Leader remains supreme

The farce called Iran's presidential election will be contested by four principal contenders, writes Yassamine Mather

Many western governments are pinning their hopes on the election in Iran of a more ‘moderate’ president and the US has delayed any negotiations until after the June 12 poll. Barack Obama, speaking on May 18, said he expected international talks with Iran - which would involve six countries, including the United States - to begin shortly after the elections.

Inside Iran, however, there seems to be little enthusiasm for this farce beyond the ruling circles. Most Iranians are well aware that the president, like all other ‘elected officials’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran, wields limited power. Iran’s supreme religious leader - currently ayatollah Ali Khamenei - is not just a figurehead, but the head of state and ‘guardian of the nation’.

The Iranian constitution calls for the Council of Guardians to be composed of six Islamic jurists “conscious of the present needs and the issues of the day” to be appointed by the supreme leader of Iran, and another six jurists “specialising in different areas of law, to be elected by the majlis [parliament] from among the Muslim jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial Power”, who, in turn, is also appointed by the supreme leader.1

The preamble to the constitution is clear about the authority of the religious leader, the faqih. According to article 5, “The faqih is the just and pious jurist who is recognised by the majority of the people at any period as best qualified to lead the nation.” Articles 108 to 112 specify his qualifications and duties. The duties include making numerous appointments: jurists to the Council of Guardians; the chief judges of the judicial branch; the chief of staff of the armed forces; the commander of the Pasdaran (Islamic Revolutionary Guards); his personal representatives on the supreme defence council; and the commanders of the army, air force and navy, following their nomination by the supreme defence council. The faqih is also authorised to approve candidates for presidential elections. In addition, he is empowered to dismiss the president.2

If all this were not enough, the supreme leader often expresses his opinion about every aspect of the social, political and economic affairs of the country. During presidential and parliamentary elections he regularly declares his preferences, dismissing candidates and promoting his favourites. Modesty becomes our supreme leader - and he has chosen the appropriate name for his office’s website: www.leader.ir (‘ir’ being the web suffix for Iran).

So let us be clear: contrary to the claims of the apologists of the Islamic Republic, a country where an unelected cleric monopolises executive, judicial and military power cannot be considered democratic by any stretch of imagination, and the forthcoming presidential elections are no more than a diversion, a hoax - indeed a mockery of an electoral process. Most Iranians will treat the whole thing with the contempt it deserves. However, as the British and world media will spend a lot of time and effort on this issue, it is necessary to deconstruct the electoral process and the candidates.

Every four years Iran goes through the process of electing a president. Although some women registered as candidates in the 2001 and 2005 presidential elections, they were later barred from running in the final contest - the constitution is clear that the president is chosen from “men” (the Arabic word rajol is used).

The unelected Council of Guardians has the role of ‘interpreting’ the constitution - including the gender of rajol! In the past it claimed that the absence of female candidates was due to their failure to meet minimum “standards”. It has been pointed out that these standards must be pretty low - after all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was accepted as a candidate! There is speculation that this time the Council of Guardians might approve the candidacy of a rightwing conservative woman, Rafat Bayat. Of course, even if this happens, one can be sure that she is not going to be elected. Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher came to power, Iran’s rightwing clerics will show that they are rather less versatile than that bastion of British reactionary politics, the Conservative Party.

The four major candidates are Ahmadinejad, the incumbent; Mehdi Karroubi, a former Islamic majles speaker; Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during the 1980s; and Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Previous presidential campaigns have yielded surprise results, precisely because in the structures of the religious state the presidency is not that significant. In previous elections neither Mohammed Khatami nor Ahmadinejad were considered front runners beforehand.

Mir Hossein Mousavi

Mousavi is supposed to be the best placed candidate for the ‘reformist’ wing of the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khatami, the last ‘reformist’ president, withdrew from the elections in his favour.

Mousavi is a painter and architect who served as the fifth and last prime minister of Iran from 1981 until 1989, when the post was abolished. He is apparently in favour of the ‘free flow of information’ and is well ahead of other candidates in using ‘modern’ election tactics. He appeared with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, holding hands at the election registration commission’s offices.

However, before anyone gets too excited about the prospect of a Mousavi presidency, it is worth remembering that he was prime minister during the worst period of repression when thousands of socialists and communists were slaughtered, between 1981 and 1988. It is therefore ironic that the man many look forward to putting on trial for the mass execution of communist political prisoners has chosen a Fedayeen song, Zemestoun, for his election campaign. Even some of the apologists of the regime agree that this a rather unfortunate choice. Mousavi’s campaign colour is Islamic green!

Ayatollah Karroubi

Mehdi Karroubi, leader of the ‘reformist’ National Confidence Party, is a former speaker of the Iranian parliament and the only cleric amongst the front runners, whose slogan is the rather unoriginal ‘Change’.

Like Mousavi, he criticises Ahmadinejad for ‘damaging the country’s relations with the international community’, and his priority is ‘reducing tension with the west’, but, unlike Mousavi, he is not seeking support from the ‘principlist’ conservatives. He was the conservative faction’s main candidate in 2005 and speaker of the majles during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. His main supporters include Ata’ollah Mohajerani, who was minister of culture and Islamic guidance during Khatami’s first term.

