Iranian Election dramas/ Western Apologists for Iran

May 17, 2013

Iranian Election dramas/ Western Apologists for Iran

Update from AIJAC

May 17, 2103
Number 05/13 #04

Western governments will be closely observing the Iranian election process in the leading up to the Presidential poll on June 14 in the hopes that the outcome may encourage a change that will allow a diplomatic resolution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program – though of course, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is actually the key decisionmaker and is unaffected by the poll. The contest – which looked likely to be dominated by conservative Khamanei loyalists – was on May 11 rocked by the last minute entry of two candidates; former President Rafsanjani, and a top aide to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The next drama will be the decision of a clerical body called the Guardianship Council about which of the candidates are allowed to run – it has reportedly already ruled that all of the 30 registered female candidates are disqualified by virtue of their gender – and is expected to issue a ruling shortly, though there will likely be a further round of appeals.

First up is Middle East expert Dr. Michael Rubin reacting to the entry of Rafsanjani, and especially the considerable commentary from some pundits suggested he represents a “moderate” candidacy. He notes that this mistake was made when Rafsanjani was elected President for the first time in 1989, and reviews his uncompromising stance and support of major terrorist attacks while in office. Rubin also points to three things to understand about Iranian elections – Iran is not a democracy, one should not overemphasise the importance of the existence of competing factions in Iran, and reformists should not be confused with opposition in Iran. For his important reminder of what the Iranian poll is and is not about, as well as Rafsanjani’s actual record, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Washington Institute Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji looks at the role of the Guardianship Council in approving candidates, in a piece written before the announcement of the candidacy of Rafsanjani and Mashaei. Khalaji predicts that the Council will be very unlikely to approve Mashaei’s candidacy, which has been derided by Khamanei, and also sees signs that the prospects of Rafsanjani being allowed to run are also dubious. Khalaji urges Washington – and by implication all Western governments – to  publicly criticise the undemocratic elements of the Iranian electoral process in part as a way to demonstrate the falseness of Iranian propaganda claims that sanctions aim to harm the population as a whole. For Khalaji’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, in keeping with Khalaji’s prediction, hardliners are indeed urging the Council to ban both Rafsanjani and Mashaei.

Finally, noted Iran expert Reuel Marc Gerecht takes on at length the many Western pundits who stubbornly insist that, if the West tries hard enough, a grand bargain with Iran can be reached. He reviews the circumstances of the negotiations and why the Iranians have likely turned down already the best offer the West can give, and argues that the diplomatic argument is soon going to turn into enhanced efforts to downplay and blur the terrorist and inherently hostile nature of the Iranian region. Gerecht explores several types of apologists for iran –  especially the  Iran specialists who have become enchanted with the richness of Iranian culture, and the serious foreign policy types who simply want to let Iran have nuclear weapons out of misplaced “realism” but at unwilling to say so. For this important look at the key to debates going on about Iran in Washington, CLICK HERE.

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Rafsanjani Is No Moderate

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the forthcoming Iranian election, subject to approval of his candidacy from the Guardian Council, a body that determines which candidates are loyal enough to the supreme leader to appear on the ballot. For example, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he defeated three other candidates but only after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified 234 other candidates deemed too liberal or insufficiency loyal to the supreme leader. More than 680 candidates have registered to run for next month’s election; most will never have their names appear on a ballot.

The Western press appears both dangerously infatuated with and enthusiastic about Rafsanjani, falsely attributing moderation to the former leader:

  • Reuters, for example, called Rafsanjani “a relative moderate.”
  • The BBC declared the corrupt multibillionaire is “virtually assured the support of reformers.”
  • The Associated Press called Rafsanjani the “prime hopeful for reformists.”
  • Citing an activist—but failing to mention he operates out of an organization that lobbies for the Islamic Republic—the Washington Post concluded that Rafsanjani was a “pragmatic voice in the current political order who could help guide Iran out of its current problems and potentially mend relations with the United States.”
  • The New York Times reported “Mr. Rafsanjani…has cast himself as a pragmatist, calling for a more open society and better business relationships with the West.”

Among journalists, it seems, it’s déjà vu all over again. When Rafsanjani first won the presidency back in 1989, the West was optimistic: The Iran-Iraq War had ended the previous year and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had died six weeks before the elections. In both Washington and European capitals—the Salman Rushdie death warrant notwithstanding—there was hope that Iran would turn a new page, and that the revolutionary ayatollahs would move to normalize relations with the international community.

