Iran: grim choices for president

Which candidate will be in a better position to weaken the Supreme Leader? Which will be less detrimental in terms of economic mismanagement? And which candidate less dangerous than the others in terms of brazen violations of human rights and civil liberties?

The mass uprising after the electoral coup of 2009, which came to be known as the Green Movement, involved a wide-ranging array of secular, left, liberal, and moderate religious elements. It was defeated mainly because of the unbelievably brutal suppression of the activists, which included killing, maiming, and raping arrested protesters. But the movement’s leadership also played a role. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoobi were both establishment figures; while they sought reforms, they did not want to challenge the regime in its totality. And the fact that the members of street movements failed to link up with workers and employees who had the power to shut down factories and other institutions as they had done during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, also contributed to this failure.

The situation is much worse for the democratic forces in Iran for this round of presidential elections than was the case in 2009. This is true despite the fact that the ruling cliques’ infighting has reached an unprecedented level, and different groups of the “Principlists” (ultra-right religious fundamentalists) who were united against the Islamist reformists during the last elections, are now openly fighting each other. The leadership hopes to prevent the election of any candidate that would not be loyal and subservient to the Supreme Leader. The manipulation of the electoral process in the Islamic Republic is now a long-standing tradition that takes place in two stages. Firstly, candidates must be approved by the twelve member Guardianship Council (appointed by the Supreme Leader). Secondly, when the electoral process starts, they mobilize a sophisticated machinery to ensure their favoured candidates’ emerge as victors when the polls close, either by actual or fabricated votes.

Currently, both Islamist reformist candidates of the last presidential elections, Moussavi and Karroobi, are still under house arrest, so different groups of Islamist reformists have tried to convince Khatami or Rafsanjani, both former presidents, to run. Khatami declined in favour of Rafsanjani, who declared that he will run provided the Supreme Leader agrees. The Supreme Leader and the gangs around him are adamantly opposed to Rafsanjani, but had to reconsider because of what happened with Ahmadinejad’s camp.

Ahmadinejad, a Principlist himself, was a true obedient servant of the Supreme Leader in his first presidency and during the early part of his second, owing to his rigged election victory and the Supreme Leader’s sanctioning of the results. Since then, Ahmadinejad has increasingly distanced himself from the Supreme Leader, and has even brazenly confronted him on several occasions. Ahmadinejad had his own preferred candidate: his Chief of Staff, and his son’s father-in law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. In the last day of registration in an unprecedented move, Ahmadinejad accompanied him to the Interior Ministry for registration as a candidate. Ahmadinejad evidently hoped that if one of his own takes office, this will allow the former president to remain in situ and influential for four years, at which point he can then reclaim the presidency a la President Putin. All the other Principlists and the Supreme Leader himself are against Ahmadinejad’s plan.

According to an interview with one of Rafsanjani’s confidants, on the afternoon of the same day that Mashaei registered, Rafsanjani, despite continued pressure from his supporters to nominate himself, ordered a communiqué explaining his decision not to run. Later that same afternoon, he, along with his entourage, rushed to the Ministry of the Interior with only a few minutes remaining for registration, having received a positive message from the Supreme Leader’s office regarding his candidacy.

The situation had become very complicated for the Supreme Leader. He was facing serious dilemmas: the Guardianship Council could not easily refuse the candidacy of Rafsanjani, the most senior figure and symbol of the post-revolutionary period. But rejecting Mashaei’s candidacy, despite Ahmadinejad’s threating against this, would be easier. This, however, would make Rafsanjani a stronger contender. The leadership had to choose either one side, or allow both sides – which are each other’s archenemies – to run, in the hope that they would severely weaken each other during the three week long campaign. (Needless to say, non-religious secular candidates have never been allowed to run for any office in the post-revolutionary period.) In the end they came up with the drastic decision of eliminating both, fearing that the vast number of disgruntled Iranians would strategically vote for Rafsanjani and force the regime to resort to yet another electoral coup like last time.

