First Published: 2017-04-24

Iran election may be pointer to race for supreme leader
About 1,600 people have registered as candidates for Iran’s May 19 presidential election.
Middle East Online

By Gareth Smyth - LONDON

Cleric Ebrahim Raeisi registers his candidacy for upcoming election

Iran’s Council of Guardians has drawn up a shortlist of six can­didates from the 1,600 people who registered for the May 19 presidential election.

Despite months of speculation that he might be excluded, Iranian President Hassan Rohani made the cut, as have First Vice-Presi­dent Eshaq Jahangiri and Mostafa Hashemitaba, a reform-minded vice-president under both Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Moham­mad Khatami.

On the principlist side are Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Mostafa Mirsalim, minister of culture in the last years of the Raf­sanjani presidency.

The most intriguing nomination is Ebrahim Raeisi, 56, appointed in 2016 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to lead the foun­dation managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, one of the most important in the Islamic Republic.

Raeisi is considered a likely con­tender to succeed the 77-year-old Khamenei, and his entry into the presidential fray surprised those as­suming he was busy managing the shrine, unlikely to beat Rohani and would keep ambitions in check until the leadership succession.

There has been, however, a lively social-media campaign among con­servatives to urge him to stand and, as chairman of the shrine, he has access to influential clerical and se­curity networks that will help in the presidential election.

The shortlist of six can change. Appeals are possible and candidates may withdraw.

Jahangiri, for example, is widely thought to have been a “Plan B” in case Rohani did not pass the Guard­ian Council. Neither should Rohani fear Hashemitaba, who is not wide­ly known and who in the 2001 elec­tion — when Khatami was re-elect­ed — won only 28,000 votes — 0.1% of the total.

The real challenge to Rohani comes from the principlists, who have been working to agree on a single candidate best placed to win, which presumably means Ghalibaf or Raeisi.

Iran’s lack of an effective party structure has made such coordina­tion difficult and it is far from clear that the principlist body set up to agree a single candidate — the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF) — will be successful where past efforts have failed.

In the letter announcing his can­didacy, Raeisi appeared to suggest he would run whether or not he was the PFIRF’s choice.

Raeisi’s candidacy was a big sur­prise in Tehran. His close relation­ship with Khamenei has inevitably raised the issue of who Khamenei would prefer as president. Why, people ask, is Raeisi standing just a year after being appointed to head the Imam Reza shrine?

Given his past role in the judici­ary, Raeisi could reverse the lim­ited social relaxation under Rohani. He would also mitigate Rohani’s cautious challenge of vested inter­ests like religious foundations and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In foreign policy, Raeisi might make little difference.

“Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t want a president who will challenge everything [internationally],” said Saeid Golkar, a lecturer at North­western University and senior fel­low at the Chicago Council on Glob­al Affairs.

“Raeisi will bring pragmatic, if more conservative, people: But he won’t be confrontational. The for­eign minister would be like [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif, but from the right.”

There could, however, be another issue in Khamenei’s mind: His own successor.

“Rohani is respectful, pragmat­ic, he doesn’t challenge Ayatollah Khamenei,” said Golkar. “If Khame­nei were younger, Rohani would still be the best president for him. But the issue of the next supreme leader may be a problem. Someone who can ensure a more stable tran­sition is better.”

Ostensibly, the leadership succes­sion has little to do with the presi­dency. When it comes, the choice of a new leader lies with the Assembly of Experts, 88 clerics elected in Feb­ruary 2016.

In 1989, the assembly took two days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death to choose Khame­nei, with matters discreetly orches­trated by Rafsanjani, then parlia­mentary speaker and chairman of the Expediency Council, and pre­sumably by Khamenei himself, who was president and remained so for two months after becoming leader.

The constitution stipulates a new leader should be chosen in “the shortest possible time.” In the inter­regnum, the leader’s considerable powers pass to a council of three: The president, the head of the judi­ciary and a member of the Experts Assembly chosen by the Expedien­cy Council chair, currently Khame­nei’s ally Ayatollah Mohammad Movahedi-Kermani.

Should the succession occur with Rohani as president, two of these three (Rohani and Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief and a likely lead­ership contender) would probably not support Raeisi as leader.

But with Raeisi as president, two of the three — Raeisi and Movahedi- Kermani’s nominee — would prob­ably support Raeisi.

Khamenei’s biggest concern about the next president might then be the transition to a new supreme leader.

There has been speculation for years over Khamenei’s health and publicity around his prostate sur­gery in 2014 and his evident frail­ness have reminded Iranians of his mortality. Perhaps the shadowy contest to succeed him will shape the 2017 presidential election.

Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

Erdogan urges world to recognise Jerusalem as Palestinian capital

Saudi, UAE seeks to help West Africa fight terrorism

US skeptical about Putin's declaration of military victory in Syria

Saudi King says determined to confront corruption

Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

Israel intelligence minister invites Saudi prince to visit

Saudi-led strikes kill 30 in rebel-run Yemen prison

Saudi king says Palestinians have 'right' to Jerusalem

South Sudan needs $1.7 billion humanitarian aid in 2018

UAE oil giant floats 10 percent of retail arm to strong interest

Growing concern about rise of far-right in Austria

Israeli sentenced to four years for arson attack on church

Erdogan risks sabotaging fragile relations with Israel

6.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iran

Two Gazans killed by Israeli ‘strike’, Israel denies claim

French FM accuses Iran of carving out ‘axis’ of influence

Somali journalist killed in front of children

Over 170 dead after South Sudan rival cattle herders clash

Russia begins partial withdrawal from Syria

Russia weary of returning IS jihadists before World Cup, election

EU accused of complicity in Libya migrant rights violations

Pentagon skeptical about Russia's Syria pullout claims

EU says Syria war ‘ongoing’ despite Russia pullout

Istanbul nightclub gunman refuses to testify

Integrating Syrians in Turkey carries implications

US opinion views Muslims and Arabs more favourably but political affiliation makes a difference

Iranian conservative protesters say Trump hastening end of Israel

Senior Saudi prince blasts Trump's "opportunistic" Jerusalem move

Kuwait ruler’s son named defence minister

Jordan referred to UN for failing to arrest Sudanese president

Turkey demands life for journalists in coup bid trial

Netanyahu expects EU to follow suit on Jerusalem

Putin orders withdrawal of ‘significant’ amount of troops from Syria

Putin to meet with Sisi in Cairo

GCC at a critical juncture

Houthi rebels tighten grip on Sanaa after Saleh’s assassination

Israel’s Syrian air strikes risk renewing escalation as Iran expands presence in Golan

Qatar to acquire 24 Typhoon fighters from UK

Bahraini civil society group criticised after Israel visit

Israel PM faces renewed pressure in Europe

Palestinian stabs Israeli guard in ‘terrorist’ attack

UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed says US Jerusalem decision could help terrorists

Fateh encourages more protests, refuses to meet Pence

Chinese electric carmaker to open Morocco factory

Iraqi victory over IS remains fragile