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The trials and tribulations of Iran's presidential candidates

By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh - Editor
Iran Focus - JANUARY 2005 (DEY-BAHMAN 1383), VOL 18 NO 1
This article is from the political-economic monthly IRAN FOCUS, published by the UK based Menas Associates. For more on Menas Associates please visit

The Islamic Republic of Iran's ninth presidential election will be held in June. Despite political changes, there is no consistent development trend visible as far as the election is concerned. The only constant factor is that the number of prospective candidates increases almost every week. Observers wonder how many of these nominees will stay in the race until election day, and how many will withdraw.

The confusion is partly a result of Iran's ever dynamic factional struggle. Since the triumph of the neoconservatives in the February parliamentary elections, analysts have been perplexed at the changing equations within like-minded camps.

As political paradigms change, new concerns arise within each faction. The reformists have the following concerns:
- their main figures could be disqualified;
- they might have to settle for less powerful candidates in order to survive the vetting process;
- the surviving candidates should, at the same time, be strong enough to challenge the conservatives;
- they should be able to create a union among reformist groups that have grown apart because of the failures of the Khatami team, and
- most important, their candidates should be able to convince the disillusioned masses that voting for the reformists would make a difference. Many Iranians tend to believe that following the failures of the Khatami administration to materialize its promises, reforms in Iran are impossible.

Despite all these worries there is still competition between the two reformist candidates.

The worries of the conservatives are of a different nature:
- following the mass disqualification of reformist candidates in the February 2004 Majlis elections, conservatives are more confident about a victory. This has increased competition among them;
- this competition has already turned into serious infighting;
- this state of affairs could increase the number of conservative candidates, which would decrease the likelihood of the emergence of a president returned with a substantial majority;
- if unlike in the Majlis elections the reformists manage to have only one of their candidates approved by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council (GC), the likelihood of a reformist victory could remarkably increase. Given their threats and opportunities, the conservatives are presenting a large number of candidates, but are expected to reduce the number if the reformists agree on one candidate and he is approved by the Guardian Council.

The reformist camp
Elections almost invariably generate divisions among like-minded groups. This is nothing new for the reformists who eventually had to forge a coalition from a number of groups to counter the dominant conservatives in 1997.

Yet the impending election has not created as strong a division among the reformists as it has among the conservatives. The reason is simple. The reformists have a major handicap: there are only a few candidates that could possibly survive the Guardian Council's "approbatory supervision" (right to vet and reject candidates).

In addition, the reformists have more to lose than the conservatives as far as the number of votes is concerned. The failures of the team of President Mohammad Khatami have created disillusionment among a large proportion of the population. This has spurred the attitude among many Iranians that voting would only fortify a system that is not reformable.

Many secular tendencies within the reform camp in general have reached the conclusion that they will boycott an election process in which they are not represented. The same mindset exists among the religio-nationalists and other pro-democracy groups.

In short, any reduction of turnout compared with previous elections is expected to adversely affect the reformists more than the conservatives.

Today the reform camp has been divided into two major categories: those with more or entirely secular tendencies, and those who still believe in the successful marriage of democracy and Islam as a polity. Despite this difference, the majority of pro-secular forces still do not express their views transparently in society. The reform camp is facing four sources of pressure.

First, it has to make a major compromise on its nomination of candidates. Figures such as Mohammadreza Khatami (secretary general of the Islamic Iran's Participation Front), Abdollah Nouri (President Khatami's impeached interior minister) and other powerful candidates are ruled out because of their "ultra-reformist" attitude. The reformists are convinced that the Guardian Council would disqualify these candidates. This leaves the reform camp (for now) with only a few candidates.

The current candidates are Mostafa Moin, Khatami's reform-minded and well-reputed minister of higher education, and Mehdi Karroubi, the secretary-general of the Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC). Respectively, Moin and Karroubi essentially represent the more secular and more theocratic tendencies of the reformists.

Second, state reformists are not sure how successful they are likely to be in attracting people to the polls. Obviously, a lower turnout than in 1997 - when Khatami was first elected president - as a consequence of public disappointment, will reduce the votes that would have gone to the reformists, while the conservatives will still be able to count on the usual 25% of eligible voters who can be relied on to cast their votes for their candidates.

A non-clerical reformist figure close to President Khatami told Iran Focus that the reformists this time are capitalizing on the support of the majority of between 40% to 50% of the eligible voters. Hence, the more secular oriented reformists expect a much lower turnout than in 1997. They are not expecting a grand victory and are expecting to defeat their candidates in the second round. (The election will enter a second round if none of the candidates gains more than 50% of the votes in the first round.)

