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May 10, 2005 No.
221

The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran (Part I): The Candidates

By: A. Savyon*

On June 17, 2005, Iran's citizens will be heading to the polls to elect a new president, as Mohammad Khatami completes his second presidential term. Iran's constitution permits a president to serve only two consecutive terms.

In advance of the elections, Iran's revolutionary regime is grappling with several issues, the most pressing among them include: the low anticipated voter turnout; the increasing sense of public apathy due to Khatami's and the Iranian reform movements' failure to deliver on their promises; and the large number of reformist and conservative contenders for the office who are generally lacking specific political and economic platforms.

The following report provides background on the Iranian Presidency elections, discusses issues such as voter turnout, and most importantly - who the leading contenders are.

Background on the Iranian Presidency

In Iran, the head of state is the "spiritual leader" or "supreme leader," a position held today by 'Ali Khamenei. The Iranian presidency, in contrast, is essentially an executive position. The president heads the Executive Authority – the other authorities being the Legislative and the Judiciary – and is in charge of directing and implementing cabinet policies.

'Ali Khamenei, who became Iran's leader after the death of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini [1], previously served as president (1981-1989). So did 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who is today chairman of the Expediency Council – the supreme council that decides in disputes between the Legislative Authority and the Guardian Council. [2]

It is noteworthy that the Iranian presidency served as a political springboard for both Khamenei and Rafsanjani. With the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, 'Ali Khamenei was elevated from Hujjat Al-Islam, a relatively low rank of Shiite cleric, to the rank of Ayatollah, so that he could become Iran's leader. Rafsanjani was appointed to the post of Expediency Council chairman when he finished his two consecutive terms as president, after rejecting calls to work to change the Iranian constitution that prevented him from serving another term.

It should be noted, however, that Rafsanjani's status today, as Expediency Council chairman, is very high, surpassing even that of the president, and his powers are greater. Because he could not serve three consecutive terms as president, Rafsanjani maintained his power alongside Khamenei by means of his position as Expediency Council chairman.

The Iranian president's powers were determined by the president's being a confidant of the conservative regime leaders. Khatami, who represents the Iranian reformist movement and who has always declared his intention to institute political reform, is perceived by the conservatives as a maverick that must be restrained; indeed, Khatami has complained more than once about being hobbled. For example, President Khatami's recent bill to explicitly define and to expand his powers was blocked by the Guardian Council, on religious grounds. At the same time, it should be noted that President Khatami did Iran's conservatives a great service by giving Iran an enlightened and progressive image, via two international initiatives that he promoted: the "Dialogue Between Civilizations" and the "Coalition for Peace," and also when he declared, several times, that he intended to institute political reform in Iran. [3]

Iranian Voter Turnout

In the run-up to the presidential election, members of the regime, conservatives and reformists alike, are focusing on the growing assessment of possible low voter turnout – estimated at no more than 50% of the 48 million eligible to vote in Iran. This is indicative of the low credibility of the regime in the eyes of the Iranian people.

The regime leaders have always boasted that their regime is actively and sympathetically supported by the people, and have cited high voter turnout as proof. President Khatami has bragged about Iran's 80% voter turnout in the last two presidential elections. Thus, low voter turnout for this election would reflect the fading of popular support for the regime – and will be in effect a vote of no-confidence in the Iranian political system. [4]

The beginning of this trend could be seen in two previous elections: the February 2003 municipal elections and the February 2004 elections for the seventh Majlis (parliament). In both of these elections, voter turnout, at 50%, was significantly lower than in the past. [5]

For this reason, Iranian Leader Khamenei declared, "Voting in the elections is a national duty." [6] More recently, he stated, "Maximum voter turnout in this important event is more crucial than all other considerations, because this will prove our national solidarity. Let us bear in mind that the spirit of national unity makes the country immune from all forms of plots..." [7]

For months, Friday prayer leaders, who are appointed by the regime, have been urging worshipers to vote, telling them that "the enemy" is trying to plot against the regime, and that not voting is one way of aiding it. [8] Regime officials, both conservative and reform, are also calling on the public to vote.

Iranian papers are running frequent editorials discussing the anticipated low voter turnout, its causes, and what can be done to urge the public to vote. [9] One argument was that voters were unenthusiastic because the candidates had not yet set out their political and social platforms, and/or that the voters were not that interested in the candidates currently in the running.

