May 10, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 969

Iranian Presidential Elections – Part II: Which Candidates Will The Regime Thwart? Supreme Leader Khamenei vs. His Rivals – Rafsanjani And Ahmadinejad

May 10, 2013 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 969

"Rafsanjani's decision to run is a turning point in the history of the regime."

– Iranian reformist website Entekhab, May 12, 2013


By the close of registration for candidates for Iran's presidential election, set for June 14, 2013, 686 individuals had signed up. While most of them are from the conservative camp, two figures stand out, because their candidacies constitute a challenge to the regime and to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They are Expediency Council head and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and Rahim Mashaei, ally and relative through marriage of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both have been targets of a regime de-legitimization campaign over the past few months, and they registered literally at the last minute, just before registration closed.

Although Hashemi Rafsanjani was right-hand man to regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and although he has held and still holds senior leadership positions, he is considered to have been behind the 2009 Green Movement and since then has unceasingly criticized Supreme Leader Khamenei for his actions regarding those events. This is the backdrop to his March 2011 removal from his positions as Assembly of Experts head[1] and as the official Friday prayer leader for Tehran, as well to his children's arrest and imprisonment for anti-regime activity in the Green Movement, and to his his brother and office director Mohsen Hashemi's disqualification from running in the recent municipal elections, on claims that he does not support the constitution or the "rule of the jurisprudent."[2]

The regime refers to the reformist camp and its prominent representatives – Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom remain under house arrest – as "the people of fitna" – i.e. instigators of civil war. It also considers Rafsanjani their patron.

Further, for the past two years, since the spring of 2011, the regime has called the camp of Ahmadinejad and his associate Mashaei "the deviant sect," because of the threat it posed to the ideology of the regime under Supreme Leader Khamenei.[3]

Rafsanjani's decision to throw his hat into the ring is surprising, and even daring, in light of his ongoing criticism of Khamenei and his calls for comprehensive reform. Reformist presidential candidate Aghar Zadeh called the move "a psychological bomb exploding in the middle of the conservative front."[4] In effect, with this move, Rafsanjani is presenting a personal challenge to Khamenei, and, if he is approved as a candidate, he can gather as supporters both reformists and conservatives.

Mashaei's entry into the race is likewise considered an act of defiance against the regime. Indeed, when he went to register, accompanied by Ahmadinejad, he told the media: "It is my duty to continue in the path of Ahmadinejad."[5] Ahmadinejad himself told reporters: "I took a day off to [come and] stand alongside Mashaei... I have known him for 28 years... Ahmadinejad is Mashaei and Mashaei is Ahmadinejad... I think there is good rivalry [among the candidates] and there will be [considerable] political passion."[6] However, Mashaei clarified that if he is disqualified he will "obey the law, as everyone must."[7]

The Critical Stage: The Guardian Council Vets The Candidates

With the close of registration, the candidates must be vetted within 10 days, that is, by May 22. This task falls to the Guardian Council, which is headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. Mashaei, as an associate of Ahmadinejad, is likely to be disqualified – indeed, as Mehdi Taeb, an associate of Supreme Leader Khamenei, put it, "Mashaei will undoubtedly be disqualified by the Guardian Council."[8]

It is also unlikely that Rafsanjani's candidacy will be accepted, because he is a threat to Khamenei's status. If, however, he is approved – with an eye to keeping him from heading a wave of popular protest like those of 2009, as implicitly threatened by his newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami – the regime will take steps to downplay any popular support for him and to prevent him from winning at all costs.

On May 12, Jomhouri-e Eslami warned that the public would not accept it if Rafsanjani were to be disqualified, and might not heed the regime's instructions. It stated: "It would be best if the members of the Guardian Council were not influenced in their decisions, and if they determine the eligibility of presidential candidates based on the reality in society in light of the[ir] clear records... The expectation that the public obey morality and the law will be true only if the institutions and apparatuses responsible for propagating morality and upholding the law fulfill their legal obligation to the maximal extent. The upcoming presidential election can be an act of political courage only if both the people and the officials together obey the law."[9]

A response to this threat came in Khamenei's mouthpiece, the Kayhan daily, which warned that the regime would not hesitate to use its apparatuses to suppress any public protest if Rafsanjani's candidacy led to mass demonstrations. It stated: "After Hashemi Rafsanjani submitted his candidacy for the presidency... the media, as well as senior figures outside Iran and their emissaries within Iran, declared jointly and in a coordinated fashion that... the story of the regime and the [Islamic] Revolution was over...

