Iran Election Guide

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Iran Analysis: Correcting the Goldfish's View of a "Surprise" Presidential Election

Scott Lucas and Joanna Paraszczuk write:

Writing on LobeLog, analyst Farideh Farhi proclaims, "Iran Surprises Again!":

Okay, it is time to admit that the only thing predictable about Iranian politics these days is its unpredictability!

Well, not really.

Not only Farhi but most of the mainstream media were caught out by the drama of this weekend's developments --- President Ahmadinejad putting forth his right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, a series of front-line politicians making unexpected declarations, and especially the last-minute entry of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

As another front-line analyst,  promoting Farhi's article, summarised the "surprise", "I thought that the Supreme Leader had decided unequivocally that there was to be no repetition of 2009, i.e. no credible individuals challenging the existing system."

Wait a minute.

If you started watching the Presidential contest on Friday, then this weekend's developments might have been surprising. However, if you started watching months ago --- and kept watching day-by-day --- the bigger picture would have prepared you for the so-called "surprise".

As we put the question last Wednesday, "Supreme Leader Losing Control of the Election?"

Or on 1 May, "A Presidential Field Out of Control?"

Or going back to 8 April, "Iran Analysis: Losing Control of the Presidential Election?":

Developments this weekend have put a question mark over one of the running assumptions about Iranian politics, namely that the Supreme Leader and his advisors have control of the decision in the Presidential race.

The "unpredictable" has been the failure of the Supreme Leader's camp to impose authority over the process. But that did not start last weekend --- it began from mid-December, when the "2+1 Committee" was formed to find a "unity" candidate to ensure a smooth campaign and victory.

In January, the Committee pronounced that it would soon find that individual. In March, the three men --- the Supreme Leader's senior aide Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and leading MP and Supreme Leader relative Gholam Ali Haddad Adel --- pronounced that the candidate might be one of them or might be a suitable person beyond the committee.

In April, the trio said that they were forming sub-committees of their three-man committee to consider economics, social policy, culture, and foreign policy.

But still no unity candidate.

This week Haddad Adel entered the race. But so did Qalibaf. And so did Velayati. And so did the Secretary of the National Security Council, Saeed Jalili --- who could have been the "unity" candidate but, with the failure of the Committee to decide, chose to enter separately.

The 2+1 Committee, explaining this not-so-unified approach, said they would wait until the Guardian Council had vetted the registered hopefuls to name their candidate.

So the "unpredictable" of last weekend --- with high-profile figures deciding they would take a stab at a campaign --- was very predictable. It was a case of experienced politicians taking advantage of a vacuum.

In early April, a set of Presidential hopefuls, seeing the confusion and failure of the 2+1 Committee, announced a "Coalition of Five" to make their own "unity" nomination.

The hard-line Endurance Front, instead of following the Supreme Leader's guidance, named their man: former Minister of Health Kamran Bagheri Lankarani.

Other conservative politicians not only entered but loudly denounced the Government --- former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei is among the loudest --- or came up with more factions like the catchily-named "Front of the Epic-Makers of the Islamic Revolution".

And all the while, Rafsanjani watched and waited.

As the formal registrations opened, the former President noticed that the 2+1 Committee had not come up with its unity candidate. He saw --- like others --- that Velayati might lack charisma, Haddad Adel might not appeal to "moderates", and Qalibaf might be troublesome for the Supreme Leader to handle.

Rafsanjani saw the sniping from the Ahmadinejad camp, all the way to a fistfight in the Ministry of Interior as the President's man Rahim-Mashai filed his candidacy.

And the way was being paved for Rafsanjani to arrive. The former President had used a speech a week ago to test reaction, "I am strong enough to lead the nation", and on Tuesday, former President Mohammad Khatami set out the situation:

I was pleased yesterday when Mr. Hashemi said he was prepared to run, if the Supreme Leader does not oppose it. It's correct that if the Supreme Leader does not want someone to run, that would cause a problem, and I say why would the Supreme Leader oppose it?

We noted, "Either Ayatollah Khamenei accepts Rafsanjani's candidacy, which will shake up an already unsettled process and possibly put it beyond the Supreme Leader's control --- or the Supreme Leader black-balls Rafsanjani, likely incurring blame for blocking one of Iran's highest-profile politicians".

Since Tuesday, Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader's office have been waiting each other out. The former President did not want to risk candidacy if Khamenei openly opposed it. So instead of registering at the beginning of the process, Rafsanjani held out until the "90th minute" when the Supreme Leader would finally have to commit.

Just before 5 p.m. on Saturday, the final day for registration, Rafsanjani contacted the Supreme Leader's office and got a cautious but sufficient answer: a "half-green light" to enter the contest.

So, far from writing "unpredicatble" with an exclamation point, the challenge is to predict what will now ensue.

The temporary accommodation does not resolve the challenge for Rafsanjani or, more importantly, the problem for the Supreme Leader.

The former President, like all other candidates, now has to wait for the Guardian Council's 10 days of vetting.

The Supreme Leader has those 10 days --- and the 21-day campaign beyond --- to make decisions.

Will his office encourage the Guardian Council to reject Rafsanjani, risking widespread popular anger --- and, without a "unity" candidate, no clear alternative?

Probably not. But then how does Khamenei manage the "campaign" to maintain a semblance of authority?

1. Can he and his men finally find the unity candidate to gain popular support? Will that be a Qalibaf, despite his threat to the Supreme Leader's control? Or will it be a Jalili, who has already put himself out front with his "People Plus One" campaign?

2. If no candidate can check Rafsanjani, can the election be manipulated to prevent the unwelcome outcome?

3. Or can the Supreme Leader reach an accommodation with the former President in which each finds benefit from Rafsanjani returning --- after 16 years --- as the head of the Government?

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