June 15, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 522

Elections in Iran – Part II

June 15, 2009 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 522


Of the 475 candidates in Iran's presidential elections, only four prominent candidates survived screening by the Guardian Council: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, of the revolutionary old guard; former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Mohsen Rezai; and former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi. [1] This is the second part of MEMRI's study of the 2009 Iranian elections that focuses on the candidates and main characteristics of the election campaign. [2]

Characteristics of the 2009 Iranian Elections

A. All Candidates Belong to the Conservative Camp

The reformist camp that existed until 2005 has been wiped out by the regime, through a systematic policy which began with the 1998 assassination of intellectuals and continued following the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. [3] Today, the only meaningful distinction is between two streams that both clearly belong to the conservative camp.

Presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, though often portrayed in the West as reformists, cannot really be regarded as such; rather, they belong to the old guard and to the elite of the Islamic Revolution. Both are today in their 70s, and both have held senior positions in the regime; neither were part of the reformist movement when it was active - that is, until the end of the Sixth Majlis. [4] Karroubi, who was speaker of the Sixth Majlis, spoke up in defense of the reformist students and politicians (and the journalists, though less so), as part of his political campaign against the regime and its unjust acts.

In the current elections, Karroubi has taken up the position as standard-bearer for fair elections and clean politics, especially since he was harmed by election fraud in 2005, when he lost to Ahmadinejad. He resigned in protest against the regime-organized fraud in these elections, which he claimed had assured Ahmadinejad's victory. After refusing Khamenei's offer of a senior position in return for his silence, he became head of the Etemad-e Meli party, which opposes the regime.

Ahmadinejad and Rezai belong to the revolution's second generation, and both are veterans of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Rezai is not a supporter of Ahmadinejad's messianic ideology; rather, he accepts the authority of the conservative ayatollahs.

It is interesting that although Ahmadinejad's supporters are well aware that Mousavi and Karroubi are not part of the reformist movement, they depict them as such so as to condemn them as traitors and collaborators with the West - allegations frequently made against reformistsin Iran. [5] In a June 2, 2009 press conference held by the headquarters of the conservative supporters of Mousavi, group leader Ali Davani explained that Mousavi was even more conservative than Ahmadinejad. Another group member, Reza Akrami, explained that he supported Mousavi because Mousavi accepted the four fundamentals: Islam, the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini, and Supreme Leader Khamenei. [6]

B. The Conservative Camp Is Split Along Several Lines


The conservative camp includes two streams: the traditional conservative stream, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the radical-messianic stream, headed by President Ahmadinejad. [7] It should be noted that Ahmadinejad's world view, and the path he has laid down for the Islamic Revolution - which is grounded in the notions of exporting the revolution, positioning Iran as a nuclear regional and global empire, and establishing a just Islamic rule based on the values of the 1979 revolution - threaten the traditional conservatives both physically and ideologically.


Iran has no established tradition of parties or party platforms. All candidates pride themselves on their loyalty to Islam and to the Islamic Revolution, and present themselves as the true followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian politics are based not on party affiliation but on personal loyalties, and it is on this level that several personal rivalries play out:

1) The rivalry between the two main representatives of its two streams: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second most powerful figure in the regime and the head of two supreme supervisory bodies, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts; and President Ahmadinejad, whose election marked the beginning of the "second Islamic revolution." [8] Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections, and in the current elections he has been attempting to put forth a candidate with broad public support to keep Ahmadinejad from being reelected. First he supported former president Mohammad Khatami, and after Khatami dropped out, he transferred his support to his friend Mousavi. [9]

2) The rivalry between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The latter, who disappeared from the public eye in 1989 after the position of prime minister, which he held, was abolished, was known during his eight years in office as a personal rival of then-president Ali Khamenei. [10] During the presidencies of both Rafsanjani and Khatami, Mousavi served as their political advisor.

