If there is to be another uprising of popular defiance in the wake of a presidential election in Iran this year, none of the candidates is likely to lead it.
In 2009, Iran was rocked by the largest anti-government protests since the founding of the Islamic Republic three decades earlier. They erupted after incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to power in a vote many Iranians believed was rigged. Ahmadinejad had the support of Iran’s unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Basij militia.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched in the streets, chanting, “Where is my vote?” and “Death to the dictator!” They were crushed—scores killed and survivors beaten in the streets by baton-wielding Basij, and later tortured and raped in prison.
But even before the vote and the subsequent crackdown, it was clear that an unexpected social and political movement was growing in support of two of the opposition candidates: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Neither was seen as particularly prone to dissent. Mousavi had previously served as prime minister and Karroubi was once chair of Iran’s parliament. It was their insider status that allowed them to run. Iran’s Guardian Council, which answers to the supreme leader, vets candidates and weeds out anyone it fears might weaken Iran’s religious dictatorship. The two men were seen as mild reformists who could give Iran the appearance of political pluralism and maybe soak up a few protest votes while Ahmadinejad coasted to re-election.
Instead, all manner of regime opponents rallied behind them, especially Mousavi. He claimed victory and called for peaceful protests, even as Khamenei described Ahmadinejad’s supposed win as a “divine assessment.” Two years later, after they called on their supporters to demonstrate in favour of the Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East, Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest, where they remain today.
This time, the Iranian regime—spearheaded by Khamenei—is not taking any chances. The Guardian Council has approved eight candidates out of some 7,000 who applied. All regularly profess loyalty to Khamenei; several have personal connections to him; and even the two nominal reformists, Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rowhani, lack the gumption, charisma, or popular support necessary to challenge Iran’s system of government in a meaningful way, in the unlikely event that one of them actually wins.
The election’s first round will be held on June 14, with a second round a week later if no candidate secures 50 per cent of the vote. What’s at stake is less about how Iran is governed than who will control the various levers of the state in dispensing access to wealth and power.
“These are turf wars more than ideological wars,” says Saeed Rahnema, a political science professor at York University.
The turf wars are contested by a narrow group of kingpins close, or acceptable, to Ayatollah Khamenei. This election has seen the legs kicked out from under even politically powerful candidates unpalatable to the supreme leader.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and a close friend and adviser. Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, and Mashaei was widely regarded as his preferred candidate. Mashaei registered to run in the election, but the Guardian Council disqualified him. He’s in part a victim of a rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. But he also alienated himself from Iran’s clerical establishment with nationalist rhetoric that seemed to elevate Iran over Islam.
A second disqualified candidate has a much deeper connection to the Islamic Republic. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of its founding architects and reportedly helped secure Khamenei’s position as supreme leader in 1989. He served as president during the 1990s and is today the richest man in Iran. Rafsanjani has been blamed by Argentine prosecutors for directing a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, and by German prosecutors for ordering the assassinations of Iranian opposition activists abroad. But in the midst of the 2009 election crisis, Rafsanjani called for dialogue and urged security forces to act with restraint. His possible candidacy this year therefore attracted significant opposition support.
“It tells you something about the sorry condition of political space in Iran that somebody like Rafsanjani, who is implicated in several terrorist assassinations abroad, becomes the reformist face of Iranian politics,” says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University.
It’s doubtful that Iran’s Guardian Council had a problem with Rafsanjani’s alleged role in blowing up a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. But his implied support for protesters in 2009, coupled with an earlier clash with Khamenei, made him toxic as a presidential candidate and forced his disqualification—leaving a slate of candidates almost certain not to annoy Khamenei or his clerical allies.
“The eight who qualified are toothless. Iranians say there are no bones in their bodies,” says Houchang Hassan-Yari, a fellow at Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy.
But according to Akhavan, this unwillingness to accept even moderate challenges to Iran’s prevailing orthodoxy reflects the vulnerability of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic.
“When loyalties become so personal, it’s a sign of the insecurity of the regime,” says Akhavan. “It’s one thing to say the Iranian political space cannot accommodate secular or nationalist or leftist forces, ethnic and religious minorities, and women’s groups. It’s another thing to say it cannot even accommodate someone like Rafsanjani, who was once upon a time one of the pillars of the Islamic Revolution. The regime has tightened its hold on power, rather than have some measure of power-sharing.”
What, then, does the election mean for the thousands and thousands of Iranians who marched in 2009 and who still want a more democratic and decent country?
Some may vote strategically, despite the poor choices available to them, says Rahnema. Reformist candidate Hassan Rowhani has attracted at least some supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi. Several people calling for Mousavi’s release at a Rowhani campaign event were promptly arrested for “counter-revolutionary behaviour.”
But with only a week until voting, there is no groundswell of opposition support for either Rowhani or Aref. Many Iranian reformists and opponents of the Islamic Republic will likely boycott the election.
Of the eight candidates, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, is considered a favourite. He opposes any détente with the West and campaigns under the slogan: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.”
Iranians who feel differently won’t find a champion on their ballot. They may protest instead. But the Iranian government has taken “extraordinary measures through arrests and intimidation of all sorts” to ensure they won’t, says Akhavan. Mobilizing again will require unusual courage.
But it is always difficult to discern a spark until it flares into something bigger. Days ago, during the funeral procession of dissident cleric Ayatollah Jalal al-Din Taheri, mourners loudly demanded freedom for Mousavi and Karroubi, and shouted: “Dictator, dictator, hopefully you can’t sleep well”—a clear challenge to Khamenei.
Video clips of the funeral circulating on social media show thousands marching. Discontent with the regime inside Iran remains high. As power is consolidated among an ever-smaller circle, it will grow.