From our 23 May LDESP Middle East News Update.
In mid-June, Iranians will elect their next president, successor to the now-infamous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The last time such an election took place in 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets protesting that the voting had been rigged for Ahmadinejad over the reformist, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But a lot has changed since the elections in 2009. The vigorous opposition, known as the Green Movement, melted into the background of politics, the Arab Spring and especially Iran’s involvement in the brutal conflict in Syria has left a bad taste in the mouth of would-be revolutionaries, and the uptick in sanctions has taken its toll, both on the regime and the citizenry.
Three weeks before the elections, Iran’s Interior Ministry released the list of eight candidates approved to run by the Guardian Council out of nearly 700 initial hopefuls: “Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili; former Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Gharazi; President of the Center for Strategic Research of the Expediency Council Hassan Rohani; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; former First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref; Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaei; Iranian lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; and Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.”
As the Guardian Council, a 12-member group charged with interpreting the theocratic Constitution, has free reign over what presidential candidates make it to the final round, the Islamic Republic’s version of “democracy” has many critics, the strongest of which are citizens of the country. This year, in addition to banning females from running, the Guardian Council barred two high-profile hopefuls. Reuters’ Marcus George reports, “Iran Bars Candidates for Presidential Elections”:
“Iranian authorities barred two potentially powerful and disruptive candidates from running in next month’s presidential election on 21 May, ensuring a contest largely among hardliners loyal to the clerical supreme leader.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a veteran companion of the Islamic Republic’s founder, a former president and thought potentially sympathetic to reform, was denied a place on the ballot by the Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, state media said.
So too was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hardline followers have jockeyed with those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Both rejections may generate angry responses and Mashaie for one said he would appeal, while urging supporters to stay calm.
Most of the remaining eight men on the ballot for the first round on June 14 are seen as loyalists to Khamenei, who seems determined to avoid a repeat of the popular unrest that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 – especially at a time when Iran is engaged in bitter economic, diplomatic and military confrontations with the West, Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The outcome – and the extent to which voters will turn out to lend the election legitimacy – remain in considerable doubt.
There is no clear frontrunner in a field that now includes Saeed Jalili, the chief negotiator for Iran’s controversial nuclear program, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.
With economic hardships increasing as a result of Western sanctions over the nuclear dispute, some Iranians have favored a change of tack and there is still substantial public support for reformist leaders who disputed their electoral defeat four years ago and are now under house arrest.
Some of that might have been channeled to Rafsanjani, 78, a key figure alongside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution, who was president from 1989 to 1997 and in 2009 earned the wrath of hardliners by sympathizing with reformists during the worst unrest since the state was founded.
Two of Rafsanjani’s children have recently been imprisoned.
Like Mashaie, an almost constant presence by the outspoken Ahmadinejad’s side, Rafsanjani registered his candidacy at the last moment, shaking up a race that failed to inspire enthusiasm among an electorate more concerned about economic difficulties.
Khamenei could over-rule the Guardian Council and reinstate candidates but analysts said the moves at this stage, especially against Rafsanjani, appeared designed to nip protest in the bud.
“The cost of disqualifying Rafsanjani now is significantly less than dealing with him down the road,” said Yasmin Alem, a U.S.-based analyst. “Allowing him to run and mobilize the electorate and then try to change the results would have been more costly. This is a lesson from 2009.”
Four years ago, Ahmadinejad was declared outright winner in the first round against three other candidates including the reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, sparking weeks of protests. Mousavi and another leader of the liberal “Green Movement”, Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest for over two years.” (Reuters)
Following this news, riot police were dispatched to monitor any possible outbreak of protestors. The Washington Post reports, “Riot Police Return to Tehran’s Streets”:
“After Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, protesters and riot police filled Tehran, shutting it down for days in a series of demonstrations some called the “green revolution.” This time around, with another presidential vote scheduled for June, the Iranian authorities appear to be taking a more proactive approach.