For example, the reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd wrote that the public apathy stemmed from the people's loss of confidence in the politicians, and that further reasons for the anticipated low voter turnout was the conservatives' lack of transparency with regard to their platform and plans for the future, as well as the fact that they had already lied to the public in the past. The paper also hinted that the Iranians were repulsed by the regime's corruption. [10]

Other reformist activists, such as reform movement theoretician Sa'id Hajjarian and former reformist MP Mohsen Armeen, maintained that "the sense of lack of confidence and pessimism" was the result of the reformists' failure to achieve results in recent years. [11]

Still others attributed public apathy to the uselessness of voting – this because the conservatives had already proven that they could neutralize the powers of a reformist president. [12] Another claim, and a widespread one, concerned the Guardian Council's lack of transparency in the election process. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Moussavi-Lari said, "If the people feel that their freedom of choice has been restricted, they will become disappointed." [13]

A group of pro-reform political activists issued a communiqué calling on the Guardian Council, which has the authority to disqualify candidates for various reasons, to be transparent in its approval and choosing of candidates. This, the group said, would increase voter turnout. [14] Former MP Abd Al-Qassam 'Abadin-Pour said that Iranian society was in need of a "political shock" to encourage potential voters to vote, and that women candidates would also help encourage higher voter turnout. [15]

In the past two elections, most of Khatami's support came from students and women. This time, however, various student organizations declared that they would not support any candidate, and that they would boycott the elections because of their disappointment in the candidates – who, they say, are cut off from the problems of the people – and because of the massive corruption in Iran's political system. They said that the elections were not truly free because of the disqualification of candidates by the Guardian Council, and due to the regime's ban on political movements such as the Freedom Movement of Iran, and on their candidates participating in elections. [16]

For example, the secretary of the student organization Office to Consolidate Unity, Abdollah Momeni, said that the student movement would not support any presidential candidate, because "the principles of democracy are not being safeguarded by the leadership. It seems that the fundamentalists [i.e. conservatives] are playing games, and intend to achieve results [solely] by giving the impression that they are acting according to democratic principles."

Momeni added that the fundamentalists would, by manipulating the election, not permit a reformist to win: "Because the people has developed a negative approach to the reformists, who are confused and divided, and because the reformist candidates are likely to be disqualified by the Guardian Council, the outcome of the presidential election is known in advance. It is obvious that the fundamentalists [conservatives] will win." [17]

More recently, Momeni said: "We believe that elections can be of significance only if they are held democratically – that is, all the political streams are permitted to participate regardless of their political inclination and ideology – and, more important, that the elected president be given all legal and executive powers to carry out the will of the people…. Some of the candidates are trying to present themselves as qualified [for the presidency] in order to cover up for their previous [failed] leadership… The student movement will never forget the repression under the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, when the bookshops were set ablaze and a great number of professors were expelled from the campuses." [18]

The Reformist Contenders

The reformists who have declared their intent to run are: Mustafa Mo'in, the former Minister of Higher Education who was removed by the conservative parliament; Mehdi Karrubi, former parliamentary speaker and current representative of Iranian Leader 'Ali Khamenei; and Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who has declared that he is an independent candidate with reformist inclinations.

Despite reformist camp demands for a single agreed-upon candidate, the candidates are relying on the assessment that the conservatives will not, despite their statements of intent, be able to reach a consensus on a single conservative candidate either, and are counting on a second round of voting. Karrubi has declared that he does not plan to quit in favor of any other candidate even if not doing so would put the reformist camp at risk of losing a majority of the vote. [19] Nevertheless, Mo'in has recently declared his willingness to step down in favor of Karrubi. [20]

Two reformist candidates recently made statements in favor of changing Iran's traditionally hostile stance towards the U.S. Mo'in said that Iran's "ongoing hostility towards the U.S. does not serve [Iran's] national interest," adding that if elected, he would change Iran's foreign policy in this sphere. [21] Mehralizadeh too spoke in favor of renewing Iran-U.S. relations. [22] Karrubi, in contrast, repeated the official Iranian stance: "We will negotiate with anyone but Israel." [23]

The Conservative Contenders

The list of conservatives who have so far declared their intent to run includes: Ali Akbar Velayati, formerly foreign minister and today Iranian Leader Khamenei's foreign affairs advisor; 'Ali Larijani, Khamenei's representative in the Supreme National Security Council and former Islamic Republic Broadcasting chairman; Mohamed Baqr Qalibaf, former police commander; Mohsen Rezai, Expediency Council secretary; and Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, mayor of Tehran.

Having learned their lesson from the last election, this time the conservatives announced that they would present a single candidate to win as many votes as possible. [24] The conservative Coordinating Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces, which is charged with choosing an agreed-upon representative, recently announced that it had selected, by a scant majority, 'Ali Larijani, who is apparently the favorite of Iranian Leader Khamenei. [25] However, previously, in January 2005, Velayati announced plans to run as an independent, regardless of the conservative candidate selected by the council.