It was not to be. Even though Rafsanjani suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the American hostages that Iranian-backed groups continued to hold in Lebanon and despite the fact that the new Iranian president told Pakistani intermediaries that U.S. gestures could grease reconciliation, the Iranians failed to deliver. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft sought UN mediation, and UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar appointed Giandomenico Picco, an Italian career UN bureaucrat, to be his representative. Picco dutifully flew off to Tehran, where Rafsanjani dismissed outright reconciliation with Washington. To negotiate over the American hostages in Beirut would be to admit Iranian culpability. While Rafsanjani spoke publicly of pragmatism, privately he revived Iran’s covert nuclear program—of which he claims to be the father today—and played a crucial role in ordering the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad.

Some of the most spectacular Iranian terror attacks—such as the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires—not only occurred under Rafsanjani’s watch but also with his direct authorization. And no one should forget that it was Rafsanjani who, on December 14, 2001, suggested that an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel might be foreseeable, since one nuclear weapon could annihilate Israel while Iran would be large enough to absorb any retaliation.

Western diplomats and journalists should avoid three mistakes when considering Rafsanjani’s run:

1)       Do not consider Iran a democracy. The supreme leader is substance; the presidency is only about style. Yes, Iran has elections, but they would be akin to elections in the Soviet Union if only Communist Party Central Committee members were allowed to run. Most electoral democracies do not disqualify 90-plus percent of candidates before election day.

2)       Do not exaggerate factions. Factions exist in any government—even North Korea—but the presence of factions does not translate into their relevance or ability to influence outcome. The supreme leader remains in control and has leverage over Rafsanjani in three ways: First, he can expose if not confiscate Rafsanjani’s ill-gotten wealth; Second, he can imprison–or worse–Rafsanjani’s children; and, third, he can use vigilante groups if not the Basij directly to physically constrain Rafsanjani.

3)       Do not confuse reformists with opposition. The reformists are as committed to the system of Islamist democracy as hardliners are. The problem for most Iranians isn’t simply whether the police harass women who show too much hair. Rather, it’s the fact that the supreme leader considers himself the deputy of the messiah on earth. This is why muddle-through reform cannot work in Iran: Sovereignty comes not from the people, but from God himself through the mahdi and the supreme leader. What 95 percent of the people might think is without meaning to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Indeed, protecting the theocracy from the people is why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exists in the first place.

Make no mistake: The problem in the Islamic Republic today is not one personality or another, but rather the system of government and the ideology to which it subscribes. There will be no effective difference in the goals of Iranian policy between the Ahmadinejad years and a Rafsanjani redux.

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By Mehdi Khalaji

PolicyWatch 2076
May 7, 2013

As the regime narrows the list of approved candidates for the upcoming presidential election, Washington should criticize Tehran for limiting who is permitted to run.

On May 12, Iran’s Guardian Council will begin deliberations on which candidates can participate in the June presidential election, perhaps the most important step in selecting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor. The uncertainty regarding the outcome, coupled with the regime’s repeated claims that nuclear sanctions are intended to hurt the people, gives Washington ample room to criticize the highly controlled electoral process and call for a more open and democratic Iran.


To be considered for this year’s election, all presidential aspirants must file by May 11. The Guardian Council — a powerful body with twelve members, six of whom are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader — then decides which candidates are permitted to run based on its subjective judgment of their qualifications. The results of that process will be announced on May 16. Those disqualified can ask the council to reconsider; any such appeals would be decided by May 23.

On June 14, elections will be held for president, municipal council seats, and two vacant seats in the Assembly of Experts, which selects a new Supreme Leader if Ali Khamenei dies. Holding major elections simultaneously helps the regime keep costs down while exploiting the people’s interest in local politics to raise turnout for the presidential vote. Hundreds of thousands of candidates have already registered for the municipal elections; here too, the Guardian Council determines who is qualified to run. Simultaneous elections also decrease the chances of a boycott — reformists and technocrats have applied to run at all levels, so they would have difficulty asking voters to stay home on election day if the Guardian Council disqualifies their presidential candidates but approves their local candidates.

Past presidential elections have frequently produced surprising results, and no one is sure how this one will turn out — at least in terms of which conservative will prevail. If no candidate wins a majority on June 14, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held on June 21.


Despite efforts to convince the Islamic Republic’s two previous presidents — seventy-nine-year-old Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami — to enter the race, neither has accepted thus far. In addressing his supporters recently, Khatami asked how one can run for president if he is not even allowed to travel abroad, implicitly referring to himself (he has been barred from leaving the country to participate in international conferences since 2009).

