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Prospective Presidential Candidates To Register In Iran

Who is likely to replace President Khatami? Registration of prospective candidates for Iran's next presidential election is scheduled to begin on 10 May and continue for five days. The Interior Ministry will forward this information to the Guardians Council, which will screen the applications until 24 May. Individuals whose candidacies are accepted can campaign from 27 May until 24 hours before election day on 17 June.

Iran's next president will play a key role in shaping that country's domestic political climate as well as its relationship with the rest of the world. Will incumbent Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's successor be a conservative isolationist? A conservative who favors some liberalization of foreign policy while loosening the social reins? Or will the next president be a reformer eager to ease social restrictions and accelerate Iranian involvement with the rest of the world?

An applicant's biggest initial hurdle is the Guardians Council. It accepted just four of the more than 200 applicants in 1997, and in 2001 it accepted 10 of 814 registrants.

According to Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution, a presidential candidate must be of Iranian origin and have Iranian nationality, must be a resourceful administrator, must have a good record, must be trustworthy and pious, and must believe in the Islamic Republic's system and its fundamental principles. A more controversial aspect of the article on presidential qualifications is its assertion that the president must be a religious-political individual (rejal-i mazhabi-siasi). This vague clause leads to questions of whether or not the president should be a clergyman and also leaves it unclear as to whether or not a woman may serve as president.

The most controversial candidate is arguably Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who has yet to confirm his intention to run. The 70-year-old Hashemi-Rafsanjani was born to a pistachio-farming family in the village of Bahraman, and while studying in Qom he developed a close relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hashemi-Rafsanjani has served in most of the Islamic Republic's top jobs. He was the parliamentary speaker and then the president (1989-97). He currently chairs the Expediency Council, which has powerful oversight authority over legislation, and is deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly opposes a new Hashemi-Rafsanjani bid for the presidency.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani hinted in a recent interview with "USA Today" that he could restore Iran-U.S. relations, but in interviews with Iranian media he has been highly critical of the United States ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 February 2005). In the 1980s, he advocated Iran's use of weapons of mass destruction, although he has since modified his comments on the issue and now says Iran has a right to use nuclear energy peacefully. He defends Iran's support for the Lebanese Hizballah and similar organizations, is hostile to Israel, and backs "martyrdom operations" (suicide bombings) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

According to a more recent report quoting an anonymous source close to Hashemi-Rafsanjani, he has a plan for restoring relations with the United States ("Al-Sharq Al-Awsat," 3 May). He also is said to have plans to support the Arab-Israeli peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz. Hashemi-Rafsanjani reportedly intends to pursue President Khatami's reforms, which encountered opposition from entrenched conservative elements, and he reportedly wants to eliminate the system of Vilayat-i Faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent).

Furthermore, Hashemi-Rafsanjani purportedly wants to cooperate with the heretofore-shunned nationalist-religious forces in an effort to counter "an internal coup by some [Islamic Revolution Guards Corps] generals, radical commanders in the intelligence apparatus, and the religious seminary in Qom." Hashemi-Rafsanjani allegedly was prompted to act when he learned of a plan to destroy the centrist Executives of Construction Party -- which has voiced support for his presidential bid -- as well as reformist leaders, and his extended family.

The Reformers

There are two prospective candidates backed by the reformist mainstream: Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi and Mustafa Moin. Karrubi was born in 1937 in Aligudarz, Luristan Province. He is currently a member of the Expediency Council and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Karrubi was parliamentary speaker from 1990-92 and again from 2000-04. He also has headed the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyr's Foundation. Karrubi is a founding member of the Militant Clerics Association and is currently its secretary-general. Discussing the possibility of relations with the United States, he said: "We can enjoy relations with all countries of the world, apart from Israel, of course" ("Aftab-i Yazd," 21 April 2005). He continued: "With regards to America, I must say that the American statesmen should stop their current ways of interaction and approach vis-a-vis Iran. If this happens, then I will not be opposed to relations with America."

Moin was born in 1951 in Najafabad, Isfahan Province, and holds a doctorate in medicine. He served as chancellor of Shiraz University from 1981-82 and has served on the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council since 1983. Moin has served a number of terms in the parliament (1982-84, 1988-89, and 1997-2001). He was the culture and higher education minister from 1989-93 and served as higher education minister from 1997-2003. His candidacy is backed by the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization.

Asked about his stance on relations with Washington, Moin said he advocates dialogue with the world and the United States is a member of that community ("Sharq," 10 March 2005). "We consider our national interests as the main basis, and we can have interactions with America as equals, and without any imposed preconditions, and while safeguarding our national rights and power," Moin said. He added that the United States must apologize to Iran and then offer compensation for "the moral, spiritual, and material damage they have inflicted on us."