To eliminate all the major undesirable contenders for the presidency, the Supreme Leader had to rely more on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. He therefore had to support one of their military/security candidates, such as Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf who is also the Mayor of Tehran, or Mohsen Rezaie the former commander of the Guards, or a civilian Principlist candidate that is accepted by them, like Saeed Jalili, presently the chief negotiator in nuclear disputes and the Supreme Leader’s representative in the National Security Council, or Ali-akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and present head of international affairs in the office of the Supreme Leader. In the end the Guardianship Council ratified eight candidates, the four above-mentioned plus another staunch Principlist, Haddad Adel, a top advisor of the Supreme Leader and a member of the parliament. To pretend that the election is not limited to the Principlist candidates, they also ratified three lower profiled Muslim Reformists. Although still there is a possibility of strategic voting in favour of one these three, it seems to be easier for the regime to bring out its own favoured candidate from the ballot boxes.

The key questions on the minds of the Iranians who want to vote strategically are: which candidate will be in a better position to possibly weaken the Supreme Leader? Which will be less detrimental in terms of economic mismanagement? And more importantly, which candidate will be less dangerous than the others in terms of brazen violations of human rights and civil liberties?

An intriguing aspect of the current presidential elections is that many of the original candidates were involved in cases being heard in the courts of foreign countries. These cases are considering the direct involvement of these individuals in the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad, and in terrorist activities. The early assassinations or “chain-killings” of Iranian dissidents inside and outside the country are well known, as is the Mykonos Restaurant assassination in 1992 in Berlin, when the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and his aides were assassinated. A German court has issued an international arrest warrant for the then Minister of Intelligence, Ali Falahian. The warrant declares that he organized the Berlin plot by direct order of the top leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The killings were ordered by a special council consisting of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, and Ali Falahian, all three of whom were among the present presidential candidates.

Another candidate, Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf, was secretly taped in a recent closed meeting, and the footage was leaked to Iranian websites. In the audio tape, he brags about the brutal tactics he used to suppress the student movement when he was the Police Commander. He also proudly reminds his audience that as a commander of the air force of the Islamic Guard, he was the person who picked up a club and jumped on the back of a motorcycle and started “cleaning up” the streets of protesters. He also masterminded the creation of the Kahrizak detention center, where where many of those arrested following the 2009 protests against rigged presidential elections were brutally tortured and raped. It is from among these and other candidates that Iranian voters have to choose their next leader. 

Meanwhile the regime is preparing for a major crackdown to suppress any sort of protests around the elections, including the imposition of stricter controls over the media. The Cultural Deputy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been appointed as the head of the Fars News Agency, and a notorious interrogator of the 2009 prisoners has been appointed as the head of the University Basij which controls student movements. Islamic Basij (militia), regular police, and if needed, the Islamic Guards, along with multi-functional neighbourhood mosques that use the “rent-a-mob” strategy – keeping thugs equipped with motorcycles and cell-phones on standby – will be ready to crush any actions to protest the results.

Unfortunately, the Iranian opposition both inside and outside Iran cannot respond with a similarly cohesive effort, as they remain divided and incapable of forming a united front against the regime. The “liberal versus left” and “secular versus religious” divides are deep rooted, which is another point of advantage for the regime.

As for relations with the west, particularly with the United States, already there are rumours that serious secret negotiations between the representatives of the Supreme Leader and the Americans are under way. Obama mentioned earlier that he is prepared to negotiate directly with Iran if the Supreme Leader is involved. One reason that the Principlists so boldly eliminated other candidates who favoured rapprochement with the west might be that they are doing it themselves. If they come up with some sort of agreement on the nuclear issue and on Syria, they know that they will be in a better position to deal with internal issues, extending their suppression of the Iranian people.

This article is an extract from an interview with Canadian International Council, opencanada.org

About the author

Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at York University, Toronto

 

Related Articles
No prospects for an Iranian spring?
Moritz Pieper