The courageous decision of former President (89-97) and current Chairman of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (78), to enter the presidential race in Iran after very public and well-covered deliberations, once again gives rise to hope for a real change both to Iranians and to the West. In Iran, Rafsanjani who called for the release of those arrested during the protests following the “rigged” presidential elections in June 2009 and lost his position as Friday prayer leader is viewed as the person who can bring about the desired change and get the Revolution back on track. In the West, Rafsanjani (“…the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything”) is seen as a moderate and pragmatic leader, with a well-conceived and considered economic plan, and a person with whom the West can reach agreements.
Rafsanjani’s decision to enter the race is dramatic in the Iranian context. It is reasonable to assume that other candidates who registered and are seen as part of the reformist camp will withdraw their candidacies and pave the way for Rafsanjani (if he is approved by the Guardian Council, the body charged with vetting the candidates and assessing their compliance with the strict conditions of the Islamic Republic and particularly their belief in the guiding principle of Velayat-e faqih - Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist).
There are many in the IRGC elite and among those close to the Supreme Leader who oppose the approval of Rafsanjani. What remains unclear is the extent to which Rafsanjani’s move was approved by the Supreme Leader. Even prior to the announcement that he had joined the race and immediately thereafter, several high-ranking officials in the IRGC said that Rafsanjani had participated in the fitna and sedition (support of the Green Movement activists) following the June 2009 presidential elections and is therefore unfit to be a presidential candidate. Keyhan, affiliated with the Supreme Leader, has similarly criticized Rafsanjani and other senior reformist leaders in recent weeks.
Disqualification of Rafsanjani by the Guardian Council might foment a wave of protests throughout Iran, as he has strong support among the middle class and in the cities as well as among Bazaar merchants (despite the suspicions that he and his family are tainted by corruption). His status in recent years, however, has waned due to the growing strength of the IRGC and its having taken over control of many aspects of the Iranian economy at the expense of the private sector.
Most of the candidates will be disqualified by the Guardian Council, which has 5 days (from the day registration closes) and an additional five days, if they require more time. Hundreds of the over 600 candidates, including 30 women, will be disqualified. Those who remain, however, and particularly Rafsanjani and to a lesser extent Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (Ahmadinejad’s close ally) may prove to pose a real challenge to the current Iranian regime, even during the Guardian Council’s vetting process, given the accusations that have been leveled against them in recent months, namely that they were part of the fitna and sedition.
Rafsanjani currently has an advantage he did not have in his previous attempt to run for president. He now has the support of the reformists (including the support of Mohammad Khatami), part of the traditional religious establishment in Qom that was pushed aside during Ahmadinejad’s terms of office (Ahmadinejad, together with Mashaei, tried to give revolutionary Iran a more nationalist veneer and was vociferously attacked for doing so), the middle class and the business/bazaar sector. The principlists and the hardline principlists have, thus far, not been able to rally around a single candidate. It seems that at the end of the day, the latter will support the candidacy of Saeed Jalili, nuclear negotiator and the Supreme Leader’s representative to the SNSC, or Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor on International Affairs to the Supreme Leader and a former foreign minister (1981-1997), including in Rafsanjani’s previous government. Rafsanjani’s candidacy has complicated matters for the principlists and is forcing them run a “strong” and prominent candidate against him.
In the time left before the elections and at the most important juncture the Iranian Revolution has faced to date (following the Iran-Iraq War), the Iranian people are faced with yet another decision (assuming that this time there will be no fake or invalid votes in the election). Ahmadinejad has placed Iran on a collision course with the West, from which there appears to be no reprieve. The question the Iranian electorate will be asking itself and which will be at the center of the campaigns of all candidates approved by the Guardian Council is who is capable of preventing the head-on collision with the West and getting the Revolution back on track. Rafsanjani is definitely a possibility, but so is Jalili.