Third is the question of competition within the reform camp. As for now, both Moin and Karroubi seem to be prepared to enter the race. They have both ruled out withdrawal in favor of the other. If this attitude lasts, the chances of a reformist victory will be reduced, should both candidates be approved. Reformists close to Moin told Iran Focus that Karroubi had the support of just 10% of the ACC. Apparently, Karroubi's decision has been unilateral and in order to intimidate conservative candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. "Karroubi", this activist said, "will not win considerable support from any side." The majority of reformists are expected not to vote for him, even if Moin is disqualified.

The reformists' fourth concern centers on the possibility that a Rafsanjani candidature would reduce their votes. In the 1997 election, Rafsanjani and his allies supported Khatami. This time the majority of the members of the Executives of Construction (centre-right), as well as forces close to the labor party and other clerical societies, will support Rafsanjani. He would probably be able to secure a large number of votes if the conservatives supported him. But the conservatives' stance and thus his are still not clear.

The majority of observers argue that Moin's candidature is likely to be vetted by the Guardian Council. Nevertheless, if Rafsanjani runs, Moin is more likely to be approved. Hence, Moin's presence would reduce the chances of success for the conservatives' main rivals, Karroubi and Rafsanjani. This could be a potential incentive for the GC to approve Moin.

The conservative camp
The infighting within what can be labeled the conservative wing is harsher than expected and more serious than among the reformists (Iran Focus 17:10, November 2004, 1; 17:4, April 2004, 1). The division is culminating in areas irrelevant to the presidential elections (see, for example, page 12 on the Majlis-judiciary face-off).

Generally speaking, the conservative candidates can be categorized into three main groups: the neoconservatives who call themselves Arzeshgara (value oriented); the traditional conservatives, self-labeled as Osoulgara (principle oriented); and the independent thinkers. The table below sheds more light on this classification.



Foreign Policy

Domestic Politics


Ahmad Tavakoli

Value Oriented


Strict socio-political beliefs, close to the Basij

State controlled , against IMF, World Bank,

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Value Oriented


Strict socio-political beliefs,  close to the Basij

State controlled, against IMF, World Bank

Ali Akbar Velayati

Principle Oriented (traditional)

Conservative but flexible to the West, no program

Conservative and regards social freedoms as bargaining chip against more radical forces. Regarded weak by conservatives themselves.

Unclear, not radical, no program, obedient of the Leader. Approves the 4th Five year Plan and the 20 Year Economic Outlook plan.

Ali Larijani

Principle Oriented

Conservative, no program

Very conservative, close to the Sepah, more powerful than Velayati

Unclear, no program, closer to Value Oriented forces, also obedient of the Leader

Mohsen Rezai

Independent Thinker

Flexible, in favor of détente

Conservative, not obedient of the Leader

Unclear, approves the 4th Five year Plan

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Independent Thinker

Flexible, in favor of détente

Open, but would compromise social freedoms with radical forces over economic issues

Open, approves the 4th Five year Plan, in favor of FDI and privatization

The most serious question within the conservative camp is whether or not Rafsanjani will take part in the election.

The harsh attacks of the neoconservatives (value-oriented) on Rafsanjani have been a disincentive for him - from the start he has insisted that he will run only if both sides support him.

Of course, four months back things looked quite different and Rafsanjani did not expect such resistance from the value-oriented camp (people close to Tavakoli). As to the present date, Rafsanjani has made his candidacy dependent on a couple of vague factors. His strategy is to oust as many conservative candidates as possible to increase his own chances of success.

The principle-oriented conservative candidates (Larijani and Velayati) have both announced that they will withdraw if Rafsanjani enters the race. Today, their comments sound more an example of Iranian politeness than political conviction.

Although both candidates respect Rafsanjani as one of the country's prominent revolutionary figures, they are also both much closer to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has apparently asked Rafsanjani not to run. Moreover, the indirect threats of the Tavakoli team that they will disclose information about the Rafsanjani family's economic corruption might convince him not to run.
Nevertheless, Iran's foreign policy priorities might persuade ruling groups in Tehran at the last minute that Rafsanjani would be the man for the job. This, obviously, depends on how deep Iran will be entrapped in international crisis by then.

From a different angle, if reformists' presence should be strong, the principle-oriented conservatives might withdraw in favor of Rafsanjani.

Running chances?
If Rafsanjani feels that Moin will be disqualified and if the clerical establishment within the conservatives supports the former president, Rafsanjani is expected to run.

Karroubi is highly likely to remain in the race although Moin has more support among the reformists. However, Karroubi will not have a serious chance, especially if Rafsanjani runs. Only drastic changes within the reformist camp could lead to Karroubi's withdrawal from the race.