Will Rafsanjani Run?

The lack of clarity regarding which candidates would be running increased further in light of the fog enveloping Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy. At present, the question of Rafsanjani's intentions tops the Iranian media agenda. Rafsanjani has chosen not to reveal his intentions of running or not until days before candidate registration begins on May 10. Velayati and Larijani have both announced that they will support Rafsanjani should he decide to run. [26] In contrast, Qalibaf has declared that he considers only Rafsanjani to be a potential rival, and will run against him.

Rafsanjani is vague about his identification with any Iranian political stream. He is perceived by both conservatives and reformists as a moderate, independent public figure. Many see him as belonging to Iran's moderate reformists. However, because he is a well-known public figure, Khamenei's right-hand man, extremely wealthy, and possessed of great political clout, he is thought by many to be capable of taking the lion's share of the conservative electorate.

At the same time, because of his dominance, conservatives cannot object to his candidacy – even though there were attempts to do just that a few months ago by conservative elements in the Majlis, on the grounds that he is too old (70) and that younger candidates should be running for the presidency. [27]

In recent months, Rafsanjani himself has hinted broadly that he would be willing to run: "The subject of the presidency is one of the subjects that pre-occupies me. Although I would have preferred for someone else to take this responsibility upon himself, I think I must take the bitter medicine – because what I did not want to happen might happen [i.e. his running for president]… My link to Islam, Iran, and the [Iranian] people is so strong that I will spare no effort to serve them throughout my life." [28]

Rafsanjani repeated previous statements that new faces in the political arena were preferable. He was quoted as saying that he " did not like to run for president and preferred other candidates to nominate themselves [to run]," but that among the present candidates he "did not see anybody fit for the job." [29]

Recently, Rafsanjani said: "The right alternative is for us to prepare the ground for the entrance of new individuals and leave them the [political] arena." He clarified that he thought that the problem lay in the fact that "[even though] there are many good forces capable of running the country, there are no strong parties to represent them, and as long as the people does not know someone well enough it will not trust him." [30]

A recent survey by the official Iranian news agency IRNA, with 7,100 respondents in 11 cities, showed Rafsanjani winning 13.9% of the vote, Mehdi Karrubi winning 4.8%, Velayati 4.2%, Mo'in 4.1%, and Larijani 3.9%. However, in order to avoid a second round of voting, the winner in the actual election needs over 50% of the vote.

In a more recent poll of 4,000 students at 30 universities, 47% of the respondents said that they would definitely vote in the presidential election; 20 % stated that they would not vote; and 33% were still undecided whether they would vote or not. As to which candidate they favored, 21% said they would vote for Qalibaf; 20.5% for Rafsanjani; 19.5% for Mo'in; 11% for Ahmadi-Nejad; 9% for Ahmad Tavakoli (who has since quit the race); 6% for Velayati; 5% for Karrubi; 4.5% for Larijani; 2.5% for Mehralizadeh, and 1% for Rezai. [31]

Many groups, political organizations, and professional guilds in Iran have in recent months appealed to Rafsanjani to declare his candidacy. Many newspapers have written in editorials that Rafsanjani's candidacy would increase voter turnout, and that at this time, he is the most suitable man for the job because of his great experience, and because he is above the factional fray.

At a recent conference of the student organization Office to Consolidate Unity, in Shiraz, Rafsanjani said, "The impression among mainstream political groups is that my presence would ensure a higher voter turnout and reduce social disputes." He added that he "now feels obliged to consider my own candidacy more seriously… These are encouraging signs for me that could motivate me to run." [32]

It seems that Rafsanjani's reluctance to declare his candidacy is because of his defeat in the elections for the sixth Majlis. Although in that election he did win a seat, in the Tehran province, it was the last of the 30 seats allotted to the province. At that time he decided to quit parliament. It seems that now, Rafsanjani will use the time available to him and submit his candidacy as near as possible to election day, after he knows who he will be running against and after he has a good idea of his chances from additional polls. Apparently, he is being guided by both the fear of defeat and unwillingness to run alongside candidates whose abilities he doubts.

Women Presidential Candidates

So far, two women have announced their intention to run: A'azam Taleqani, secretary of the Islamic Revolution Women's Association, and conservative MP Rafat Bayat. [33]

Taleqani had tried to run in the last election, but was disqualified by the Guardian Council because of her gender. In that election, the Guardian Council determined that although the word used in the Iranian constitution to define those qualified to run – rijal – could be interpreted either as "people" or "men," the proper interpretation was "men." [34]

The two women candidates, both conservatives, refused to discuss their eligibility for running for president.

