More than 600 people have signed up to be candidates in Iran’s presidential elections on 14 June. The Guardian Council will now strike most of them off the list as unsuitable. One man, however, will not be so easy to deal with: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997, is one of the three most important men in the history of the Islamic Republic, along with Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. He was Khomeini’s right-hand man and largely responsible for Khamenei’s succession.
But since the 2009 demonstrations that followed the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani has repeatedly criticised the government and the policies of its (now deeply unpopular) president. Many close to Khamenei see him as the guiding force behind the opposition Green Movement.
Rafsanjani still holds senior positions in the regime, but in the last two years he has been removed as head of the Assembly of Experts (the body charged with electing and removing the Supreme Leader and supervising his activities) and as the official Friday prayer leader for Tehran. His children have been arrested for anti-regime activities. So far, though, unlike the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are both under house arrest, he has not been personally touched.
Which illustrates the problem he poses. Rafsanjani helped to build the Islamic Republic; he remains a major figure in Iran and his decision to enter the race, given his open criticism and calls for reform, amounts almost to a personal challenge to Khamenei (if not as the Supreme Leader then as the most influential man in Iran). The reformist presidential candidate Aghar Zadeh called the move ‘a psychological bomb exploding in the middle of the conservative front’, while the daily newspaper Entekhab called it ‘a turning point in the history of the regime’.
Rafsanjani would have support from both conservatives and reformists, and, critically, he could win. So the question remains: will he pass the vetting process?
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati heads the Guardian Council and is a close ally of Khamenei. He would probably like to reject Rafsanjani’s candidacy outright, but things are not that simple. On 12 May, Rafsanjani’s newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami warned that the Iranian people would not accept his disqualification:
It would be best if the members of the Guardian Council… determine the eligibility of presidential candidates based on the reality in society in light of their clear records… The expectation that the public obey morality and the law will be true only if the institutions and apparatuses responsible for propagating morality and upholding the law fulfill their legal obligation to the maximal extent.
Rafsanjani is too powerful to be swatted aside like so many other candidates but, equally, the regime is determined to avoid a repeat of the popular unrest of 2009. Describing Rafsanjani as a fitna (civil war) candidate, Khamenei’s mouthpiece, the daily Kayhan, answered Jomhouri-e Eslami’s not so veiled threats almost immediately:
The leaders of the fitna camp have already learned that if they even think of sparking fitna and riots again, the people, who have known great suffering – will give them no opportunity to do so, not even for an hour.
With a month to go till the elections, clear battle lines have been drawn. It is a sign of how isolated Iran’s ruling elite have become that Rafsanjani, a commercially minded pragmatist who never displayed any great love of reform beyond what was practically necessary, is now seen as a grave internal threat to the regime. Even were he elected there is no knowing how reformist he would be: his track record shouldn’t give any hope to the regime’s opponents, and how far he has changed remains to be seen.