Other prospective reformist candidates are Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, Mustafa Kavakebian, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh. Asqarzadeh was one of the students who stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Currently the head of the Solidarity Party, Asqarzadeh announced on 22 April that he intends to be a candidate and expressed concern about public apathy and silence, as well as the appearance of "widespread militaristic ideas," ILNA reported. "I wouldn't have entered a situation that I clearly know its outcome, were I not alarmed by the participation of military men and those in jackboots [in the presidential race]," Asqarzadeh said. "My motive for speaking to you and announcing my candidacy does not stem from my desire for power, but it is due to my concern for the current dangerous situation." Asqarzadeh said boycotting elections is pointless.

Asqarzadeh's recent efforts to secure elected office have been largely unsuccessful. The Guardians Council rejected him as a candidate for the 1998 Assembly of Experts election, the 2001 presidential election, and the 2004 parliamentary elections. He was elected to the Tehran municipal council in 1999, but the Guardians Council does not vet candidates in council elections.

Democracy Party Secretary-General Kavakebian has suggested that nepotism is rife in the country's leadership and that senior posts should be opened to outsiders such as himself. "I, as a little man among the nation's children, intend to propound the new discourse, meaning that the elite have been kept outside the bounds of power for 26 years and feel compassion for the system [and] should find their place within the ranks of those in power," Kavakebian said recently ("Mardom Salari," 12 March 2005). Kavakebian said the country's senior leaders come from a group of just 2,700 people, and he noted that some officials have seven or eight different positions. Kavakebian said the government is inefficient because many of those in positions of power get there through "nepotism, cliques, and windfall-seeking." He said Iran has not fully realized "all aspects of religious government and Islamic values."

Mehralizadeh was born in Maragheh, East Azerbaijan Province, in 1956, and he holds a doctorate in economics. He was a founder of the Construction Jihad and in 1979-81 served as a regional commander in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. Mehralizadeh served within the Ministry of Heavy Industries from 1985-90, was managing director of the Kish Island Development Organization from 1990-92, deputy for power plants at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1993-95, and served as managing director of the Shahed Investment Company from 1995-97. Mehralizadeh was governor-general of Khorasan Province from 1997-2001, and he has served as vice president and head of the national Physical Education Organization since 2001.

Mehralizadeh's spokesman said on 26 April that the former has decided to be a candidate and will begin campaigning soon (IRNA, 26 April 2005). He had said months earlier that he would withdraw from the race only if the reformists settle on a joint candidate ("Farhang-i Ashti," 10 January 2005).

The Conservatives

There are several prospective conservative candidates, a development that reflects age-based and ideological divisions among this group.

The Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces named Ali Larijani as its candidate in April, and parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the coordination council hopes to discourage Hashemi-Rafsanjani from seeking the presidency ("Sharq," 28 April 2005). Larijani headed Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting from 1994-2004, and he also has served as minister of Islamic culture and guidance, and as an official in the Islamic Revolution Guards Ministry. He currently serves as the supreme leader's representative to the Supreme National Security Council. His father was a prominent apolitical cleric, and his brothers are politically active.

Larijani said on 31 March that he believes the United States wants to reopen its embassy in Tehran and that Iran should be careful, Fars News Agency reported. "America's threats are serious, though its war-mongering language is not real," he said in an earlier speech (ISNA, 26 March 2005). "They want to weaken the Iranian government and wish to influence the will of the nation and our officials, so that we ourselves would satisfy their needs." In a 9 March speech in Kashan, Larijani argued that "making any concession on nuclear technology is tantamount to the biggest treason," Fars News Agency reported. He previously dismissed an Iran-EU agreement on the suspension of uranium enrichment as amounting to the exchange of a "pearl" for a "bonbon."

Many of the more traditional conservatives back Ali Akbar Velayati, who was born in Tehran in 1945. Velayati is a physician who was foreign minister from 1981-97 and currently serves as an adviser to the supreme leader. He also is a member of the Expediency Council. Velayati has pledged to withdraw from the race if Hashemi-Rafsanjani enters the field. In 1997, a German court found Velayati, Supreme Leader Khamenei, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Intelligence and Security Minister Ali-Akbar Fallahian guilty for their roles in the 1992 assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Germany. Referring to that case -- as well as to the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar -- in a 2005 interview, Velayati blamed unnamed parties who were trying to damage Iran-Europe relations ("Etemad," 1 May 2005). With respect to current Tehran-London relations, he said, "Britain's role in the European Union is mainly as America's agent."

Younger conservatives are divided among their preferred potential candidates: Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Mohsen Rezai.

Ahmadi-Nejad became mayor of Tehran in April 2003. Ahmadi-Nejad is widely regarded as "unassuming and simple," as well as straight talking -- perceptions that have made him popular ("Sharq," 8 June 2004). Ahmadi-Nejad's political activism commenced shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution, with the Office for Strengthening Unity. He served as governor-general of Ardabil Province during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Ahmadi-Nejad is now a member of the conservative Association of Engineers and a member of the central council of the Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution. He said on 28 April that he will his announce his decision on his candidacy on registration day, IRNA reported.

