05/24/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Cleric's Legitimacy and Iran's 2013 Presidential Candidates


While the world, particularly the West, Russia, China, and Arab Gulf States, intently watches Iran's 2013 presidential election - held in less than four weeks - candidates who were declared eligible by the Guardian Council to participate in the June 2013 elections have been whittled down to just eight from the four hundred and fifty figures who previously announced their candidacy. This week, the most prominent and well-known figures were barred from running for presidency. Nevertheless, as Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the Secretary of the Guardian Council, announced on Iran's state news media on Tuesday, the possibility still remains that one or all of the disqualified candidates will be reinstated by the Supreme leader. This incident has occurred previously during Iran's 2005 elections when the reformist candidate Mustafa Moin was reinstated and ended up placing fifth in the elections.

The most intriguing figure among those who were blocked from running and who is well-known by the Iranian public as a pragmatist, tycoon and heavyweight within Iran's regime is the former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Being under house arrest, another former president Mohammad Khatami and former presidential candidate for the 2009 elections Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who are among the reformist leaders, were refrained from running for the 2013 presidency. As a result, Khatami gave his endorsements to Rafsanjani, who served as the president for two terms from 1989 to 1997 and currently leads the Expediency Council, a
political arbitration body.

One of the major reasons behind the disqualifications of ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanajnai is due to the tensions between Rafsanjani and Iran's Supreme Ledaer, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After losing the 2005 presidential election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and particularly after siding with Khatami and Mousavi during the disputed 2009 elections and then showing support to the reformists rather than Supreme Leader-endorsed candidate Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani became at odds with the Islamic rulers. At 78-years, Rafsanjani is one of Iran's political survivals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as one of the leading and founding members of the current Islamist government. In addition, Rafsanjani played an instrumental role in consolidating Islamic rule during the Iran-Iraq war and pressuring for Ayatollah Khamenei's appointment as Iran's Supreme Leader after the death of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khamenei in June 1989.

If ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the incumbent President's Chief of Staff, spiritual mentor and the father-in-law of his son, are not reinstated by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the candidate with the best prospects in winning the reformists' votes will be Hasan Rowhani. Rowhani, who is close to Rafsanjani, will most likely tap into the votes that would have gone to the two disqualified candidates. The votes of the country's reformists and moderates were predicted to be won by Rafsanjani as opposed to the hardliners and followers of Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some prominent, influential, and powerful hardliners - loyal and close allies to the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader - are among those who have been permitted to run for Iran's 2013 presidency by the Guardian Council. Several other candidates also possess a considerable amount of support in their political and social base to win the elections and votes, particularly among the conservative, hardliner traditionalists, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the followers of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Currently, the conservative candidates with the best odds of winning the election are Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and a close follower of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a conservative with strong ties to Khamenei. Ghalibaf has also formed a coalition with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Khamenei, and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former parliamentary speaker. All three political figures are comparable; their political ideologies are conservative and the victor among the three will serve as the representative of the hardliners. These traditionalists, in comparison to the reformists, have so far taken a more aggressive position in terms of negotiating with the West on Iran's nuclear program. They also have pressured for abolishing Iran's executive branch, which they argue has become a locus of opposition to their power.

Nevertheless, there is another fundamental element to these elections which has to do with the sentiments of the Iranian populace. Many young Iranians and other ordinary people whom I have personally talked with deeply question the legitimacy of these elections. The presidential candidates are carefully pre-selected by the Guardian Council and are subject to being arbitrarily vetted based on their loyalty to the Islamic revolutionary fundamentalists and their faith to the Supreme Leader. As a result, they are not the genuine representation of the ordinary Iranian citizen's ideals or the reflection of Iran's young generation who roughly constitute 60 percent of the population. The 2013 elections and presidential race are in actuality a closed competition between those who share fundamental Islamic principles, such as protecting the Velayate Fahigh, Supreme Leader, and Islamist political structure. Their differences lie only in minor policies.

Although the West, Russia, China, and Arab Gulf States are intent to track Iran's upcoming presidential elections, now less than four weeks away, the Iranian people and particularly the youth are apathetic. Finding no hope in the elections, Iranians label it as illegitimate, superficial and a sham that has turned into a revolving door mechanism between the inner and gilded circle of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Illustrating such a sentiment is Kambiz, a 24-year old computer engineering student at Tehran University, who stated, "I am not going to vote. Many of my friends will not vote too. All these candidates are the same. We trusted Khatami, but he was one of them and did not stand for us. Rafsanjani, Mashaei, and the rest [of the conservatives] are all supporters and benefiters of the current corrupt and theocratic regime."

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syria scholar and political analyst, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He can be reached at

This article was originally published in The National.