Hours after Iran’s Guardian Council announced that it would not allow former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to run, The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian reports from Tehran:
Large groups of riot police, the kind that patrolled Tehran’s streets in the days after the contested 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, patrolled on motorcycles throughout the capital 21 May for the first time in more than a year, perhaps in anticipation of the candidate announcement.
Of course, just because Iranian authorities are sending out riot police doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll need them. But it’s a sign of the tension that Rezaian says can be felt there and, perhaps, a show of force.” (Washington Post)
The BBC provides profiles of each of the eight final candidates, while the Christian Science Monitor has an in-depth exclusive on the most likely victor, Saeed Jalili. The interview with Jahili captures the perspective of those in Iran whose sense of nationalism is rooted in anti-Americanism, stemming from the Islamic revolution to the U.S.’s involvement in the Iran-Iraq war to today’s sanction and nuclear issues. Though this perspective continues to lose support in Iran, the regime takes advantage of anti-Americanism as an important foundation to its raison d’etre. Excerpts from the Christian Science Monitor, “Iran’s Frontrunner for President Speaks of His Life Battling U.S. Power”:
“Iran’s smiling but immovable top nuclear negotiator, a revolutionary and wounded war veteran with a decades-old suspicion of the United States, has become a frontrunner in Iran’s presidential race.
Saeed Jalili’s shock of white hair, rimless eyeglasses and crisp white shirt buttoned up to his trim salt-and-pepper beard make him one of Iran’s most recognizable figures in the West, but he has proven an enigmatic figure for those who have sat opposite him at the negotiating table during years of fruitless nuclear talks.
Mr. Jalili can interact with smiles, laughter, and even well-placed charm. But his calm and low-key demeanor – he wears sensible shoes of soft black leather that don’t require polish, and he could not be more different than the flamboyant, divisive, and fiery outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – does not diminish his uncompromising message of Iranian resistance, and preserving Iran’s “right” to nuclear energy.
Jalili told The Christian Science Monitor that the Islamic Republic of Iran is winning its strategic struggle with America, despite crippling sanctions and Western attempts to isolate it from the world. And Jalili says that he is the man to carry Iran’s revolutionary torch into the future.
(…) For the Islamic Republic, the June 14 election could not be more important. Both inside and outside Iran it is seen as a critical step to restoring legitimacy to a regime tainted by the last presidential poll in 2009, which resulted in street protests against fraud, calls of “death to the dictator” – in reference to Ayatollah Khamenei – and a violent government crackdown that earned widespread condemnation and in which some reports suggest Jalili played a key role.
Jalili denies that he is Khamenei’s “choice” to be president – a key asset but one which, in Iran’s rough-and-tumble politics, would never be publicly acknowledged because the supreme leader is meant to stay above petty politics. But Jalili told the Monitor that he felt a “duty” to run, to “shoulder the responsibility” to perpetuate the ideals of the Islamic revolution that he says Iran still exemplifies, although many Iranians these days argue otherwise.
(…) Jalili expects that thawing US-Iran relations will be difficult, given his own experience of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and most recently the Western diplomatic effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which he calls “unbalanced.”
(…) Jalili has a PhD in political science from Imam Sadeq University, which is known for the ideological hue of its students. His dissertation on 7th century political thought was turned into a book called “Foreign Policy of the Prophet of Islam.”
Jalili spent years working on foreign policy in Khamenei’s office, assuming the post of director general at just 36 years old. From 2005 he was an Ahmadinejad adviser and then deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs.
(…) As far back as mid-2012, Jalili supporters began planting the seeds of a presidential run with websites, which have now morphed into a slick social media operation that includes a torrent of tweets in Persian and English, and even an Instagram account.
They paint him as a simple and pious man and compare, for example, his Iranian-assembled Kia Pride, which he drives himself, to the chauffeur-driven bright blue Mercedes of Mr. Rafsanjani. This week, a new Jalili support group was formed with the name, “The Rise of the Oppressed.” Other conservative candidates – including Ahmadinejad’s brother – have dropped out of the race, putting their support behind Jalili.
Jalili says the two defining events of his life are the revolution and 1980s war, and both have left him with scar tissue.
