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memri
May 31, 2001 No.
58

The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran

By: A. Savyon*

On June 8, 2001, Iranian citizens will vote for their eighth president since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Iranian constitution states that the president, head of the executive branch, will be elected for a four-year term with an absolute vote. However, the president can be elected for only two consecutive terms.[1]

After Khomeini came to power, a Guardian Council was added into the Iranian constitution. The Council assures that the Parliamentary law follows the Shari'a [the Islamic Law] and approves or disapproves of candidates for the Presidency and Majlis [Iranian Parliament] elections. The Council is a conservative body and is made up of six clerics and six jurists who are appointed by the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].[2] The criteria by which the Council judges a candidate are wide enough to rule out any candidate they want.[3]

The Candidates and their Platforms

Three weeks prior to the elections, the Guardian Council approved 10 candidates out of 817 who submitted their candidacies to the Interior Ministry.[4] Among the ten selected are: The incumbent President, Muhammad Khatami; the Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani; the former Intelligence Minister, Ali Fallahian; Vice President, Seyyed Mostafa Hashemi Taba; former Member of Parliament and current advisor to the President, Hassan Ghafouri-Fard; former Minister, Seyyed Mansour Razavi; Chancellor of Azad University and former Vice President, Abdullah Jasbi; Former Minister and Member of Parliament, Ahmad Tavakoli; former Member of Parliament Seyyed Shahabodin Sadr; and jurist Mahmoud Kashani, the son of Ayatollah Kashani and law professor.

Khatami is widely expected to win re-election despite the relatively large number of candidates. Several sources believe that the Guardian Council hoped to split Khatami's votes by having more candidates[5] and thus reduce his support. However, most of the candidates belong to the conservative wing.

Khatami underlines that guaranteeing individual rights, institutionalizing freedoms and especially the freedom of speech and opinion symbolized in "a pen" are "a priority of the government." He stated that the course of reform was irrevocable and that no one could muzzle the freedom of opinion: "the pen is the manifestation of the thought and the thought is the essence of man... thoughts do not grow except in a liberal environment."[6] Acknowledging the generational gap between the leadership and the youth [who comprises about 70% of the population] Khatami emphasized the importance of complying with the youth's call for more openness and reforms.

It appears that the conservative candidate with the best chance of winning is the Minister of Defense, Ali Shamkhani. His power stems from the military establishment and from several right-wing groups that have already announced their support of him, in spite of his membership in Khatami's cabinet. Shamkhani stated that he intends to build a "strong administration that will be able to stand on its own in the international arena." He declared himself to be "independent." "There are things," he said, " to be learned from the military men."[7] His right to become a candidate was questioned by a number of reformist papers, since the Iranian constitution bans military men from running for the Presidency.[8] At a press conference, Shamkhani challenged this point saying:

"Who said that a military man cannot become president and that only religious men are allowed [to run] for this post?"[9] He further criticized President Khatami and his administration, blaming him of "factionalism" and saying: "The difference between me and the rest of the contenders is that a president needs two specific characteristics: first, the ability to operate and decide quickly and decisively and second, enjoying the trust of the people... I have the authority to take action instead of mouthing slogans."[10] He further clarified that he is against a military government. Shamkhani called on the U.S. to "change it's behavior" as a prerequisite to a change in Iranian policy and added that the policy on this issue is completely in the hands of Khamenei, but there is also a need to gain "public trust and reach a national understanding based on [Iran's] national interests." On the topic of Iranian efforts in acquiring nuclear weapons, Shamkhani stated that since his country feels threatened by regional nuclear weapons, "we have to utilize the privileges that the two [international] conventions [Iran signed] provide us with." When asked about his stance towards Israel and the Peace Process, Shamkhani stated that "the spread of the problem of Palestine is the problem of the [whole] Islamic world" and the opinion in Iran on this topic is not debated, "whether it's a liberal government or another... Regarding the Palestinian issue our policy is fixed."[11]

The political analysis of the daily Iran News predicted that the "traditional conservatives" will support three candidates: Ghafouri-Fard, Jasbi and Sadr. All three are members of the right-wing 'Islamic Coalition Society' [ICS].[12] The paper added that the ICS has yet to announce their endorsement of one of them. The three candidates emphasize the need for reform in education and in the economy.

Even though Ahmad Tavakoli is thought to be a conservative, the paper stated that he is not favored by the ICS. Tavakoli was a candidate in the 1993 presidential elections against Rafsangani. He stresses the need for economic reforms and combating poverty.[13]

Ali Fallahian is not supported by the ICS due to his extreme [rightist] views. Fallahian was, apparently, involved in a series of assassinations of reformist intellectuals in 1998, but now he is running on an economic and social reform platform.[14]

Jurist, Kashani, was part of the conservative right but his views regarding the rights of individuals and prisoners led him to the reformist camp where he now uses the slogan, "Changing the hopeless current path."[15]

It is worth mentioning that a number of women, most notably, Farah Khosravi, presented their candidacies. However, Khosravi retracted her candidacy due to strong pressure aiming to prevent debate in the Guardian Council about her qualification for the office. The dispute over women's candidacy emerged due to the double meaning of the word 'men' in the constitution. The constitution states that candidates for the Presidency must be 'men' of faith. The word 'men' [rejal in Farsi] can mean men in general, but also can be interpreted as masculine only.

