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Tehran’s change of guard

Post-revolutionary Iran’s 11th presidential election, scheduled for June 14, will be watched around the world for a variety of reasons.

Among these is the fact that Iran is one of the key geopolitical players in the Middle East, sitting on a sea of oil and natural gas, while the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities have created an uneasy stand-off between Tehran and the West that awaits resolution.

Then there is the fact that 2009’s election, in which outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to a second (and final) term, attracted a fair share of controversy, with allegations from the opposition Green Movement that polls were rigged. The post-poll unrest was perhaps the biggest internal challenge the Islamic Republic has faced since the establishment of Iran’s new order in 1979.

But before discussing the dynamics of next month’s elections, a brief introduction of Iran’s political system is in order. While some may be inclined to dub the Iranian system of governance an autocratic theocracy, speaking strictly from a political perspective this is not the case.

The guiding principle of the Iranian state since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been vilayat-i-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), as expounded by Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Mousavi Khomeini.

In the post-colonial age this is a unique experiment in governance in the Muslim political sphere. It fuses elements of Shia theology, jurisprudence and political theory with democracy and anti-imperialist revolutionary rhetoric.

So while the rahbar-i-inquilab (Supreme Leader of the Revolution), currently Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, elected by the Assembly of Experts, is head of state and occupies the top post in Iran and has considerable power, it would be wrong to assume the directly elected president (who is head of government and has a four-year term with maximum two back-to-back terms) is a mere puppet controlled by conservative clerics.

If that were so it would be difficult to explain reformist former president Mohammad Khatami’s two terms in power (1997-2005) or the fact that there were reported differences between Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad, himself a conservative, during the latter’s second term.

The fact is that Iran has multiple centres of power and as in any other country multiple currents of political thought that do not always agree with each other, the ugliest manifestation of which we witnessed in the 2009 post-election events.

Getting back to the current election, eight contenders have been shortlisted by the Guardian Council to run for president.

Though one may disagree with the process of vetting the candidates, the fact is that some sort of shortlisting was required as nearly 700 individuals had initially registered to run. The logistical nightmare of allowing 700 people to run for president can be well imagined.

Yet there are valid questions about the process: of the eight candidates five are from the conservative or ‘principalist’ camp, along with a centrist, reformist and independent each.

The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest and declined to run.
Interestingly, the bid of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, seen as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anointed successor, as well as that of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the veteran centrist politician and for-mer president, were both rejected.

Hence the race seems to be principally between the conservative candidates. Leading the pack are Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf. It may well turn into a close contest between these two men on polling day.

Mr Jalili, a Mashhad native, has a doctorate in political science and has served in the foreign ministry and as a senior aide to the Supreme Leader.

He fought and injured his leg in the Iran-Iraq war while in recent years he has been Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Viewed as a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, he has publicly said the next president should “continue on the path of the Islamic Revolution”.

Mr Qalibaf, the other frontrunner, is from a village close to Mashhad and hails from a humble background. He also saw action during the Iran-Iraq war and later commanded the air force of the Revolutionary Guards, the crack ideological military force that is said to be more powerful than Iran’s regular army.

He also has a doctorate and is a trained pilot, while he has won praise for his management of Tehran. Baqir Qalibaf has promised to fix the economy and with Iran suffering from mismanagement on the economic front and financial duress brought on by Western nuclear-related sanctions, this may play a critical role on June 14.

The lone reformist candidate is Yazd-born Mohammad Reza Aref, an accomplished academic with a doctorate from Stanford who served as first vice-president during Mohammad Khatami’s second term.

But Mr Aref lacks the charisma of Mr Khatami and with the opposition largely in disarray, it is unclear how big a challenge he will pose to the conservative contenders.

Considering the events of 2009, voter turnout in June’s elections will be key not only in the continuation of the political process in Iran, but also for legitimacy of the regime.

Many Western commentators have already written off the polls, saying that Iranian voters may boycott the elections or cast blank ballots. Iranian state media, on the other hand, is predicting a high turnout. Press TV quoted a survey in which over 60pc of Tehran residents polled said they would vote. The truth will become clear on June 14.

The election of a new president could also serve as a trigger to reset relations between Iran and the West (though hopefully on terms of equality and respect) and with new governments in office both in Islamabad and Tehran, there is room for further expanding Pakistan-Iran relations.

The writer is a member of staff. qasim.moini@dawn.com

Qasim A Moini, "Tehran’s change of guard," Dawn. 2013-05-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , Political process , Pakistan foreign relations-Iran , Politics-Islam , Elections-Iran , Media-Iran , Social theology , Politicians , Democracy , Shias , President Mohammad Khatami , Mohammad Reza Aref , President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani , Pakistan , Tehran , Iran , TV