3) The three-decade rivalry between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, which intensified after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.

C. The President Doesn't Have the Support of the Conservative Establishment

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not have the support of the conservative establishment - unlike other conservative presidents before him, who had no problem getting reelected because they had the overall support of the conservative establishment. Ahmadinejad has been relentlessly criticized by the conservative establishment throughout his term. This is due to his radical policy, fed by his messianic vision, primarily in foreign affairs - for example, his attitude to Iran's Arab neighbors, to Israel, to the issue of the Holocaust, and to Iran's nuclear issue, and particularly to his provocative stance in the nuclear issue vis-à-vis the West. Harsh criticism has also been directed against his economic policy, which has not managed to successfully address Iran's severe economic crisis.

Further, Ahmadinejad's activities against the economic interests of the moderate conservative school - primarily against the traditional ayatollahs, the financiers, and the bazaar merchants - and the fact that he has directed state economic resources to his support groups, primarily among the IRGC, have led to criticism against him by the traditional conservatives.

But above all, the radical messianic ideology that he has worked to promote, and his claim that the Islamic Revolution has deviated from its path under the 16 years of his predecessors Rafsanjani and Khatami, constitute very real threats to Iran's traditional conservative stream.

As early as August 2008, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced his support for a second Ahmadinejad term, apparently in order to thwart Hashemi Rafsanjani's initiative to select a less controversial candidate who did not challenge the traditional leadership. In recent months, Khamenei has tried to claim that he does not favor any particular candidate, but his calls to the public clearly show his preference for Ahmadinejad. Thus, he has called for voting for the candidate whose way of life is modest and whose family also leads a simple life, and who steadfastly faces the superpowers. [11]

D. The Emergence of the Anti-Ahmadinejad Protest Vote

Mir Hossein Mousavi is also supported by the "moderate" elite, who were disillusioned with president Mohammad Khatami. Thus, Mousavi tries to blur the lines of his political and ideological identity so as to attract as many potential audiences as he can. For example, Mousavi has referred to himself as "a reformist candidate who always returns to the principles [of the revolution, that is, the conservatives]," [12] and, later, as an "independent candidate." Mousavi addresses a target audience comprising traditional conservatives who are disenchanted with Ahmadinejad, supporters of the reform movement, and, primarily, youth and women.

As someone who was out of public life for many years, Mousavi strives to be depicted as a clean candidate who has never been involved in corruption scandals; also, in light of Iran's economic crisis, he is playing up his reputation as rehabilitator of the Iranian economy following the Iran-Iraq war.

An important feature in Mousavi's election campaign is his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, the dean of Zahra University and a Koran researcher, who holds a Ph.D. in political science; she is a women's rights activist and works for women's economic empowerment, and is also an artist and an active participant in her husband's election campaign. Because she is admired by many women in the country, Mousavi's campaign directors have put her in the spotlight along with her husband. The women's vote for Mousavi is considered to be due to his wife, and also as a protest vote against Ahmadinejad. Proof of this can be seen in the harsh personal attacks against her by Ahmadinejad and by the press affiliated with him, particularly Kayhan. Ahmadinejad has stated that she obtained her Ph.D. and her post as university dean by fraudulent means. [13]

E. No Calls to Boycott Elections

Another salient element in this election cycle is the absence of calls to boycott the elections, whether by anti-regime intellectuals or by student organizations - who in the 2005 elections explicitly called for a boycott. Most of these groups are calling to vote for Mehdi Karroubi. Dissident intellectual Ahmad Zeidabadi also called to vote for Karroubi, who was depicted in these circles as a candidate who dared to follow his own path and who openly opposed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

F. Downplaying IRGC Involvement in the Elections

During this election campaign, there has been a very obvious attempt, by the media and by senior IRGC officials themselves, to downplay these officials' involvement in Iran's politics in general, and in these elections in particular. This was done in order to avoid antagonism towards Ahmadinejad among the Iranian public - in striking contrast to the previous elections, in which the IRGC and Basij figured prominently, in blatant violation of the directives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banning their involvement in politics.