The 43-year-old Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf headed the IRGC air force until June 2000, when he was selected to be chief of the national police force. Qalibaf is one of the 24 IRGC commanders who in July 1999 sent a letter to President Mohammad Khatami warning that if he did not act to quell student unrest, they would not stand by idly and would take matters into their own hands. Under his command, the previously unpopular police force improved its reputation by implementing the 110 rapid-reaction system, which made the force operate more efficiently; he also has made progress in eliminating the influence of political factions in the police. Qalibaf resigned from the police leadership in April.

In a 12 March speech, Qalibaf identified three areas on which he would focus: the economy, foreign affairs, and "social capital." Referring to the economy, he said, "The people's buying power has not seen suitable growth; we have even seen stagnation in certain areas." Turning to foreign affairs, he said, "Given Iran's outstanding geopolitical weight and the role which the country can play at the regional and global level, we have not properly tapped these capacities." And regarding the issue of "social capital," Qalibaf said, "In the area of protecting our social capital, we face challenges which make us lose our productive role in the fields of science, politics, economy, and wealth as well as our social identity."

Born in 1954 in Masjid-i Suleiman, Mohsen Rezai headed the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps from 1981-97, and he now serves as secretary of the Expediency Council. He has promoted himself as an independent conservative candidate. "I consider myself a new rightist and even more rightist than many colleagues," he said (IRNA, 26 March 2005). He has dismissed concern about his military background, suggesting that his critics are prejudiced or ignorant (ISNA, 13 April 2005). "My political ideas are rooted in my deep belief in democracy, and I left the military when I decided to take part in political activities," he said.

During the campaign, Rezai has been subdued on foreign policy issues, but he has expressed concern about U.S. regional ambitions since 11 September 2001. He also supports Iranian diplomatic efforts on the nuclear issue but has expressed concern that Iran is conceding too much to Europe. Rezai said Iranian diplomacy during President Khatami's second term (which started in 2001) has been marked by submissive diplomacy, missed opportunities, and unilateral concessions in exchange for minimal financial returns ("Entekhab," 27 April 2003). However, Rezai has represented Iran in track-two diplomatic meetings in Cyprus.

Seyyed Reza Zavarei announced on 12 December that he would stand as an independent in the 2005 race, ISNA reported. A conservative, the 67-year-old Zavarei ran for president in 1997. He has served as a lawyer on the Guardians Council, served in the Interior Ministry, served two terms in the legislature, and headed the deeds registration organization. Zavarei gave as reasons for his decision to run "God's will," the "country's conditions," and the need to resolve society's problems. If elected, according to Zavarei, his cabinet will not be chosen on factional grounds. Honesty and competence will be the determining factors, he vowed. Zavarei said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not rule out relations with the United States and that Iran is not hostile to the American people but added, "We cannot have relations with America because their leaders have made the world hate America" ("Mardom Salari," 25 January 2005). He continued, "The problem is that they want to rule the world. Under such conditions we will not be blackmailed."
"Bayat expressed confidence that the Guardians Council will approve a female candidate once a woman with the necessary managerial and executive qualities comes forward."

Two women have expressed interest in bids for the presidency. Zanjan parliamentary representative Rafat Bayat declared in March that she wants to be an independent presidential candidate. Bayat expressed confidence that the Guardians Council will approve a female candidate once a woman with the necessary managerial and executive qualities comes forward. Bayat decried the impact of factionalism on the political process and said student groups and independent figures urged her to run. Islamic Revolution's Women Society Secretary-General Azam Taleqani announced on 30 April that she is considering entering the presidential race, IRNA reported. Her previous attempt to run for president was cut short when the Guardians Council rejected her candidacy.

Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, a former vice president and five-term legislator who was born in Semnan in 1948, is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and also serves on the Expediency Council. His position on the security council has given him a prominent role in Iran's nuclear negotiations with other countries. A conservative figure and member of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, he is identified with Hashemi-Rafsanjani and does not appear to have an independent political base. Some observers see Rohani, who has been labeled a pragmatic conservative, as the choice of the moderate right. He has indicated little interest in running for the presidency, however.

The Guardians Council's strategy on approving candidates remains a mystery. In some cases, it has chosen to limit public choice: In February 2004, it disqualified some 44 percent of prospective parliamentary candidates; in the 2001 presidential election, however, it allowed many candidates in an effort to encourage voter participation. (This also served to dilute the reformist vote and reduce the eventual victor's mandate.)

There is also a possibility that, if Hashemi-Rafsanjani does enter the race, no candidate will secure the required majority of the vote. This would require a second round of voting.