Election Campaign

The week old election campaign is relatively relaxed due to Khatami's expected re-election. However, in remote provinces and cities where there is a tendency to vote in favor of the underdog, the election campaign may become more hectic. Another factor is the existence of several religious holidays this week, circumstances that best serve conservative interests.

The conservative camp, which is well aware of its lack of support from the public, knows that any attempt to "aggravate, annoy, and anger the public opinion" will further deteriorate their situation at the ballot box and will undoubtedly benefit the reform camp.[16] Member of the Majlis, Abd Al-Rahman Tajj Al-Din, explained the absence of a conservative official candidate by saying that "they don't have any popularity amongst the people...[and even if they] had a specific candidate it would heat up the campaign and increase the votes of the reform candidate."[17] Fatemeh Rakeie added that "the absence of a candidate representing the opponents of reform is a victory for the reformists... that is why opponents of reformists are themselves speaking today about reforms and changes."[18]

Another member of the Majlis, Majid Naimi-Pour, said to the Persian daily Hayat-I No: "the opposition is not active... due to its fear of defeat."[19] On the other hand, another member of the Majlis, Qorbanali Qandehari, stated that this is a "calculated move" by the conservatives who are active in the field but only behind the scene. Furthermore, he assessed that the conservatives would support Shamkhani's candidacy, "not publicly," for his candidacy was planned by the highest political authorities.[20] Indeed, Shamkhani himself admitted to personally approaching Ayatollah Khamenei and receiving his approval to run for election even though the constitution does not allow it.[21]

The reformists stated more than once that the elections are "a referendum" on the reforms. "The conservative camp through its own un-democratic interpretation of the constitution... is trying to create a cul-de-sac for the reform movement."[22] Indeed the reformist 'Islamic Iran Participation Front' [IIPF] headed by Khatami's brother, deputy Majlis speaker, is raising slogans such as "yes to reforms" and "freedom, justice, and morality."[23]

Other candidates focus on Khatami's weakest link [i.e. the economy] on which he was highly criticized even without connection to the election campaign. Due to this harsh criticism, Khatami started addressing this issue. During a recent TV appearance he emphasized the economic situation, as well, stating "for the next ten years any government would have to give first priority to [solving] the problem of unemployment." He reiterated the need for a comprehensive overhaul reform: "our society needs basic economic reforms... and there is no way to use a sedative to cure this ailment... which is rooted in past governments." He enumerated poverty, inflation, sluggish pace of production, dependence on foreign revenues, and the brain drain as the main causes for Iran's economic ills.[24]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] For example, the former President, Hashemi Rafsangani, held the position for eight consecutive years [1989-1997] refrained from amending the Constitution in order to keep his position. The voting age in Iran is 16, which makes over 40 million people eligible voters. The Presidential campaign began on May 19 and is expected to run until June 6.

[2] Khamenei was appointed as Khomeini's successor in 1989 following his death and he is the Head of State in Iran although he is not considered "Marja' Taqlid" [the source of religious authority] and jurisprudence as dictated in the "Vilayat-I Faqih"[rule of the jurisprudence].

[3] The Constitution requires that the President of Iran is of a Shi'ite, Persian origin, and is a "religious political leader." These criteria allow the Guardian Council a vast freedom of selection.

[4] In the 1997 Presidential elections, Khatami won an overwhelming majority. The Council approved the candidacy of 4 contenders out of 238.

[5] Tehran Times, May 20, 2001.

[6] IRNA [Islamic Republic News Agency], May 24, 2001.

[7] Al-Safir, May 23, 2001.

[8] IRNA, May 16, 2001.

[9] IRNA, May 23, 2001.

[10] IRNA, May 23, 2001.

[11] Al-Hayat, May 24, 2001, this kind of expression on the issue of Israel is rare since the subject hardly ever comes up in the election campaign.

[12] Iran News, May 17, 2001.

[13] IRNA, May 24, 2001.

[14] IRNA, May 26, 2001.

[15] The candidates Razavi and Hashami-Taba, the technocrats are members of the Executives of Construction Party [ECP], who are supportive of reforms. Razavi, like other candidates, emphasizes the social economic platform. The paper expects both candidates to withdraw from the race.

[16] Iran News, May 20, 2001.

[17] Hayat-I No, May 19, 2001.

[18] IRNA, May 15, 2001.

[19] Hayat-I No, May 20, 2001.

[20] Iran News, May 17, 2001.

[21] IRNA, May 23, 2001.

[22] Iran Daily, May 20; Iran News, May 21; Hayat-I No, May 20; IRNA, May 13, 2001.

[23] IRNA, May 13-14, 2001. Although emphasizing reforms, the reformist would not give up the religious public and raise new slogans with religious meaning such as: "help me [Imam] Ali" and national meaning, such as: "Iran for Iranians". It is worth mentioning that the Front's slogans were removed from Tehran's billboards according to a Judiciary order two days before the official campaign began. President Khatami's electoral gathering was banned as well [IRNA, May 27, 2001].

[24] IRNA, May 24, 2001.