The Rival Camps of Iran’s 2013 Presidential Elections

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A man adjusts a huge Iranian flag on the seats as some areas remain empty and others are full of fans, during Iran's Esteghlal soccer match with Qatari Al-Rayyan, at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, on 23 April 2013. (Photo: AP - Vahid Salemi)

By: Elie Chalhoub

Published Thursday, April 25, 2013

Uncertainty continues to dominate the impending Iranian presidential elections, set to be held in June 2013. The Guardian Council has yet to vet any candidates and the election criteria is still up in the air.

Though candidates may officially register from April 21 to May 21, after which they will be screened by the Guardian Council, it is possible to sketch a rough portrait of the various political factions and their stances.

The major contenders can be divided between the conservatives and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s group on the one hand, and the reformists and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s group on the other.

The Reformists: Khatami or Defeat

The reformists seek to nominate former president Mohammad Khatami as their candidate, hoping that he can rouse them from the deep slumber that set in after the 2009 election. Indeed, the two candidates who were defeated in the previous election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.

Yet a segment of the reformist camp believes that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the candidate capable of defeating incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A few months ago, there was a debate among reformists over election participation. Set amid international pressure aimed at delegitimizing the regime, the prevailing view was to boycott the election. But the regime appears to have thwarted this bid through a massive voter outreach campaign.

Some reformists fear that if Khatami decides against running, their camp would splinter. In this case, it may become critical for Rafsanjani to intervene and rally them behind Hassan Rohani or Mohammad Reza Aref. While Rohani is closer to Rafsanjani than to the traditional reformists, he may be an acceptable candidate to the latter.

Three reformist politicians, former Tehran MP Majid Ansari, former interior minister Mousavi Lari, and former industry minister Eshaq Jahangiri, had met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier, who gave them his blessings. The three have ties to Mousavi and Karroubi.

Informed sources said that the trio stressed to Khamenei that they had “severed their ties with foreign entities and with Mousavi and Karroubi.”

The circle surrounding Mohammad Khatami had repeatedly claimed that they do not want to operate outside the regime’s framework, and that they no longer had dealings with any outside parties conspiring against the regime.

The view among the reformists, who claim they would be able to secure 20 million votes, is that they cannot hope to win except by fueling polarization in the Iranian street. This would mobilize their disenfranchised base to turn out en masse come election day.

Rafsanjani Surprise

In the meantime, sources in Rafsanjani’s camp believe his is the winning ticket. They reckon that Rafsanjani will determine the next president – either by naming him or running in the election himself, only to withdraw at the last minute in favor of another candidate, most likely Khatami or Rohani.

Concerning the alliance between Rafsanjani and the reformists, other sources familiar with Iranian politics said, “The reformists were radically in the left, but their setbacks forced them to lurch into the moderate or center left. Rafsanjani, for his part, was always a symbol of the moderate or center right.”

With regard to the relationship between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, the sources said that there is a “ceasefire between them today.” Ahmadinejad wants to stop those he calls “ancient fundamentalists” from taking power, and plans instead to rule the country together with young conservatives.

For his part, according to sources, Rafsanjani sees himself and his group as “the main foundations of the regime that would not allow ‘intruders’ to take power.”

However, knowledgeable sources stress that the possibility of Khatami or even Rafsanjani running in the election is almost nil. They point out that Khatam is still hesitant as he fears he may be removed from the Guardian Council.

Ahmadinejad: Viva the Spring

In accordance with the constitution, President Ahmadinejad is not eligible to run for a third term. However, he will seek to extend his policies into the future by securing a candidate from his own camp.

His campaign’s slogan is “Viva the Spring” – in reference to the Persian spring – which he announced during the Nowruz festival. Ahmadinejad wants his relative and spiritual mentor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to succeed him.

Ahmadinejad, however, realizes that the Guardian Council would never approve Mashaei. For this reason, he has kept many other cards up his sleeve.

April 18 was a major milestone in Ahmadinejad’s campaign. He had promised to gather 100,000 supporters in Azadi Stadium, but failed. Mashaei did not dare appear at the rally after warnings were issued to the president over abusing his office for electoral purposes.

Ahmadinejad’s circles believe that to guarantee a victory for his camp, he will be forced to adopt a polarizing election strategy that would “mobilize the largest possible number of people on his side and confront Khatami and Rafsanjani.”

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s opponents, led by the reformists, counter his strategy by drawing attention to the fact that it’s “too little, too late,” as University of Tehran professor Sadegh Zibakalam put it. Indeed, his opponents proclaim today that Ahmadinejad is still that same old zealous fundamentalist from eight years ago.

The Conservatives: Progression Alliance

Meanwhile, the conservatives of the Progression Alliance seem divided among Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, and Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, who have ostensibly agreed that only one would run in the election.

Sources close to the conservative leaders believe that the latter’s tactics are based on two principles: heading off Ahmadinejad’s and the reformists’ attempts to monopolize the street and exclude the conservatives; and focusing on political programs rather than the politics of candidates’ personalities.

The conservative sources stress that among the merits of the non-antagonistic conservative candidates is their appeal to the elite, the religious authorities, and the public alike. Internationally acceptable, these conservative candidates have good relations with economic and political elites in the Arab and Islamic world – something that Ahmadinejad cannot boast.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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