Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has drawn fire from lawmakers and the Guardian Council that vets presidential candidates for promoting a close aide to succeed him in next month’s election.
All 12 council members agreed that Ahmadinejad’s presence at the Interior Ministry on May 11 “to introduce one of the candidates was illegal under election law,” spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei told the state-run Iranian Students News Agency yesterday. “The matter has been conveyed to the judiciary.”
About 150 lawmakers filed a complaint to the judiciary over Ahmadinejad’s “illegal” backing of his protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the state-run Mehr news agency reported today.
The protests underscore a power struggle within the ruling elite that intensified in the last year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency and is taking a new turn before the June race with the entry of top officials including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Mashaei entered the contest minutes before registration of candidates closed two days ago. The president and his ally walked and stood side by side, making victory signs. Asked by reporters whether his presence there was legal, Ahmadinejad replied that he had taken “a day off from work,” the Tehran-based Shargh newspaper said yesterday.
Ahmadinejad’s office answered the criticisms by saying his appearance with Mashaei was within the realm of “freedom of opinion” and reflected his “personal” stance, according to a statement published today on the president’s website. Candidates’ campaigns start once they are cleared to run and an expression of support prior to that isn’t an infraction, the statement read.
The Guardian Council started screening candidates and will review their suitability, based on their qualifications and loyalty to the political system, within five days, the state-run Press TV news channel cited Kadkhodaei as saying yesterday. Electoral law allows the council to extend that period by five days, the broadcaster said today. The election is on June 14 and approved candidates are allowed to start their official campaigns from May 24.
The last-minute entry of Mashaei, as well as Rafsanjani, shakes up a contest which analysts had said may mostly consist of like-minded politicians devoted to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The race will be the first presidential election since the disputed 2009 vote, which sparked days of mass protests amid fraud allegations, and led to a second term for Ahmadinejad during which he challenged Khamenei and quarreled with top officials.
Iranian leaders have signaled that ensuring security in the election and unity at the top levels of the establishment are key goals as the country battles economic sanctions and faces threats of Israeli military attacks over its nuclear program.
Rafsanjani is among the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, though he and his children have come under attack for backing the opposition movement that emerged during the disputed 2009 election. The editor-in-chief of the Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, who’s appointed by Khamenei, said in today’s edition that Rafsanjani was backed by supporters of “sedition.”
Shariatmadari also attacked Ahmadinejad’s “illegal” public backing of Mashaei, saying the move was aimed at emboldening their followers to defy rules and create mayhem. Mashaei, who has emphasized his credentials as an Iranian nationalist, is accused by clerics and critics of Ahmadinejad of initiating a “current of deviation” at odds with the Islamic Republic’s interests.
The presence of the two divisive figures is forcing other candidates to reconsider their electoral strategies.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, who had joined forces with two other senior officials to support a bid by one member of the group, said the trio may now throw its weight behind Jalili.
The campaign office of Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, said he will work with Rafsanjani, with one of the two pulling out before election day.