He was just 14 when revolutionary turmoil swept Iran’s hated monarch from power, and Jalili was captivated by what he saw as the promise and sacred ideology put forward by the thundering father of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the bot shekan or “idol smasher,” who ousted the Shah and broke Iran’s ties with the West.
Jalili wears his religiosity on his forehead: a thick, brown circle, imprinted by years of prayers as a devout Shiite Muslim, of pressing his head down to earth on a clay disk.
(…) The second most formative event for Jalili was the war. As a young volunteer frontline scout, Jalili manned watchtowers and monitored enemy movements, sending target coordinates back to artillery units. Jalili’s social media accounts today publish photos of a bearded young man in uniform at the front, and portray him as a humble war hero.
Jalili fought in the Karbala 5 offensive in early 1987, one of the biggest battles of the Iran-Iraq war with tens of thousands of dead on both sides, and heavy Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Iranian sources indicate that Jalili’s lower right leg had to be amputated due to lack of proper equipment at the Shalamche frontline.
Even in the grim annals of the Iran-Iraq war, which claimed nearly 400,000 dead on both sides, Shalamche holds a legendary place. Another survivor, cameraman Reza Borji, once said: “We gave a martyr every 1.5 meters; that is, the whole place was covered with [the bodies of] martyrs…. This war was sacred for us.”
Not all Iranians felt the ideological pull of the war in the same way. Many secular Iranians – those who wanted a reformed and kinder, gentler Islamic revolution, or none at all, many of whom years later took to the streets as part of the opposition Green Movement in the 2009 protests – formed the other side of Iran’s wide social divide.
But for a believer like Jalili, such an experience at Shalamche was a searing moment that he rarely talks about in public, which few of his Western diplomatic counterparts could comprehend. The result for him is a stated reliance on those early principles of resistance and justice to solve every problem, from sanctions to the nuclear issue.” (Christian Science Monitor)
In response, several notable Iran experts offered their analysis of what lies ahead for the Islamic Republic. Barbara Slavin for Al-Monitor predicts that, “With the Guardian Council’s elimination of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from contention, Iran’s upcoming presidential vote looks likely to be a reprise of the 2012 parliamentary elections — victory for the camp of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei but with a relatively low turnout.” Yasmin Alem, an expert on Iranian elections and domestic politics, provides an excellent account in Foreign Policy Magazine of the detailed intricacies of political jockeying in Iran’s presidential elections. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian-American Council, argues that this may be “Iran’s March to Naked Dictatorship”:
The next few weeks in Iran — with the elections and the political drama around it — can prove decisive in determining whether a non-violent, narrow and arduous path towards democratization will remain in the medium term or whether the Middle Eastern powerhouse will turn more repressive, unfree and undemocratic for years to come.
The idea that the Islamic Republic can be reformed from within always rested on a shaky foundation. While the constitution has some democratic elements, most of them are ignored. While relatively free elections have been held at times, undemocratic limitations have always been present — and often decisive.
Ultimately, the question was whether the conservative elements around Iran’s Supreme Leader would be forced to permit greater freedoms, more open elections, and openness towards the outside world in order to retain their grasp on some semblance of legitimacy — even if it eroded their own base of power. Or whether they would dispense with even the pretense of democracy and elections, and if need be, move the country in the direction of complete dictatorship.
(…) Three weeks remain till Election Day (June 14), so more surprises can come. But in general, the immediate implication of this is that the political spectrum has contracted even further. The differences between the approved candidates (with the exception of Hassan Rowhani and Mohammad-Reza Aref) are insignificant, and that this is not so much an election by the people as it is a selection by Ayatollah Khamenei.
In the longer run, the implications are even direr. Rafsanjani and Khatami were both heavily criticized by their own supporters by continuing to operate within the framework of the Islamic Republic after the 2009 election fraud. When Khatami voted in the parliamentary elections two years ago, some in his base viewed it as a treacherous act. The former presidents defended their actions by hinting that they had a plan — that there were still ways to use the ballot boxes to secure effective change. Many viewed Rafsanjani’s decision to throw himself into the presidential race and Khatami and the reformist’s immediate endorsement of him as the moment of truth for the gamble to operate within the system.
