He’s one of two surviving founders of the Islamic Republic, head of the Expediency Council that supervises all branches of government and has already served two terms as Iranian head of state.
But the Islamic conservatives who vet presidential candidates have deemed former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani unqualified to run in the June 14 presidential election. The ostensible reason, according to the octogenarian Islamists: At 78, Rafsanjani might be too old to run the country.
The Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also on Tuesday nixed the candidacy of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a top aide and in-law of termed-out President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Both Rafsanjani and Mashaei, though politically divergent, have been criticized by Khamenei loyalists as agents of “sedition” for their challenge of the religious hierarchy that has usurped power from elected offices and steered the country into economic ruin and isolation.
Only eight presidential hopefuls from among nearly 700 vetted by the council won approval to compete in the race to succeed Ahmadinejad. And only two of the eight are candidates who represent any real change from the status quo of soaring inflation, declining living standards and sanctions punishing Iran for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the exclusion of the two high-profile contenders would spur any public backlash. Observers of the inscrutable Iranian political landscape saw the eleventh-hour declaration of Rafsanjani earlier this month as having reinvigorated an opposition cowed by a brutal crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Rafsanjani has condemned the regime’s use of force against Green Movement supporters who took to the streets for months after the election four years ago to protest what they said was blatant vote-rigging to secure victory for Ahmadinejad. The purportedly defeated candidate, reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, remains under house arrest. More than 100 opposition figures were jailed for three years, released just last summer when Khamenei issued a clemency order in observance of Ramadan.
Beyond depriving the electorate of any real choice, the regime’s manipulations concern Iran analysts for their potential to undermine stability and the very foundations of government.
“Rafsanjani is a pillar of the establishment, and his disqualification demonstrates how authoritarian and militaristic the political system has become,” said Alireza Nader, senior international policy analyst for Rand Corp. “Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards are making all the key decisions. Elections are supposed to provide at least some cover of legitimacy for the regime, and this election demonstrates for Iranians how much the republican aspects of the Islamic Republic of Iran are being destroyed.”
Six of those approved to run next month are Khamenei loyalists, including former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf and nuclear negotiator and Khamenei confidant Saeed Jalili.
The other two offer some divergence from the Khamenei ranks and could, with Rafsanjani’s encouragement and cooperation between them, put forth an alternate candidacy. Former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani is viewed as a moderate likely to bring in secular technocrats to run the country, as is Mohammad Reza Aref, vice president under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
“There are two reasons Rafsanjani entered the race at the last minute — one, to prevent Mashaei from winning and letting Ahmadinejad continue to pull the strings. The other is to have a bargaining chip. He can say, if he accepts his exclusion, that he should get something in return. There’s a lot of political backroom deal-making going on,” said Reza Marashi, director of research for the National Iranian American Council. “Can Rowhani connect and get people to come out and vote? It’s hard to say. A lot of people are disenchanted with the vote. They learned four years ago that it doesn’t matter.”
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, also sees Rafsanjani’s decision to challenge the Khamenei favorites as a calculated move to create some actual competition in the race.
“I can imagine a situation where Rafsanjani threw his name in to deliberately draw attention to the reformist bid for the presidency, then in an elder statesman move decides to accept his disqualification and back Rowhani, giving that candidacy more weight,” Maloney said.
Aref has an even lower profile than Rowhani, and Iranian social media are already abuzz with reports that Aref is prepared to withdraw and support Rowhani, Maloney said.
As for who will emerge as the supreme leader’s choice to retain the religious hierarchy’s domination has yet to be made clear, she noted.
“Khamenei is watching carefully to see how the candidates do, how they present themselves, who does and who doesn’t gain traction,” she said. “But my interpretation is that he would favor the nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.”
Resentment of the regime’s alleged theft of the last election still roils Iranian society, raising the prospect of another angry backlash, according to exiles and academics. But they point to the ultimate futility of the protests after the 2009 vote as discouragement of a fresh popular unrest.
“One of the hardest things to predict is eruption of political emotion, Marashi said. “You just don’t know what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In 2009, no one saw that coming.”
Khamenei may be trying to preempt a repeat of 2009 by excluding any candidate who could inspire hope among reform advocates, Marashi said.
“Either Rafsanjani or Mashaei can mobilize people, motivating both those who like them and those who don’t to come out and vote,” he said. “You can never rule out the possibility that people will go out in the streets, but after 2009, it’s difficult. Most people are just trying to make ends meet.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.