Iran Plan for Low-Key Race May Be Threatened by Rafsanjani

Iran’s political leaders face the choice of blocking Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s late bid for the presidency, or allowing him to run and wrecking a carefully crafted field of loyalists.

The ex-president, who kept his plans to himself until minutes before registration closed, stole the limelight from the more consensual candidates favored by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to analysts. If his candidacy was approved, it would “mobilize people to participate, whether for or against him,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle East politics at Qatar University.

There were signs that it may not happen. Mehr news agency, citing “hearsay” from its correspondent, said Rafsanjani would be excluded from a final shortlist of eight candidates, due to be announced by May 23. Iran’s Guardian Council is vetting more than 650 applications for the June 14 vote, and usually narrows the field to less than a dozen.

With an economy feeling the strain of international sanctions imposed to halt its nuclear program, and Israel and the U.S. threatening military action, Iran’s leaders have signaled they prefer a presidential contest less divisive than the last one. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election triggered allegations of ballot fraud to defeat a reformist candidate, and street protests that were violently crushed.

Security Tightened

Security in Tehran has been tightened in the past 24 hours as the deadline approached, with anti-riot units and other police deployed at several of the capital’s main squares.

Rafsanjani challenged the 2009 crackdown, urging respect for the opposition and the release of detainees. That helped sideline him politically, and in the past year two of his children were jailed on charges of inciting unrest.

This year, only politicians who “in their hearts have a belief” in the Islamic Republic will be approved, said the council’s spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei. He added: “Perhaps some errors have been committed in the past.”

Some say letting Rafsanjani run would be another error.

Rafsanjani is backed by supporters of “sedition,” the editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper, appointed by Khamenei, wrote on May 13. The same word was used in a letter to the Guardian Council by about 100 lawmakers, calling for Rafsanjani to be excluded from the vote. Other top officials in recent days have hinted at oppositions regarding his candidacy.

The Shark

Kadkhodaei said yesterday that the Guardians won’t allow candidates to run if they’re not physically fit enough for the job, a possible reference to Rafsanjani, who was born in 1934. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Guardian Council, said on May 17 that the president must “lead a simple life” in order to empathize with poor people, another indirect jab at Rafsanjani, who’s known for his wealth.

There may be repercussions, though, from rejecting such a prominent figure, analysts said.

Rafsanjani is one of the republic’s founders and was president from 1989 to 1997. He ran again in 2005, when he lost to Ahmadinejad. He heads the Expediency Council, a top advisory body, and has been chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which nominates the supreme leader. His political nickname is “the Shark.”

Barring Rafsanjani would “provoke a frenzy within the system,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said in a phone interview. “To suggest that he doesn’t meet the qualification to run for president would call into question the credibility of institutions that he has engaged with.”

‘Rock the Boat’

Rafsanjani has been endorsed by Mohammad Khatami, who as president until 2005 eased restrictions on the press and on women’s clothing, making him a figurehead for reformists. Yet he’s really a “pragmatic conservative” with a foot in both camps, said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst for IHS Jane’s. “He’s not one who’s going to rock the boat.”

There’s also an advantage, as well as risks, for Khamenei if Rafsanjani engages more of the public, according to Hartwell.

Iranian leaders cite voter turnout as a gauge of the system’s legitimacy. Khamenei on May 15 urged Iranians to participate, saying an “exciting and populous” election would display support for the Islamic Republic and thwart its enemies.

The supreme leader wants “a contest that has legitimacy.” Hartwell said. The ruling elite “would like to organize that without having Rafsanjani in the contest. But if having him will boost the legitimacy and the credibility of the results, they may choose to allow him to stand.”

Ahmadinejad Protege

Another high-profile candidate is even less likely to make it through the Guardians’ vetting, according to analysts.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is a confidante of Ahmadinejad, who has backed him for the post. Mashaei portrays himself as a nationalist, tapping a current of anti-clerical feeling, and he’s been charged with representing a “current of deviation” by critics. Mehr said he was excluded along with Rafsanjani from the shortlist.

“There’s no possibility they would want someone in this election who they’ve defined as an enemy of the system,” Maloney said.

Ahmadinejad has an increasingly fractious relationship with the Iranian establishment, engaging in public disputes with senior officials and earning a rebuke from Khamenei.

He’s also been criticized for his handling of the economy. Inflation has surged as sanctions deprived Iran of hard currency and pushed oil output to the lowest levels since the 1980s.

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