There is a lot of hype about the ‘reformist era’. For most Iranians, however, ‘reforms’ centred around subordinating the country to the stringent economic measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. As Darya Homan pointed out last week, “During this period of ‘liberalisation’, political writers such as Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhatari were brutally murdered - their bodies were later found in Tehran’s suburbs.”3

Karroubi is quoted as saying: “Ahmadinejad’s claim that the holocaust never took place has offered considerable service to Israel. Such comments only serve to antagonise the west and help the rest of the world to support the Israeli regime”4

Commander Mohsen Rezai

Just to make sure the military are not forgotten in this election, a former commander of the fascist Islamic Revolutionary Guards is also standing as a presidential candidate.

For 17 years he was chief commander of this militia and is currently the secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran. Some believe his nomination serves only one purpose: to remind Iranians that they could get a president even more rightwing than Ahmadinejad. Rezai is currently on Interpol’s official ‘wanted’ list for “crimes against life and health, hooliganism, vandalism and damage” related to the current human rights situation in Iran and a 1994 bombing in Argentina. In November 2006, an international warrant was issued for the arrest of Rezai in connection with the July 18 1994 suicide bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, when 85 people were killed.5

However, even this conservative agrees with the general consensus that Ahmadinejad’s presidency has been a ‘disaster for Iran’. He accuses the current president of pushing the Islamic republic to the edge of a “precipice”.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Last but not least, there is Ahmadinejad himself. He is considered the favourite, not because of his popularity - most people agree that he has been a disaster in all spheres, failing to fulfil every single one of his 2005 election promises. He is denying he ever made some of them, prompting websites and newspapers associated with the reformist faction to make available audio and video quotes from four years ago.

However, Ahmadinejad, the last of the four to announce his candidacy, has a major ally - not just in the shape of the 12th Shia Imam (the one who disappeared down a well a few centuries ago), but in a contemporary self-appointed imam, the faqih. Ayatollah Khamenei has used every opportunity to support the current president and attack his opponents.

On May 14, the supreme leader said that blaming Ahmadinejad for unsuccessful policy, particularly in the economic sphere, was “unfair”. Referring to the president, he said: “We should elect someone who lives in a simple and modest way ... who is pained by the suffering of his people.”

Then on May 18, concerned that sections of the conservative ‘principlists’ have declared their support for Moussavi, Khamenei urged the Iranian people not to elect a candidate who might adopt a pro-west stance: “Be careful in your choice. Do not allow those who come into office through the people’s votes to surrender to our enemies and make the nation lose its dignity ... it would be a catastrophe for Iran if a candidate who thinks about endearing himself to some western or international arrogant power is elected next month.” Iranians should not vote for those who would want to “flatter the bullying western powers in order to gain a position in the international arena.”6

The world is now familiar with Ahmadinejad’s holocaust-denying statements. However, more worrying is the consensus amongst the other candidates that political capital should not be made of Ahmadinejad’s blunders. According to Rezai, “The holocaust was a historic question which should be left out of the political lexicon. Denying or proving it has nothing do with us”; while in Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s view “The holocaust is not Iran’s issue.”

In other words, they might share Ahmadinejad’s racist views, but do not want to talk about such a sensitive issue.


Over the last few weeks the Ahmadinejad government has distributed free potatoes in different cities. This has coincided with the arrival of the president for “visits unrelated to the elections”.

Several politicians have criticised Ahmadinejad for wasting public money on blatant electioneering. Iranian officials say there was an excess of potatoes and the government did not want to see them go to waste. Several bloggers have referred to “Potatogate” and cartoonist Nik Ahang has depicted the incident with the caption, “Potatoes say to Ahmadinejad: we support you.”

As well as bribery, various other manipulative measures have been taken. For example, the pro-reformist newspaper Yas-e Now was shut down only a day after it had reappeared. The move came as Saeed Mortazavi, prosecutor general, announced he had ordered the ban pending an appeal against the decision to allow the paper to be published after its banning for six years. The single issue of Yas-e Now that saw the light of day featured the lead headline, “Khatami, Mousavi for Iran”.

But never mind - now Iranians have a new publication they can buy. Less than a month before the elections, Moussavi has launched his own newspaper, Kalameh Sabz (‘Green Word’). No-one expects it to last much longer.

However, the supreme leader is well known for his pragmatism (some would say opportunism) and if all else fails and he decides that Ahmadinejad has lost too much ground amongst the principlist conservatives, it will not be beyond him to change his public statements and switch his support to whoever is the most likely ‘stop Ahmadinejad’ candidate.

But Khamenei is confident that, irrespective of the election results, no significant change in Iran’s domestic or foreign policy can come about unless it is agreed by him and by the Council of Guardians under his control.

None of this will stop leftwing apologists for this repressive, reactionary regime to claim that Iran’s 10th presidential election is proof of its blossoming democracy.


1. mellat.majlis.ir/constitution/english.htm
2. Ibid.
3. ‘Reformists no alternative’, May 14.
4. Etemad- e-Melli May 17.
5. The Interpol press release is at www.interpol.int/Public/ICPO/PressReleases/PR2007/PR200754.asp
6. Agence France Presse, May 19.