But with the rejection of Rafsanjani, that gamble appears to have failed. Even when the reformists and centrists swallow their pride and abide by the increasingly restrictive rules of the Islamic theocracy, they will not be permitted to vie for leadership.
(…) There are few indications that Iran is in a revolutionary mood, despite its very negative political trajectory. There are several reasons for this.
First, though Khamenei can continue to contract the political spectrum, there is skepticism that he can govern in that manner.
(…) Second, though chances of peaceful change from within continue to shrink, the option was never attractive because it provided a high likelihood for success, but rather because the alternatives are so risky and costly. You don’t have to look too far to realize that economic prosperity and democracy are rarely born out of bloodshed or civil war.
Thirdly, Iranians know exactly what a high-risk strategy may bring about. They are not going to repeat the mistake of the 1979 revolution in which a dictator was overthrown, only to be replaced with another.” (Huffington Post)
Meanwhile, the key question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions further complicates any internal political developments. In late May, the New York Times reported “Iran is Seen Advancing Nuclear Bid”:
International nuclear inspectors reported on 22 May that Iran had increased its nuclear production while negotiations with the West dragged on this spring, but the new information suggested that Tehran had not gone past the “red line” that Israel’s leaders have declared could incite military action.
In its last report before Iranian elections next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had made progress across the board in its nuclear program, enriching more uranium and installing hundreds of next-generation centrifuges that could speed enrichment.
Obama administration officials acknowledged in interviews and public testimony in mid-May that such equipment could significantly reduce the “break out” time required for Iran to produce a crude nuclear device. But they said that despite the new equipment, they remained confident that the United States and Israel would have enough time to act to halt the production of a weapon if Iran decided to build one.
“We think we’d have a number of months,” a senior Israeli military official said in an interview recently. “And that’s just barely enough.”
The report appeared at a moment of hiatus in diplomacy with Iran. Early hopes for progress toward a negotiated solution collapsed in a set of talks with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France. But the Obama administration decided not to let that collapse cause a diplomatic crisis or new threats of military action.
“It’s not the right time,” one senior administration official said in mid-May. “There is still time for negotiation, even if the window is closing.”
Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs, told Congress in mid-May that she believed the United States would re-engage with Iran after the elections, for which presidential candidates who might challenge the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were disqualified on 21 May.
Although the report is written in the dry, numerical accounting of nuclear inspectors, it lays out an ever-increasing rate of uranium production over the last quarter. Over just those three months, it said, Iran increased its total stock of low-enriched uranium by almost 8 percent, to nearly 10 tons.
The report also gives details that point to an emerging production strategy by the Iranians.
The first element is a stepped-up pace for enriching uranium 235, the fuel for reactors that can also, with additional enrichment, be used for weapons. The current pace demonstrates clearly that whatever setbacks Iran suffered from cyberattack on its facilities, part of a covert program by the United States and Israel, its efforts appear to have recovered.
The second element appears to be a move to take most of the fuel that Iran is enriching to 20 percent purity — most of the way to bomb grade — and convert it from a gas to a metal oxide. Iran says that is the first step for fabricating reactor fuel.
(…) The third element of the strategy involves speeding ahead with another potential route to a bomb: producing plutonium.
(…) The report said the Iranians, since the agency’s last quarterly report in February, had added 1,395 total centrifuges and centrifuge casings to the country’s atomic complex in the desert at Natanz, bringing the total number of machines at the main fuel manufacturing plant to 14,244.
Centrifuges spin extraordinarily fast to accumulate the rare form of uranium that can fuel nuclear reactors or bombs.
For the West, the new centrifuges of greatest concern are IR-2s, short for Iranian second generation. They are roughly four times more powerful than the aging model that Iran has relied on for years, and promise to greatly expand the nation’s capacity to enrich uranium.
Still, the report said Iran had yet to start using any of the advanced units, now totaling 689 at the main Natanz plant, for uranium enrichment.” (New York Times)