The Iranian reformist newspaper Mardomsalari nailed it: “These June 17 [presidential] elections are the most important since the beginning of the Islamic republic in 1979. Iranians have the choice of handing victory to former president Ali Akbar Heshemi Rafsanjani, vote for a reformist candidate to pursue the reforms, or allow conservative radicals to take power in all branches of government.”

The Iranian election campaign started this week amid major turmoil after the unelected, conservative Guardians Council rejected all but six out of more than 1,000 presidential hopefuls.

The Guardians Council, composed of six ayatollahs and six lawyers, was conceived by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – leader of the Islamic revolution – to supposedly represent the best interests of Iranian public opinion and the constitution. This past weekend the council vetoed all but one reformist candidate, as well as 89 women candidates. The official reason: “Non-respect of Islamic values.” The six candidates approved included the favorite, Rafsanjani, a centrist; mild reformer Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary spokesman; and four conservatives (a former chief of police, a former commander of the Guardians of the Revolution, the mayor of Tehran and a former head of the national radio and TV network).

The reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, whose main candidate was vetoed, immediately threatened to boycott the election. The Guardians Council did the same thing in early 2004, disqualifying more than 2,000 candidates from legislative elections. A widespread election boycott led to conservative control of the majlis (parliament). Voting participation in the February 2004 elections was only 50.57% – the lowest in the country’s history.

This week, though, came a bomb – or the system trying to save itself. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a decree to Guardians Council leader Ayatollah Ahmad Janati asking him to review the decision to disqualify popular reformist Mostafa Moin, a former higher education minister, and Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh. Moin is in the center of the furor. He is the leading candidate of the reformists, running for the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest pro-reform political party, led by Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, who is barred from serving a third term. The Supreme Leader and the conservative ayatollahs around him sensed they might be defeated by a powerful weapon: absenteeism. Americans may consider a president chosen by roughly half the electorate as a legitimate one. Not the Iranians.


The importance of these elections cannot be overstated. They mix with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called EU-3, the foreign ministers of European Union members France, Britain and Germany; Washington’s impatience to drag Iran’s regime to the United Nations Security Council so it can be slapped with sanctions; and insistent rumors of an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Rafsanjani is in favor of an “accommodation” with the US, but he is no favorite with Washington’s hawks.

Among the candidates, accepted or rejected, Moin is the only one in favor of continued suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran, so a political/economic agreement can be reached with the EU-3. Iran’s top negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, and the EU-3 ministers are back at the negotiating table for emergency talks this Tuesday in Brussels and this Wednesday in Geneva. If the talks fail, Tehran has warned it will restart uranium reprocessing – which it is entitled to anyway in terms of its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rights.

Although Rafsanjani departs with an early lead, polls in Tehran suggest none of the candidates will get more than 50% of the vote, and thus preclude a run-off between the top two. Departing president Khatami, the man who coined the “dialogue among civilizations,” tried everything in his two consecutive four-year terms to reform the system. But he was ultimately defeated: his two crucial bills to increase presidential powers were repelled by the conservatives.

Safa Haeri of the Paris-based Iranian Press Service (and contributor to Asia Times Online) confirms that “except for personal interference by Khamenei in favor of a certain candidate, namely Ali Larijani, now the leader’s personal representative at the Supreme Council for National Security, Rafsanjani, the chairman of the influential and powerful Expediency Council, is likely to reoccupy the seat he held from 1989 to 1997, if not in the first round, but certainly in the second tour of balloting.” As chairman of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani is already the de facto No 2 in Iran. The council was established by Khomeini in 1988 to mediate between parliament and the Guardians Council. Above it there’s only Supreme Leader Khamenei.

As far as the elections are concerned, polarization is the name of the game. The online opposition paper IranEmrooz, edited by Iranian exiles in Germany, denounces “Islamists trying to legitimate their presence by … ritual elections that are everything but democratic.” Another newspaper close to the reformists says that “in a democratic system, it makes no sense that the Guardians Council may disqualify this or that candidate.” On the other side of the fence, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh recently said that “thanks to the Imam [Khomeini], Iran could progress economically and become independent from foreign powers.” Jomhouri Islami, a newspaper close to the clerics, insists that to vote “is a religious obligation.” Independent newspaper Shargh gets closer to the mark than anyone: “The government must not prepare itself for a sweeping conservative victory, but most of all for massive abstention.” It’s fair to argue that the ayatollahs gave post-Shah Iran two major assets – education for all and elections. All Iranians have been to school, so they are able to judge things for themselves, much more than under the Shah. As for elections, the ayatollahs had to notice that they were not able to have a democracy by remote control. Khatami’s first victory in 1997 led to a double-headed structure of power: theocracy meets democracy.

Khatami’s reforms may have ultimately failed – critics say the system is anti-democratic and impervious to any improvement – but Iranians at the same time discovered the power of absenteeism. Today, the majority of the population – young, less than 25 years old, and having lived all their lives under the ayatollahs – wants total separation of Shi’ite religion and the state. Moreover, in this last quarter of a century, Iran has lost half of its gross national product, due not only to the endless Iran-Iraq war that raged for nearly a decade in the 1980s, but to the predominance of a bureaucracy preventing the flourishing of foreign trade.

Iranian society is arguably the most dynamic, the most advanced and the most critical in the Muslim world – light years ahead of the youth in the Arab world or in Pakistan, for instance. There is a cultural revolution going on in Iran – against theocracy. The die is cast, and if reformers like Moin are not in the ballot, these elections could yet represent the triumph of civil disobedience.