Iran's presidential (and local) elections will take place on June 14. The disqualification of the charismatic reformist candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has shocked many Iranians hopeful for a new administration, a new management of the economy and diplomacy. The decision to block him confirms a turning point in the trajectory of the Islamic Republic.
The Guardian Council of the Constitution -- composed of six clerics nominated by the Supreme Leader and six jurists elected by Parliament -- has dismissed two frontrunners. The first one is President Ahmadinejad's protégé, the conservative Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who has long been the target of criticism from conservative elements because of his tendencies to play the nationalist card over the religious one. The argument put forward to block him from running was his alleged "deviant" tendencies and his disqualification was expected.
However, Rafsanjani's disqualification was more surprising and the decision to block him confirms that the Islamic Republic has set the priority to a securitarian rule over a theocratic one. A pillar of the Islamic revolution and the Constitution, the decision to block Rafsanjani was -- as the daily Ebtekar titled -- a "huge shock." He held key positions and his influence on the Iranian society and Shia clergy is tremendous. His experience is unequalled in Iran and his political vision is pragmatic and diametrically opposed to Ahmadinejad's or other conservatives (the speech he gave after the Guardian Council's decision - which is overwhelmingly led by conservatives -- blasts Iran's leadership).
His last minute registration has federated a massive support, not only from the reformist camp. Whether it be in Qom, Najaf or Mashhad, the Shia clergy and other key moderate figures have rushed to share their support, therefore weakening Khamenei's maneuverability. The fact that an Ayatollah with the stature of Rafsanjani can be barred demonstrates the shift from the absolute power of the Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurisprudence), to the necessary rule of the Sepah-e Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards, commonly known in Iran as Sepah). As Iranian expert Ahmad Salamatian says: "behind Khamenei's turban lies the army and the Revolutionary Guard's military hat."
Let's unpack that. The Sepah is one of the world's most powerful and well-organized special forces. It is a branch of Iran's military founded after the revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to protect the Islamic republic from internal or external attempts to overthrow the revolution. At the time of the transition from the Shah to the revolutionaries, Khomeini understood that it was too risky to dissolve the army and decided to counterbalance it with the Sepah. This paramilitary group was tremendously developed during the Iran-Iraq war. It is present in the political debates and its intelligence services have become significantly important during the Khatami era, when there was a popular push for social reforms.
2009 was a turning point that anchored the Sepah's grip on power. The Green Movement increased the role of the Revolutionary Guards which has been able to crack down the massive demonstrations. The next important event that demonstrates Iran's shift of power was the 2012 legislative elections. Almost 75 percent of the candidates belonged to the Sepah-e Pasdaran and the Guardian Council's main motivation behind the disqualification of candidate was no longer about his loyalty to the principle of the Velayat-e Faqih, it was instead to avoid a jang-e narm (a soft war) articulated through news technologies, Internet, search engines, social networks, browsers or SMS.
Rafsanjani's disqualification confirms this trend. Though the strategy used by the conservatives to eliminate the 78-year-old frontrunner was to argue that he was too old for the presidency, the new strategy of defense of the national interest is clear: it relies on security matters. The bill prohibiting candidates over 75 to run for the presidential campaign was rejected by the Guardian Council itself. Problem is, the Islamic republic and the Interior Ministry (which is in charge of the election) can hardly afford another 2009.
Rafsanjani (and Mashaei) were two candidates who could potentially create a risky and destabilizing enthusiasm for the campaign. Their disqualifications leave the Iranians with less charismatic and less well-known candidates who do not represent a risk to challenge Khamenei's authority. However, as Trita Parsi (president of the National Iranian American Council) says: "[T]hough Khamenei can continue to contract the political spectrum, there is skepticism that he can govern in that manner. Eliminating political rivals from the political spectrum is not the same thing as eliminating their supporters from society."
Also, we need to see after the election. In case of a deal with the West on the nuclear issue, one key point is to know which president will get the political credit. What is certain is that it would be politically difficult for Khamenei if such an important credit ends up in the hands of Rafsanjani or the Ahmadinejad camp who already challenges the Supreme Leader's authority.
Finally, to understand the decisions regarding the choice of the candidates, we need to keep in mind the regional context. Iran is located in the middle of a region which is on the edge of conflagration. A destabilization of the regime would not only undermine the stability of its power; it would also put the Iranian nation at stake and potentially collapse the regional balances of power. Moreover, the logic the Supreme Leader's desk is that an internal -- even external -- weakening of the state would open a boulevard for separatist groups (among the examples given in Rafsanjani's recent comments such groups are located in the provinces of Sistan, Baluchistan and Azerbaijan). Rafsanjani did not appeal the Guardian Council's decision to avoid a dangerous confrontation for the country. Indeed, the regional context mixed with internal confrontation would pave the way for sectarianism and violence, and possibly lead to a scenario à la Syria or Iraq, though its magnitude would reach a whole new level. It would pave the way for sectarianism and violence, and possibly lead to a scenario à la Syria or Iraq, though its magnitude would reach a whole new level.