Iran election may be pointer to race for supreme leader
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.