Influential former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has drawn sharp criticism from Iran's ruling establishment after he filed a last-minute application for candidacy in the country’s June 14 presidential election.
After months of speculation, Rafsanjani signed up at the end of a five-day registration period on May 11, stunning rivals who had written off the 78-year-old moderate.
Iran’s state-run media and hard-liners close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to his potential political comeback with ridicule and a volley of accusations.
Mehdi Taeb, a conservative cleric linked with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying, “Hashemi knows he is unpopular, a loser, and is too old.”
Meanwhile, the ultra-hard-line "Kayhan" daily accused Rafsanjani of covertly planning to discredit the Guardians Council, which is responsible for vetting potential candidates, if the body does not allow him to run.
'Candidate For The Dissatisfied'
Rafsanjani, who is considered a moderate conservative, has earned a reputation as a cunning political survivor. On the one hand, he was one of the founding members of Iran’s clerical regime and retains a top post inside the theocracy. But on the other, he has incurred the wrath of hard-liners by declaring that Iran is in a state of crisis and calling for the immediate release of political prisoners.
Scott Lucas, an Iran-specialist at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom and editor of the EA World View website, says Rafsanjani is trying to cast himself as an experienced political figure that can unify the country and deal with Iran’s immediate problems -- including the country's faltering economy and Western pressure to halt its controversial nuclear program.
“Rafsanjani becomes almost a candidate for the dissatisfied," Lucas says, "for his own supporters, who are dissatisfied from 2005 [when he lost to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] but also for a number of moderate conservatives who have been dissatisfied with the Ahmadinejad government and the reformists, and even some from [the opposition] Green Movement who have been dissatisfied with what they have seen as the repression of the system since 2009.”
Lucas says Rafsanjani’s policies -- including economic liberalization, better relations with the West, and empowering Iran’s elected bodies -- will make him an attractive candidate to many Iranian voters.
In one of his first statements since joining the presidential race, Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989-97, said on May 12 that he will be seeking a new “economic and political” rebirth in a time of “foreign threats and sanctions.”
Lone Reformist Hope?
Rafsanjani’s calls for change make him a potentially attractive choice for the country’s reformists, who have been increasingly marginalized since Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009, which provoked mass popular protests and a harsh government crackdown.
Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami recently called Rafsanjani’s candidacy a “national opportunity” and urged reformists and moderates to unite behind him.
Lucas says Rafsanjani’s candidacy has raised a tough challenge to conservative candidates loyal to the supreme leader who wanted to secure a swift victory and showcase unity.
"The whole argument of the establishment, or at least the supreme leader’s inner circle, was that they wanted a very straight-forward election with a clearly defined candidate who would almost be anointed in June," Lucas says. "Because they couldn’t find that candidate, that opened up the space for Rafsanjani to put himself forward. At this point, I think he’s the leading candidate in terms of being able to mobilize a popular support. He may be the only candidate that can do that."
His candidacy punctuates a stunning political turn of events for the septuagenarian Rafsanjani. He has been under fire from hard-liners and the supreme leader ever since 2009, when he denounced the government’s harsh crackdown on protesters.
Rocky Recent Road
In the past four years, Rafsanjani has been banned from leading Tehran’s Friday Prayers, lost his role as the head of the Assembly of Experts, and been physically and verbally assaulted at public events.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani’s daughter served a six-month sentence in connection with the chaos that ensued after the election, while his son is to stand trial in the coming weeks for his alleged role in the protests.
But Rafsanjani did manage to keep his post as head of the Expediency Council, an advisory body that mediates disputes between the parliament and the Guardians Council.
Despite his return to the political limelight, there is no guarantee Rafsanjani will even make the final candidate shortlist that will be determined by the powerful 12-member Guardians Council. That list, which will include only a handful of candidates, is set to be announced by May 21.
Lucas says the council, which is heavily influenced by the supreme leader, will be making a dangerous mistake if it chooses to deny Rafsanjani the right to run for office.
“The problem is that you almost destroy the image of the legitimacy of the election if you don’t let [Rafsanjani] run," Lucas says. "Legitimacy is very important here, especially after 2009. Secondly, at this point they don’t have a clear popular alternative to Rafsanjani. So, if you disqualify him, who do you ask people to go to and flock to in terms of an alternative?”