Velayati and Larijani will certainly withdraw, though reluctantly, if Rafsanjani gets the clerical support he is seeking. But if Rafsanjani refrains from running, only one of the principle-oriented conservatives is expected to stay in the race. Although Velayati is probably too weak to be able to counter the neoconservatives in the Majlis, Larijani could be too strong and a
threat to some of the top leaders.

Ahmadinejad is very likely to withdraw in favor of his more powerful ally Tavakoli. Tavakoli will certainly run, come what may. Rezai too is expected to decide independently and enter the race. However, should the number of conservative candidates be interpreted as lowering the chances of their success, there is a slight chance that he might withdraw in the last minute.
All said, the number of the running candidates will depend on Rafsanjani's and Moin's candidatures and the following scenarios can be posited.

Scenario one Rafsanjani runs but Moin does not
In this case, the candidates - if no new serious one is added to the list - will be Rafsanjani, Tavakoli, Karroubi and Rezai. In this scenario the winner will certainly be Rafsanjani.

Scenario two Rafsanjani and Moin run
It is noteworthy that in this case Karroubi's presence will be slightly to the disadvantage of both Moin and Rafsanjani equally. So the contestants will be Rafsanjani, Moin, Tavakoli, Karroubi and maybe Larijani or Rezai.

The winner in this scenario is most likely to be Moin. However, Larijani's and Rezai's presence will depend on whether or not the principle-oriented conservatives have reached an agreement with Rafsanjani. In this case, elections will definitely enter a second round.

Scenario three Rafsanjani does not run but Moin does
Candidates will be Moin, Karroubi, Tavakoli, Larijani and/or Rezai. Again, Moin is expected to win.

Scenario four Rafsanjani and Moin do not run
Candidates will be Tavakoli, Karroubi, Larijani or Velayati, and Rezai. This will be very much a head-to-head race.

The winner will be Larijani or Velayati.

Other conservative figures such as hardliner Guardian Council lawyer Reza Zavarei and moderate Supreme National Security Council member Hassan Rohani have also been mentioned as candidates.

Zavarei has little chance of becoming a candidate and no chance of success. Rohani's nomination is still a question and regarded by observers more as a contingency plan in case tension escalates within the conservative camp.

Lessons from the election process
Although there is much ambiguity in the run-up to the June presidential election, a few conclusions can be drawn from the current political atmosphere.

Fundamental changes since 1997
Fading of religious aspects Unlike eight years ago, none of the conservative candidates is using its association with the Velayat-e Faqih as a strong campaigning tool. Only a few Islamic principles have been used by candidates to attract the voters. Apart from Rafsanjani, none of the conservative candidates is a cleric.

Disassociation from the past Most of the political forces with radical social views try not to express their attitudes directly or are disassociating themselves from traditionally radical parties such as Motalefeh lest they lose votes.
Signs of moderation The majority of conservative forces are using moderate slogans similar to those expressed by Khatami.

Good governance as a source of legitimacy
The state is set to create a momentum to bring the masses to the polls in order to reinstate its internal legitimacy. In this respect, political groups are chanting slogans about a powerful and capable government. Both conservatives and reformists are implying that Khatami's failures were a result of personal weaknesses and not those of the constitution. Reformists are trying to create the impression that there is still hope for change from within.

Potential and danger of conversion
Despite all changes, the next election could add to the list of disillusioned reformists who have lost faith in the reformability of the system. As a contingency plan to deal with massive disqualifications, the more democratic reformists - forces close to Moin - are indirectly threatening that they will boycott the election, if their candidate, Moin, should be disqualified. This poses an internal legitimacy threat to the state, which faces serious international crises.

Personal politics are fading
Another visible trend within the dynamic internal politics of Iran is the fading of personal politics. The triumph in the Majlis elections of radical forces such as Tavakoli even under conditions of mass disqualifications signifies that Iranians (in this case the conservative population) are paying more attention to what politicians are saying rather than relying on their revolutionary record. Tavakoli's slogans in the Majlis elections might have been demagogic, but they were based on popular parlance (terminating rents and monopolies, and fixing prices). This, plus the fact that economic slogans are starting to play a role in election campaigns is a small sign of political maturity in Iranian society.

Democratic and constitutional weaknesses
Surviving democratic weaknesses include the existence of approbatory supervision and the limited number of reformist candidates, not to mention the total exclusion of secular and national forces.

All said, the election of a radical president in Iran is rather unlikely. The emergence of a moderate candidate (reformist or conservative) and the record of his first year's performance - in comparison to that of Khatami - will serve as a signpost as to whether Khatami's failures were due to his personal inadequacies or the system's rigidity.

The answer to this question might have a severe impact on Iran's international situation at a time when President George W Bush's second administration will also be getting up and running.


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