G. An Election Cycle Replete with Fiery Personal Accusations

The 2009 election cycle also featured the first televised candidates' debates in years, which further intensified the personal conflicts between the candidates. In the debates, Ahmadinejad said that he was running against three rivals who had worked together against him for years. He accused Hashemi Rafsanjani of joining with Saudi King Abdallah to topple his regime. He called on all the candidates to file declarations of their assets, and to return assets he claimed were plundered from the state, hinting at Karroubi who is known to be very wealthy.

Ahmadinejad said that Mousavi, Khatami, and Rafsanjani had joined against him personally and ideologically since he took office, saying: "Today there is not only Mr. Mousavi who confronts me, but the three consecutive previous governments, namely, Mr. Mousavi's, Mr. Hashemi's (Rafsanjani), and Mr. Khatami's - all against me."

He continued, "In the past, these three were together; during the previous rounds both Mr. Mousavi supported Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khatami supported Mr. Hashemi, they were all together. From the first day that this government was established, too, their aggression aimed at attacking the government began. Of course the people know these things, but the youth, too, should know them...

"The reason why this immense pressure was exerted against me during the course of the past four years, and is even further intensified during the election campaign, is, I believe, due to just one thing: During the course of these three governments a number of management rings took shape that made the revolution deviate from its original path and from its value system. I’m not saying that no service [to the country] was done during the tenure of those three governments. However, meanwhile, a movement took shape that considered itself the owner of the nation, the owner of the revolution, the ruler of the people, and gradually, with an open hand over public money...

"[In the previous elections,] they queued up against the government, but the government beat them. During the course of the past four years they tried to make the government seem incompetent, but relying on the grace of the Benevolent God, and the backing of the people, we have come thus far.

"During the previous round of elections [in 2005], my opponent was supported both inside and outside Iran. During the first days of this government, too, Mr. Hashemi forwarded a message to the king of one of the Gulf states, assuring him that this government would be toppled in six months... This shows explicitly the extensive plans against [my] government." [14]

In response, Hashemi Rafsanjani demanded that the Iranian broadcasting authority give him air time to rebut the "accusations and lies" of Ahmadinejad against him. [15]

Cartoon in an Iranian Daily: Election Rivalry [16]

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Ahmadinejad's main rival, former president Mohammad Khatami, dropped out of the race in March 2009, after ensuring that his friend Mousavi would run.

[2] For the first part, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 488, "Renewed Power Struggle in Iran as the Presidential Elections Approach: Part I - Ahmadinejad's Revolutionary-Messianic Faction vs. Rafsanjani-Reformist Alliance," December 26, 2008, Renewed Power Struggle in Iran as the Presidential Elections Approach: Part I – Ahmadinejad's Revolutionary-Messianic Faction vs. Rafsanjani–Reformist Alliance.

[3] According to Iranian media reports, Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of those behind the assassinations. Also worth mentioning is the violent suppression of the widespread student protests in 1999. Subsequently, the regime destroyed the reformist camp with mass disqualification of electoral candidates (in the 2003 municipal elections, the Majlis elections of 2004 and 2008, and the presidential elections of 2001 and 2005), by shutting down hundreds of newspapers and by arresting hundreds of activists, students, intellectuals, and journalists. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 112, "Reformist-Conservative Struggle in Iran Part II -The Conservative Response," November 15, 2002, الخبل الديني..! ; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 713, "The Political Debate in Iran Following Elections for the Seventh Majlis," May 12, 2004, The Political Debate in Iran Following Elections for the Seventh Majlis ; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 430, "Power Struggle in Iran - Part IV: Staged Majlis Elections, Elimination of Reformist Political Representation, Abolition of 'Rule of the Jurisprudent,'" April 2, 2008, Power Struggle in Iran – Part IV: Staged Majlis Elections, Elimination of Reformist Political Representation, Abolition of 'Rule of the Jurisprudent'.