"This commotion erupted even though a look at the [political] scene reveals that clearly nothing new has occurred. The U.S., which openly supports the coalition of fitna [i.e. the reformists] and the deviant sect [i.e. Ahmadinejad's circles], is the same U.S.... The [Iranian] people remains the same people that defeated the Israeli-American fitna in 2009... It is the same people that participated en masse in the Majlis elections despite the boycott [declared] by those who seek reform. The fitna-mongers [i.e. the reformists] and [Ahmadinejad's] deviant sect are the same ones who, despite all their efforts, have so far achieved nothing...

"Why do the fitna-mongers insist that Rafsanjani run [for president], and what is their aim? In the 48 hours [since registration closed], some of those who seek reform and some foreign media outlets have explicitly claimed that a presidential run by Rafsanjani would restore the reformists' lost [power] base...

"The leader of the fitna [camp] and of the deviant sect have already learned that if they even think of sparking fitna and riots again, the [Iranian] people, who have known great suffering – will give them no opportunity to do so, not even for an hour..."[10]

Indeed, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the Basij, which is in charge of suppressing riots, clarified in a May 12 speech in Shiraz: "The [Islamic] Revolution has gone through many stages, [and has dealt with] isolationists, hypocrites [acting] in the name of religion [a reference to the Mojahedeen-e Khalq], a president like Banisadr, and the fitna movement – and we are ready for any kind of confrontation."[11]

On May 12, Kayhan also stressed that the reformists' and the Ahmadinejad camp's criticism of Guardian Council and of its vetting the candidates is actually "treason" being carried out in coordination with Iran's enemies in the West, with the aim of harming the regime. The paper also clarified that disqualified candidates could seek another office within the regime.[12]

Also on May 12, Gholamhossein Gheib Parvar, commander of Iran's Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Fars Province, also clarified the regime position: "Those who sparked and exacerbated the fitna in 2009 are not loyal to the regime. Those who have a negative past and support fitna [i.e. Rafsanjani] must not be voted for. The people will never reconcile with the 'people of fitna' of 2009; that is a red line for us. We must not vote for those who evade the rule [of the jurisprudent]... nor for immoral individuals and unbelievers... nor for the powerful and wealthy nor for those who are supported by the enemy."[13]

It should be noted that since Rafsanjani entered the race, each of the camps seems to be rallying around a leading candidate: the conservative camp around Saeed Jalili, the camp that is critical of the regime around Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad's camp around Mashaei.[14]

Regime Officials Determine Who They Will Permit To Run For President – And Who Will Face Sanctions

While the regime officially states that presidential candidates must be men of faith, integrity, and public standing, regime leaders imply, and often say openly, that representatives from two camps are disqualified from running.

Recently, Supreme Leader Khamenei listed his demands for the next president. It should be noted here that Khamenei considers the presidency not only a nuisance (his own 1981-89 presidency under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini notwithstanding) but also a continuing threat to his leadership. This is in light of the fact that all presidents – from Rafsanjani to Mohammad Khatami to current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – either clashed with him or threatened his status or the nature of his rule.[15]

Khamenei set out his demands as follows: "I have always recommended to our presidents that they not cause damage to the people, not cause it problems, and not distort public opinion and sow concerns among the public. The president who will be elected should be a man who believes in God, in the public, and in the constitution of the regime, and who is motivated for the resistance. The Iranian nation aspires to achieve its great goals, and is not a nation of submission. None may speak violently to it; thus, the president who will be elected must show courage in the face of pressure from the enemies..."

He continued: "The coming elections will be held with enthusiastic public participation. The Guardian Council will screen the candidates, and the people will vote as they see fit, after judging the candidates on their statements."[16]

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council which is tasked with disqualifying candidates, hinted that the regime will not allow candidates who are either reformists, or supporters of Ahmadinejad. He said: "The council will deal with both members of the deviant sect and the people of fitna according to the law.[17]

Assembly of Experts head Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, clarified the regime's intention: "Those who have spoken against the religion [that is, the regime] are not men of faith, and [their candidacy] will not be approved [by the Guardian Council]."[18]

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is known for his radical views, explained why reformist leaders and Ahmadinejad supporters will be rejected: "Several political figures do not properly understand the model of political order according to Islam, or that the Marajeh [i.e. senior ayatollahs] must be obeyed in political and religious issues."[19] He added, "If the people of fitna succeed in presenting a candidate, this will be considered a victory for them," and therefore "this year's elections will not be dominated by two camps but rather will be held only within the framework of the conservative [camp]."[20]

At an IRGC conference, Iranian Army chief of staff Firouzabadi set out the restrictions presidential candidates must meet and the qualifications they must possess: "Everyone must vote for a candidate with executive ability and values. The candidate must believe in the regime and in the 'rule of the jurisprudent,' and must act in coordination with the regime. The president must not be egotistical, like past presidents [i.e. Ahmadinejad] who thought that 20 million votes for them[21] meant that they have a mandate based on these votes. The president heads the executive branch, and cannot be a man of words [that is, he does not decide policy]. He is not a leader, but a man of action, and he must do things like organize the budget and design construction programs and national programs."

