Argument

Texas Hold 'Em in Tehran

Can the Supreme Leader bluff and bully his way to getting what he wants in Iran’s crucial upcoming presidential election?

Iran's presidential elections can sometimes feel like bad theater, a sort of lackluster process of going through the motions -- until, of course, they're not. This year's contest has already been marked by several 11th hour twists. At first, the election appearted to be an exclusive race within Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's entourage. It quickly morphed, however, into a tripartite contest between Khamenei's allies, former-two term President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has placed his hopes on his son's father-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The latter two wildcards entered the race on the last day of registration, only to be subsequently barred from the race by the omnipotent Guardian Council -- a 12-member body of clerics and jurists appointed directly and indirectly by the Supreme Leader. The electoral race has now returned full circle to a narrow contest between candidates loyal to Khamenei. But the high-stakes game of political poker is far from over.

The first presidential poll since the still-disputed 2009 election and its tumultuous aftermath, the 2013 election -- slated for June 14 -- is considered a test the Ayatollah's supremacy over the office of the presidency. If Khamenei wanted to restore his regime's domestic legitimacy amid the nuclear standoff with the West, he would have needed to countenance a free and fair -- by Iranian standards -- election with a high turnout. But at the same time, a truly open contest could bring back previously sidelined political rivals (read: reformists and pragmatists) who could push for a volte-face in foreign policy and even weaken Khamenei's grip on power.

When in his New Year's message, Ayatollah Khamenei dubbed 2013 the "Year of Political and Economic Epic," he didn't know what he was wishing for. But Iran's electoral law -- amended liberally over the years -- provides numerous options for excluding undesirable candidates. Out of the 686 registered candidates only eight were vetted byt the Guradian Council on May 21. By law, The council is not required to publicly disclose its reasons for disqualifying a candidate. So, it remains unclear on what grounds it rejected Rafsanjani -- once Khamenei's friend, now turned archrival. One step, however, remains largely unregulated: candidate registration, which began on May 7.

Yet, one day before the announcement, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the Guardian Council's spokesman said, "If an individual who wants to take up a high post can only perform a few hours of work each day, naturally that person cannot be confirmed." It appears that the irony of disqualifying the wily politician on account of his age (he is now 78 years old) was lost on the members of the council -- whose powerful secretary, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, is eight years Rafsanjani's senior. Another potential pretext was probably to accuse the former president -- as the minister of intelligence did a few days before his registration -- of complacency in the 2009 revolt. But that would undermine the Supreme Leader's own credibility since he reappointed Rafsanjani in 2012 as the chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that advises him directly.

It was likely easier for the Supreme Leader to disqualify Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's preferred candidate, since he has already been demonized by the political establishment as a bizarre, anticlerical cult leader who managed to bewitch the lame duck president.Even the president's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, called Mashaei "the greatest threat to Islam," noting also that he had "bewitched Ahmadinejad." More importantly, Khamenei set a precedent for Mashaei's disqualification in 2009 by forcing Ahmadinejad to refrain from appointing him first vice president.

The risk is that Ahmadinejad could now go ballistic in reacting to his dauphin's disqualification -- a spectacle that would be problematic for at least two reasons. First, the president is technically in charge of conducting the election, meaning that the ruling clique's hopes of an incident-free ballot could be dashed. Second, Ahmadinejad might act on his earlier threats to expose a thick dossier of damning documents that implicate officials close to Khamenei in corruption scandals.

But the Supreme Leader might well call Ahmadinejad's bluff; experience has shown that the president typically caves when faced with Khamenei's immense institutional power. Even if he doesn't, Khamenei loyalists have laid the groundwork to soften the blow, announcing in advance that anyone who interferes with the electoral process or questions its results is doing the bidding of Iran's enemies. "Everyone, even those who make general recommendations about the election through [expressing] concerns, should take care not to serve the purpose of the enemy," Khamenei warned in January 2013. In other words, Khamenei can call for a witch-hunt if his patience wears thin.

Some observers argue that allowing Mashaei to run could be beneficial for the Supreme Leader. They note this would split the anti-establishment vote between Mashaei and Rafsanjani, leaving them both in a weaker position. That, however, would have been risky business, given that predicting voter behavior in Iran is an inexact science. In 1997, an underdog reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, rallied more support than expected in just a few weeks and went on to win the presidency. In 2009, an uncharismatic former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, morphed into an Iranian Che Guevara and inspired millions of people to protest the election results.  

Allowing Rafsanjani and Mashaei to run would also have invited a serious challenge to Khamenei's conservative clique. Reformists and pragmatists would have likely united behind Rafsanjani, while Ahmadinejad's allies would have thrown their support behind Mashaei. Khamenei's camp, meanwhile, could have been the one neutralizing itself by failing -- as is so far the case -- to coalesce around one or two viable candidates. 

It appears that instead of going back to the drawing board, Khamenei has concluded that a stitch in time is better than nine. He has decided to eliminate Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, rather than deal with the unpredictable ramifications of allowing them to run. But the decision is not cost free, as he has now openly demonstrated that for the man at the helm of power in Iran, security trumps legitimacy. 

In contrast, both Rafsanjani and Mashaei have much less to lose. No other high-ranking Iranian official has put himself to the popular test more often than Rafsanjani. He has tasted both victory and defeat. While he won the 1989 and 1993 presidential elections, his bid for parliament in 2000 and the presidency in 2005 ended in humiliating defeat. He had a quasi-comeback in 2007 when he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts -- a body in charge of selecting the Supreme Leader. This time, his disqualification is likely to redeem him as a founding father of the Islamic Republic, who was denied a last hurrah by an increasingly authoritarian leader.  

Mashaei's candidacy, meanwhile, was also a no-lose scenario. In the unlikely event that he would have run and won, the Putin-Medvedev model would have been successfully implemented. But now that he has been barred from running, Ahmadinejad and his team could demand a price for their silence from Khamenei. If he refuses, the gloves could come off.

Reactions to disqualifications and back room negotiations during the next few weeks will determine not the fate of the barred candidates and the constituencies they represent, but in a larger sense the fate of the republican identity of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To say that Iranian politics is the realm of contingencies is a considerable understatement. Even now that the list of the vetted and approved candidates is out, the race could still change substantially as they maneuver and drop out. There's still more than a few hands of cards to be played before election day.

Ed. —This article has been updated to take account of the Guardian Council's May 21 rejection of the candidacies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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