The surprise decision by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to enter Iran’s presidential race poses a challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s plans to bring a loyalist to power, analysts say.
The June 14 vote, the first since the disputed 2009 reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad which led to mass protests, was expected to be mainly a competition between conservative politicians from Khamenei’s camp, the so-called "principlists."
But as New York-based Iranian journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi notes, by entering the race Rafsanjani -- who is at odds with Khamenei over his criticism of the 2009 postelection crackdown -- has disrupted the establishment's plans.
“[Rafsanjani’s candidacy] secures to a great extent Khamenei’s goal for a high participation," Mirebrahimi says, "but it creates problems for his plan to have a peaceful vote that would bring to power an obedient president. Rafsanjani’s decision brings back to the scene a large part of the forces that the establishment was trying to eliminate."
Instead of competing against each other, analysts say, the Khamenei loyalists might now seek to unite behind one candidate in a bid to prevent Rafsanjani's return to the presidency.
Among the most prominent loyalists to Khamenei are Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; former Foreign Minister and current Khamenei adviser Ali Akbar Velayati; former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel -- together known as the Coalition of Three; and Said Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Emad Hosseini, a former conservative lawmaker, was quoted by the Fararu website as saying that the result of the election will be decided by the candidate the principlists choose to support.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
He suggested Qalibaf is a likely choice, saying, "The polls show that Qalibaf is ahead of others by a significant margin.”
Another conservative political observer, Hossein Kanani Moghadam, said that the vote is likely to go to a second round, which he speculated would be a runoff between Rafsanjani and Qalibaf.
“In the second round, Rafsanjani and a candidate from the principlists will compete against each other," Moghadam says. "I think Qalibaf is the only person who can get votes against Rafsanjani.”
However, Mirebrahimi believes that Jalili is likely to be the establishment’s final candidate.
“Before the registrations, I believed that Ali Akbar Velayati would be the favorite candidate of the leader's camp," he says. "But things changed after the last day of the registrations, including the fact that I don’t think Velayati can compete against Rafsanjani or be the representative of the movement against him because in 2005 he dropped out of the presidential race in favor of Rafsanjani, and for years he’s believed to have been close to him. Therefore, I think Velayati will leave the race. Khamenei’s camp is likely to reach a consensus on Said Jalili.”
Haddad Adel, one of the Coalition of Three, himself indicated as much on May 12 when he was quoted as saying that the group may support Jalili for the June vote.
Like Rafsanjani, Jalili registered for the race in the final minutes of the five-day registration period. Jalili, who is reportedly trusted by Khamenei, is criticized by some for a lack of experience in state affairs.
Former conservative lawmaker Hosseini described the 47-year-old Jalili as a "positive force" who has proved himself in the nuclear negotiations.
But he added: “His ability in the economic sector is unclear and we don’t see any work in the economic or cultural sector in his past record.”
But Mirebrahimi says if the establishment decides to throw its weight behind Jalili, then economic experience would not be a must.
"Ahmadinejad also didn’t have much experience when he came to power," Mirebrahimi says. "He was Tehran’s mayor and he was largely unknown. But he presented a current that Khamenei supported. Therefore, I don’t think it really matters in the Islamic republic who has the most experience. What matters is to what degree that person can enforce Khamenei’s orders. Currently, Jalili is the representative of Khamenei's [policy] of resistance in the nuclear issue."
Approval By Guardians Council
To be sure, some analysts in the Iranian media have speculated that Rafsanjani’s main rival could be someone else entirely -- Ahmadinejad’s right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Mashaei also surprised many by joining the race at the last minute. But given the hard-liners' dislike for him, some believe it is unlikely that he will be allowed to run.
To make it to the final list of candidates, presidential hopefuls still need the approval of the Guardians Council.
The hard-line oversight body is due to announce its decision next week on the 686 individuals, including more than 30 public figures, who have registered to be presidential candidates.