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Iran’s presidential candidates: Khamenei’s pawns

The mainstream media has interpreted the registration of some Iranian politicians, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the 2017 presidential elections as a sign of defiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and proof of the country’s “democracy.” This interpretation fails to highlight the nuances and complexities of Iran’s political establishment.
Many have failed to observe that Khamenei’s comments to Ahmadinejad to stay out of the race were made before Donald Trump entered the White House. Iran widely believed a US politician with similar policies to Barack Obama, such as Hillary Clinton, would replace him. Khamenei’s political calculations may have now changed, but it his policy not to admit to such changes.

Many have failed to observe that the supreme leader’s comments to Ahmadinejad to stay out of the race were made before Donald Trump entered the White House.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

He “told me that it is not good” to run for the 2017 presidency, said Ahmadinejad. “I said yes. It did not take even a second.” Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to Khamenei saying he was fully committed to obeying him. Ahmadinejad later changed his position and said Khamenei’s recommendation was “just advice.” Khamenei does not merely give advice to Iran’s politicians; his “advice” is equivalent to legal orders.
It would be political suicide to so blatantly and publicly defy the supreme leader. Iranian politicians such as Ahmadinejad are shrewd enough to know this. They also know that they would need Khamenei’s blessing to stand a chance of winning the election.
Ahmadinejad has become Khamenei’s confidant, and he owes his political career to him. Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad in the highly contested 2009 election. After Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Khamenei appointed him to the Expediency Council, Iran’s highest political arbitration body.
The Council is predominantly made up of hard-line clerics, and functions as an advisory institution to the supreme leader. So it makes no sense for Ahmadinejad to jeopardize his position with such defiance.
The registration of people such as him is likely an orchestrated attempt by Tehran to project Iran’s elections as democratic; that even if a candidate is not desired by Khamenei, he or she can still register. Khamenei and leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are likely testing the waters by allowing people such as Ahmadinejad to register.
To gain Khamenei’s blessing, Ahmadinejad and others may have offered to rally and mobilize their ultra-conservative base for Khamenei’s choice candidate. In other words, Ahmadinejad has likely obtained Khamenei’s approval in private to register. Ahmadinejad and others are being used as puppets to see whether they still enjoy the power and popularity to rally and mobilize for the preferred candidate.
Before jumping to conclusions, we ought to wait until April 27 to see whether many candidates, including Ahmadinejad, will be qualified to run by the clerical Guardian Council. By then, Khamenei and the IRGC will have made their decision.
If Ahmadinejad qualifies, he will be approved to use his populist base to campaign for their favored hard-line candidate against the reformists. If candidates are shown to lack the popularity or competence to rally the hard-line social base for this purpose, they will either be disqualified on April 27 or be asked to withdraw later.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.