In addition, the regime has heightened its vitriolic rhetoric against both men. In an April 29 editorial by the leading Iranian daily Kayhan, publisher Hossein Shariatmadari, a close confidant of Khamenei, called Khatami a “traitor,” “corrupt on earth,” and “fifth column.” Similarly, Intelligence Minister Haydar Moslehi recently declared, “We have information that the person who claims that he predicted the fitna was himself involved in creating it,” referring to the mass opposition protests of 2009. This was interpreted as a clear warning that neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami should run for president.

Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei seems bent on not only marginalizing reformists, but also sidelining figures from the first generation of the Islamic Republic. He is unlikely to let Rafsanjani or Khatami run, and all of the other reformist/technocrat candidates are minor figures who have little chance of prevailing in June (e.g., former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, who is unknown to the vast majority of Iranians despite his high profile abroad). In fact, the Guardian Council may approve such candidates precisely because they are unlikely to garner many votes.


In an April 10 editorial in Kayhan, Shariatmadari attacked Ahmadinejad for backing the controversial Esfandiar Rahim Mashai as his favorite candidate (Ahmadinejad himself cannot run because of Iran’s two-term limit). The article pointed out Khamenei’s July 2009 letter to Ahmadinejad criticizing Mashai as an inappropriate choice for vice president, making it difficult to imagine why he would now be considered a viable presidential candidate. Although one Guardian Council member responded to the editorial by stating that no decisions had been made on anyone yet, Mashai has little chance of being approved.

Some Iranian analysts believe that Ahmadinejad is well aware of Mashai’s poor prospects and is pursuing a more subtle agenda — namely, portraying himself as a victim of Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If that tactic succeeds in boosting his faction’s popularity, he would then either introduce another candidate after Mashai’s disqualification or use the momentum to further his own postelection plans. Yet Mashai is probably the only figure in Ahmadinejad’s camp capable of attracting voters, since most Iranians blame the president and his team for years of economic mismanagement, corruption, and international isolation. Accordingly, Khamenei and the Guardian Council’s strategy toward Ahmadinejad’s faction may be the same as their approach to the technocrats and reformists — disqualify or intimidate the main figures while approving the candidacy of minor figures who are unlikely to receive many votes.


Iran’s hardliners have put forward a great many candidates for the presidential race; in an April 27 speech, Khamenei expressed concern about the number of people vying to run. None of these conservative candidates has emerged as a clear frontrunner, and it is difficult to find any substantial ideological or policy differences between them. Their main strategy centers on blaming Ahmadinejad for Iran’s economic problems, which is a convenient way to minimize the role of international sanctions.

Conservative candidates have also been eager to highlight the president’s penchant for challenging the Supreme Leader’s authority, running a rhetorical race to prove their own loyalty and subservience to Khamenei. Accordingly, the Guardian Council will have difficulty narrowing the field — most of the conservative applicants have served in government, criticized the reformists and technocrats consistently, and advocated the radical version of velayat-e faqih (the doctrine granting the Supreme Leader his authority), so the council has no real justification to disqualify them.


Washington should not ignore Iran’s presidential election, particularly given the regime’s repeated claim that U.S. sanctions aim to hurt the people rather than curb the nuclear program. To rebut such rhetoric, Washington should show its concern for the people’s democratic demands.

The U.S. government will have two clear opportunities to react to the election. First, once the final list of approved presidential candidates is announced, Washington should criticize Khamenei for letting the Guardian Council disqualify certain figures and intimidate others into staying out of the race. Second, in the likely event that opposition members inside or outside the country accuse the regime of manipulating the voting process, Washington should express concern about the election’s legitimacy.

Sharp U.S. criticism of the electoral process would pose little risk of hurting the nuclear negotiations, and restraint has proven ineffective in the past — Washington’s relatively muted reaction to the 2009 postelection turmoil failed to improve the regime’s negotiating posture then, so there is little sense in remaining quiet now. In contrast, taking a strong stance against electoral manipulation would show the Iranian people that the target of U.S. pressure is the regime, not them. Supporting their calls for democracy and civil rights is the most effective way to neutralize the government’s anti-American propaganda. Once the election’s trajectory becomes clearer, Washington can turn to the task of assessing how the outcome will affect the nuclear impasse and other crucial issues.


Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute.


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Radioactive Regime

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