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project.


[1] Iran's first president after the 1979 Islamic Revolution was Abu Al-Hassan Bani-Sadr (1980-81). Bani-Sadr was removed by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, and his successor, Mohamed 'Ali Rajai was assassinated in 1981.

[2] The Guardian Council is a body appointed by Iranian Leader Khamenei that is responsible for examining laws after they are passed by the Majlis, to ensure that they are in accordance with the Shari'a law. They have the authority to reject laws, and to interpret the constitution, and to vet and disqualify candidates for office.

[3] The "Dialogue Between Civilizations" was Khatami's answer to Huntington's "clash of civilizations," and the "Coalition for Peace" was to counter President Bush's "Coalition for War."

[4] e.g. See statements in this vein by the chairman of the Law and Jurisprudence Committee in the sixth (reformist) Majlis, Nasser Qavami. Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), May 1, 2005. Majlis Chairman Hadad-Adel said, "The question of public participation [i.e. voter turnout] is more important than how many votes this or that candidate receives." IRNA (Iran), April 27, 2005.

[5] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 713, "The Political Debate in Iran Following Elections for the Seventh Majlis," May 15, 2004, The Political Debate in Iran Following Elections for the Seventh Majlis; Special Dispatch No. 689, "Iranian Youth Organization to Supreme Leader Khamenei: 'What A Huge Lie You Are Telling!,'" April 1, 2004, Iranian Youth Organization to Supreme Leader Khamenei: 'What A Huge Lie You Are Telling!'; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 59, "The Presidential Election Campaign in Iran," June 7, 2004, The Presidential Election Campaign in Iran;

MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 58, "The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran," May 31, 2001, The Upcoming Presidential Elections in Iran.

[6] IRNA (Iran), March 21, 2005, Jomhour-ye Eslami, Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), April 3, 2005.

[7] ISNA (Iranian Student News Agency) (Iran), May 7, 2005; Kayhan (Iran), May 8, 2005.

[8] See Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati at Tehran Friday prayer, IRNA (Iran), May 6, 2005; Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), May 7, 2005.

[9] e.g. Mardomsalari (Iran), March 10, April 27, 2005; Iran Daily (Iran),April 13,28, 2005; Hambastegi (Iran), April 30, 2005; Seda-ye Edalat (Iran), May 1, 2005, Sharq (Iran),May 3, 2005; Resalat (Iran), May 5, 2005; Iran Daily (Iran), May 8, 2005; Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), May 5, 2005, and Siasat-i Rouz (Iran), May 5, 2005.

[10] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), March 14, 2005.

[11] Kayhan (Iran), April 5, 2005; Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) (Iran), January 11, 2005.

[12] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran) hinted that people are reluctant to vote since the voters' will is not respected. The paper stated that the people's votes must correspond with the election results. Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), May 5, 2005.

[13] Iran Daily (Iran),April 14, 2005.

[14] IRNA (Iran), April 30, 2005. In the elections for the seventh Majlis in February 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified over 2,000 candidates, most of them reformists, without providing cause.

[15] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), May 1, 2005.

[16] The regime banned the Freedom Movement of Iran, sentenced many of its members to lengthy jail terms, and prevented its leader Ibrahim Yazdi from running in the elections.

[17] ILNA (Iran),January 16, 2005.

[18] ILNA (Iran),April 20, 2005.

[19] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), May 1, 2005. Mehralizadeh said that if the reformists reached a consensus, he would quit the race. Iran Daily (Iran), January 25, 2005.

[20] Kayhan (Iran ), April 27, 2005.

[21] IRNA (Iran), May 1, 2005.

[22] IRNA (Iran), April 16, 2005.

[23] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran),March 13, 2005.

[24] In the previous elections, in 2001, eight conservatives ran against Khatami, The conservatives were apprehensive about publicly expressing support for any candidate so as not to link the defeated candidates with the conservative movement.

[25] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran),April 3, 2005.

[26] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), April 28, 2005. In contrast, Velayati announced that he was not planning to quit due to pressure from other contenders, Iran, May 3, 2005.

[27] e.g. See statements by Amir Mohebbian, senior editor of the conservative daily Resalat (Iran), IRNA (Iran), January 29, 2005.

[28] IRNA (Iran), April 25, 2005.

[29] Fars News Agency (Iran), January 11, 2005.

[30] IRNA (Iran), May 1, 2005.

[31] Tehran Times (Iran), May 8, 2005.

[32] IRNA (Iran), April 15, 2005.

[33] IRNA (Iran), April 30, 2005.

[34] See clarification by Guardian Council spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham in this matter, IRNA (Iran), January 22, 2005.