He continued: "The people will determine whom they prefer, and they will vote. We do not fear those who try to spark fitna; we are prepared to prevent them from doing so and to preserve the security of the people."[22]

The Regime Opposes Rafsanjani's Candidacy

Throughout April 2013, Rafsanjani continued to criticize Khamenei policies and to demand reform in the running of the country, and declared that "the [regime's] lack of confidence in the people, especially in the intellectual elite, and the regime's evasion of the law, are deadly poison for the correct administration of the state and of its growth." He added that "the various sectors' demands for change in the country's executive management are serious. The way to compensate for the flaws and inefficiencies is to restore the [regime's] trust in the people, particularly in the elite and in the cultural figures whose minds work for the state's advancement, prosperity, and obedience to the law.

"Earning the people's trust, and their obedience to the law, will be achieved by genuinely and comprehensively involving all [regime] lovers and loyalists [implying the reformists], and with true reciprocal relations with the world, as opposed to slogans."[23]

Regime officials spoke out against Rafsanjani's candidacy, mostly prior to his announcement that he would run, but also afterwards. Ali Akbar Velayati, a conservative candidate close to Khamenei, said on May 12 in a speech to students that Rafsanjani had abandoned Khamenei in the 2009 election and had taken no stand worthy of the name against the public's protests.[24] He also said, at an Ansar Hizbullah conference, that Khamenei had ordered that Rafsanjani's dignity be preserved but that everyone knew that the latter played a role in the fitna of 2009.[25]

Mohammad Khamenei, the brother of Leader Khamenei, said that Rafsanjani was being put forth as a candidate by the U.S., whether he was aware of this or not, with the aim of deposing the regime in a soft coup.[26]

Majlis National Security Council Chairman Boroujerdi said that Rafsanjani's running for president was in neither his own nor the country's interest.[27] Majlis members from the Stability Front, which is close to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, circulated a petition calling on Rafsanjani not to run.[28]

Ghassem Ravanbakhsh, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's spokesman, said at a conference in Mashhad that Rafsanjani wants to make Khamenei drink "the cup of poison." He argues that Rafsanjani's descriptions of the country's economic crisis are exaggerated, and are aimed at persuading the public that that the only option is a national unity government that will conduct relations with the U.S. and resolve the nuclear issue.[29]

At the same time, there were calls in Iran to disqualify Rafsanjani on various pretexts: A Majlis presidential committee member, Mohammad Dehqan, called on the Guardian Council to reject Rafsanjani due to his advanced age, which, he said, meant that he would not be able to function properly.[30] The Rajanews website, which is identified with supporters of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, noted, "According to senior security officials' documents and statements, Hashemi Rafsanjani played a top role in creating the fitna in 2009, along with Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami, and was responsible for its spread." The website also gave several reasons for disqualifying him, "including also his new positions vis-à-vis the Zionist regime and the relationship with the U.S., which show that this 79-year-old statesman does not agree with several regime principles and aims... [such as] that Iran is not in a state of war with Israel, and that it will not initiate a war against it but if Arab countries enter into a war against it, Iran will aid them."[31]

The Regime Opposes The Reformists – Whom It Calls "The People of Fitna"

Regime leaders have recently cautioned that the code word that the reformists, whom the regime calls "the people of fitna," will be using during the presidential campaign is "free elections." At a conference honoring martyrs, Assembly of Experts member Ahmad Khatami said: "The 'rule of the jurisprudent' is dealing with a new fitna. Its key word... is 'free elections,' and by using this term they are implying that the last election [in 2009] were not free, and that if [the outcome in this election] is not the one they want, then election fraud will be to blame."[32]

The daily Kayhan claimed that the call for "free elections" was aimed at obtaining permission for candidates who are incompetent, or who have a shady past, to run for president, including those who have committed treason – that is, reformists. The paper also said that the use of this term will guarantee that their candidate wins – and if he does not, they will be able to claim that there was fraud.[33]

