Understanding Iran’s presidential elections crisis

It appears Iran’s presidential elections, scheduled for May 19th, are becoming ever more complicated. The question of who might face the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani was a trending topic recently, including the significant news of Ebrahim Raisi‘s entry into the race (Raisi is a mullah very close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei).

The final list of six candidates in the upcoming so-called election — read selection — was announced on Thursday. The slate includes Rouhani, Raisi, Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Minister of Culture Mostafa Mirsalim and former Industry Minister Mostafa Hashemitaba. A first glance indicates the remaining four will most probably step aside eventually in favor of Rouhani and Raisi.

Khamenei, the highest ranking official in Iran, is facing two major political knots in the elections. His faction, known as the “hardliners” or “principalists,” has been divided over who to promote their candidate against Rouhani, the so-called “moderate” or “reformist.” Khamenei’s faction faced a similar situation in 2012 and 2013, leading to his assent to the election of Rouhani, who was supported by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who passed away this past January.

This is a sad story. For obvious reasons, I am changing names and certain details to protect the memory of…

This first dilemma before Khamenei escalated to an unprecedented level, forcing him to very publicly call on the firebrand former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to not take part in the polls. Ahmadinejad disobeyed and registered his candidacy, only to be disqualified on Thursday by the ultraconservative Guardian Council, a 12-cleric body whose members are appointed directly and indirectly by Khamenei himself.

The second issue hovers over the highly sensitive subject of Khamenei’s successor as supreme leader. Raisi’s name has been heard for some time, causing quite a stir. Rafsanjani was knee-deep into this subject during the elections of Iran’s last parliament and Assembly of Experts, the entity responsible on appointing the next supreme leader.

Khamenei’s elements suffered a major defeat then. To this end, selecting the ideal figure as his successor is the second dilemma standing before Khamenei. And Rafsanjani’s death does not make the situation any easier.

Khamenei also has reservations on placing his full weight behind Raisi in the presidential elections, fearing such a policy will create dangerous divides in his establishment. Both factions in Iran share this sentiment, knowing such rifts will allow Iran’s powder keg society to explode after suffering four decades of human rights violations and economic hardship.

The issue of Khamenei’s successor goes far beyond the presidential elections, and yet it is linked to the polls in an intriguing manner. Khamenei seeks to take advantage of Raisi’s presidency as a springboard to his appointment as his successor. Despite having the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps‘ loyalty, Khamenei knows he does not enjoy his establishment’s full support. The roots of selecting a supreme leader has been a major dilemma dating back to the 1989 death of regime founder Ruhollah Khomeini.

In 1988, Khomeini ordered the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the main Iranian opposition group to this day. His designated successor, the late Ayatollah Hassan Ali Montazeri, protested Khomeini’s fatwa, leading to his house arrest and banishing from the ruling elite.

This created a major rift among the regime’s senior ranks, fueled by the dispute between Khomeini and the PMOI/MEK. With Khamenei becoming very ill, and Rafsanjani out of the picture, the subject before this regime is too complex for Khamenei to consider easily resolved as a simple dispute between his regime’s factions. This is especially important as Iran finds its role in Syria becoming a major burden.

The question is, is this entire scenario not against Khamenei’s interest?

Rest assured Khamenei had thought this move through many times before ever mentioning Raisi’s name, knowing his role in the “Death Commission” supervising the 1988 massacre has, and will, cause further dilemmas in the future. To this end, both factions in this regime have suffered defeats.

At this stage, no rival can take advantage of their opposition’s weakness in their own interest. Rouhani, also having a member of the “Death Commission” Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, ironically, as his justice minister, finds himself in a very weak position, having lost Rafsanjani and with the July 2015 nuclear deal with world powers not having changed the status quo for ordinary Iranians. However, Khamenei’s faction, unable to unite behind a single candidate, cannot adopt a strong position against Rouhani.

In short, this leaves the entire regime facing a major crisis prior to the crucial presidential elections turning point. Both factions are also terrified of a possible repeat of the 2009 scenario of nationwide uprisings, considered a red line for the entire Iranian regime establishment.

What the near future holds for Iran prior to the elections is a matter to be seen for all. What is certain, however, is the fact that such a scene has the potential of exploding into a disaster for the ruling mullahs.

As we near the so-called election day in Iran, the regime sees intensifying crisis, with potential developments ending in results in favor of the people and a future democratic Iran without the mullahs in power.

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