[4] During their TV debate, Ahmadinejad remarked to Mousavi that during his term as prime minister, he too had called to destroy Israel, shut down newspapers, and imprisoned students. IRNA (Iran), June 4, 2009.

[5] In an election rally in Esfahan in late March 2009, Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, attacked the "reformist [presidential] candidates" (meaning Mousavi and Karroubi), likening them to the Umayyads who fought the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Badr, and calling them "liars" and "activists [fighting] on the front of Iran's enemies" (Etemaad, May 30, 2009). In an editorial, he wrote that Mousavi had no chance of winning the upcoming presidential elections, questioned Mousavi's commitment to the rule of the jurisprudent, and accused him of wanting to realize the aspirations of Iran's enemies. Kayhan (March 18, 2009).

[6] Mehr (Iran), June 2, 2009.

[7] It is important to point out the failure of the reformist ideology in Iran, and the reformists' failure to unite behind a uniform positive ideological platform. The reformist Sixth Majlis was repeatedly shaken by internal disputes within the reformist camp. Along with the regime's sanctions, this also contributed to the disappearance of the reformist camp.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 229, "Iran's ‘Second Islamic Revolution': Fulfilled by Election of Conservative President," June 28, 2005, Iran's ‘Second Islamic Revolution’: Fulfilled by Election of Conservative President.

[9] Rafsanjani was also apparently behind the failed initiative to form a "conservative national unity government," which was also supported by Rezai. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 488, "Renewed Power Struggle in Iran as the Presidential Elections Approach: Part I - Ahmadinejad's Revolutionary-Messianic Faction vs. Rafsanjani-Reformist Alliance," December 26, 2008, Renewed Power Struggle in Iran as the Presidential Elections Approach: Part I – Ahmadinejad's Revolutionary-Messianic Faction vs. Rafsanjani–Reformist Alliance.

[10] Mousavi was responsible for Iran's economic recovery during the Iran-Iraq war. His eight years as prime minister (1981-1989) were characterized by disputes with then-president Khamenei, which finally led Mousavi to resign shortly after the end of the war, in August 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini refused to accept his resignation, but his role as prime minister ended when the position was abolished in 1989, after Khomeini's death and Khamenei's promotion to supreme leader (even though he was not an ayatollah but only hujjat al-Islam).

[11] In a speech in Sanandaj on May 12, 2009, Khamenei said, "All candidates to be approved by the Guardian Council are worthy, but in an important issue such as electing the president we must not settle for the minimum, but must choose from among the worthy candidates the best and most worthy based on the criteria... You must choose someone who understands the pain of the nation, knows the distress of the people, and feels its pain; [someone who] will be honest with the people, will be modest, and that he, his family, and his relatives will be far from luxury and ceremony and aristocracy..." He rejected criticism of the Ahmadinejad government's economic policy, saying, "The candidates sometimes raise for discussion issues that are opposed to reality regarding the situation of the country and regarding the economic issues that worry the people. The people cannot believe that bringing any of this [criticism] is done justly and with integrity." Khorasan, May 13, 2009. In another speech in the Kurdistan province, Khamenei said that people should choose the candidate who "[is expected] to continue in the path of Khomeini, his values, and his principles, and to consider as important steadfastness against [the countries] advocating violence in the world as a value." Fararu, May 18, 2009.

[12] Tehran Times, May 10, 2009.

[13] Dr. Rahnavard issued a 24-hour ultimatum to Ahmadinejad to apologize for his statements. Fararu, June 5, 2009.

[14] IRNA (Iran), June 4, 2009.

[15] Fars (Iran), June 4, 2009. This request was rejected. See

[16] Rooz (Iran), May 10, 2009. Cartoonist: Nikahang Kowsar.

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