To stress the illegitimacy of candidates from the reformist camp, regime officials are making efforts to link them with foreign elements. For example, Hassan Kameli-Far, a top representative of Khamenei in the IRGC, said at a Basij conference in the Iranian city of Erbil: "The global arrogance [i.e. the West, led by the U.S.] is considering using the slogan 'free elections' in the new fitna that it is planning in order to vanquish the Iranian nation in the upcoming election."[34]

Others tried to link the reformists to Ahmadinejad's "deviant sect," in an effort to delegitimize them. At a Basij conference, Hamid Reza Moghaddam-Far, an advisor to the IRGC commander, said: "A strange... phenomenon in the upcoming election is the secret connection between the 'deviant sect and the 'people of fitna,' who have in common, inter alia, a call for negotiating with the U.S. and for drawing away from Islamic values...

"[The regime's] political, intelligence, and cultural apparatuses must explain to the public these scenarios and plots that the enemy is preparing in advance of the election, so that, God forbid, they will not be surprised like in 2009. The enemy's great 2009 deception involved accusations of fraud; this time, their great deception involves reconciliation and negotiations with the U.S., and presenting a false picture in which negotiating with the U.S. will solve our country's economic woes. The Americans seek to vanquish Iran by means of negotiation. They do not want to solve our problems – they want to thwart Iran's progress."[35]

Ayatollah MesbahYazdi said simply that the regime has no need of reformists in the upcoming elections.[36]

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


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 673, In Iran, End of an Era: Assembly of Experts Chairman Rafsanjani Is Removed, March 8, 2011.

[2] Fars (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[4] Khabaronline (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[5] Fars (Iran), May 11, 2013.

[6] Roozonline, May 11, 2013. In response, Kayhan stated that this was an illegal move by Ahmadinejad, who has been waging a propaganda campaign for Mashaei for the past seven or eight months. Kayhan, Iran, May 12, 2013.

[7] ISNA (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[8] Mehr (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[9] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[10] Kayhan (Iran), May 13, 2013.

[11] Fars (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[12] Kayhan (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[13] Mehr (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[14] Entekhab (Iran), May 11, 2013. However, it should be noted that in a May 12, 2013 article on the Fararu website, leading reformist Abbas Abdi expressed concern regarding Rafsanjani's candidacy, saying that this could be merely a tactical move on his part: "My conclusion is that Rafsanjani is not here [i.e. in the race] to stay, though he may be compelled to stay. He submitted his candidacy to achieve two objectives, and if he achieves them, he will step down... The second goal is reaching very clear understandings among the politicians… regarding who will be elected, that is, who everyone will support, and that man will reach mutual understandings with Rafsanjani regarding how to realize [Rafsanjani's] political demands." Fararu (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[15] Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei also implied that President Ahmadinejad constitutes a threat: "We fear none of the candidates and their supporters, because we are fulfilling our legal duty... The council will not roll out the red carpet for those who harm the regime." Tasmin, Iran, May 1, 2013.

[16] (Iran), April 27, 2013.

[17] Fars (Iran), April 23, 2013. Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Kaabi said that the council would not approve candidates from the deviant sect and from among the reformists because members of the deviant sect are unfit to hold any official position. Fars, Iran, April 11, 2013.

[18] Kayhan (Iran), January 17, 2013.

[19] Kayhan (Iran), April 19, 2013.

[20] Nasimonline (Iran), April 11, 2013.

[21] Baztab, a website close to Rafsanjani, cited an associate of Ahmadinejad who said he has a recording of regime officials telling him the day after the 2009 elections that he received only 700,000 votes more than his opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, but that they intend to announce that the gap was eight million votes. According to the report, in the recording, Ahmadinejad asked that the true results be concealed. The website estimated that the president would expose the recording if the regime barred his associate Mashaei from running. The original story was removed from Baztab, the website was shut down, and its editor was arrested. The story itself appeared on the website Digarban on April 27, 2013, and, May 5, 2013.

[22] Fars (Iran), April 29, 2013.

[23]Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), April 23, 2013.

[24] Mehr (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[25], April 29, 2013.

[26] Fars (Iran), May 4, 2013.

[27] Mehr (Iran), May 6, 2013.

[28] Tabnak (Iran), May 6, 2013.

[29] Rasanews (Iran), February 6, 2013.

[30] Mehr (Iran), May 13, 2013.

[31] Rajanews (Iran), May 12, 2013.

[32] Fars (Iran), February 2, 2013.

[33] Kayhan (Iran), January 13, 2013.

[34] Fars (Iran), January 10, 2013.

[35] Khabaronline (Iran), April 20, 2013.

[36] Kaleme (Iran), December 23, 2012.

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