thing to do.

Indeed, Jalili's inexperience is already a campaign issue. Earlier this week, a website that belongs to a member of the parliament published an open letter to the Guardian Council asking it to explain how someone like Jalili could qualify while others with more experience were excluded. The only significant experience Jalili has had is as Iran's nuclear negotiator, and even in that arena, many inside Iran do not consider him to be particularly capable.

Should Washington have a favorite?

"This election is important because it will reset Iran's direction after a few rather tumultuous years."

Given the ferocious sanctions regime it has imposed on Iran, Washington is in no position to have a favorite in this election, even if it is waiting to see if the result will affect Iran's foreign policy direction. The bottom line is that the United States has to be prepared to engage any administration that comes to power if it wants to avoid a dangerous escalation of tensions.

This election is important because it will reset Iran's direction after a few rather tumultuous years. Among the qualified candidates, including in the conservative camp, there are those who have been critical of the country's foreign policy direction under Ahmadinejad. Their criticisms mostly focus on tactics and approaches taken, but are nevertheless serious. And there are others, like Jalili, who represent continuity. In short, while economy is the central issue of the campaign, foreign policy will also be also debated. But no matter which side wins, the fundamental disagreements between the United States and Iran will remain and have to be worked out through a negotiated agreement that the next president can sell to the Iranian public as a fair deal.

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