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Iran: Pre-Campaign Campaigning Under Way

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardians Council The big issue in Iranian politics this week is the vetting of candidates for the 17 June presidential election by the Guardians Council -- an unelected body of six clerics and six lawyers. The council announced on 22 May that only six out of the 1,014 prospective candidates were eligible to compete in the election. That is less than 1 percent -- an impressively small figure.

It can be argued with some justification that not all applicants are eligible. Indeed, Guardians Council spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on 13 May that among the applicants were 81 unemployed people, 19 teenagers, and 250 people without a secondary-school diploma, Radio Farda reported. During the 15 May legislative session, furthermore, Tabriz parliamentary representative Seyyed Mohammad Reza Mir-Tajedini called on the Interior Ministry to prevent the registration of people who do not meet the minimum qualifications, "Resalat" reported on 16 May.

'Approbatory Supervision'

The Guardians Council's vetting of candidates for elected office has been a controversial issue since the parliamentary elections of 1988. This is part of the council's constitutionally mandated responsibility to supervise elections -- termed approbatory supervision or "nizarat-i estisvabi." Yet the controversy over the council's actions does not end with its disapproval of candidates that it does not care for. The council has taken its powers up a notch by overturning results after election day, which it did after parliamentary elections in February 2000 and in February 2004. There is no question that, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in September 2000, the council is "a major obstacle to the further development of democracy" in Iran.

Nobody reasonably expected approval of all 1,014 applicants this time, but the mass rejection that included individuals who have previously served in government elicited an outraged reaction from Iranian political elites. Following intervention by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 23 May, two more applicants -- former Minister of Education and Training Mustafa Moin and Vice President for Physical Training Mohsen Mehralizadeh -- were reinstated.
Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a 24 May speech in Tehran that candidates should avoid creating a "tense and antagonistic climate."

They join Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad, former state broadcasting chief Ali Ardeshir-Larijani, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Campaign Already Under Way

Officially, these candidates can campaign from 27 May until 24 hours before election day. In fact they began campaigning months earlier, by paying visits to the provinces, meeting their supporters, and trying to gain new ones by making vague promises. After prospective candidates registered, the campaigning took on a new tone, and Hashemi-Rafsanjani became a lightening rod. This is probably because other candidates see the two-time former president as the frontrunner and their main rival.

One day after Hashemi-Rafsanjani registered, on 11 May, a commentary in the hard-line "Ya-Lisarat al-Hussein" weekly said the growing gap between rich and poor, injustice, and economic discrimination, as well as the resulting cultural and social difficulties, can be traced to his administration. His registration, the commentary continued, obstructs the circulation of elites and is indicative of an excessive desire for power. It is an insult to the nation to suggest that nobody else is qualified to be president 25 years after the revolution. The commentary suggested that a Hashemi-Rafsanjani presidency would open the way to foreign interference in the country's affairs, it would allow members of the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front to remain unaccountable, and it would allow them to retain power.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's rival, Karrubi, criticized the candidate in a letter that was published in the 19 May "Aftab-i Yazd." Karrubi noted that Hashemi-Rafsanjani previously said he would only compete in the election if there is no acceptable or competent candidate. If that is the case, Karrubi wrote, the seeds for such a situation were sown during Hashemi-Rafsanjani's presidency.

As for the alienation and isolation of revolutionary forces that Hashemi-Rafsanjani referred to when he announced his candidacy, that can be traced to the fourth parliamentary election in 1992, when the Guardians Council disqualified many dedicated public servants. Karrubi also wrote of the abuses committed by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the police during Hashemi-Rafsanjani's presidency, as well as the Intelligence Ministry's extensive involvement in economic activities.

Karrubi concluded his letter with a threat, referring to "unsaid points that I will have no choice but to disclose if the former methods and the humiliation of other candidates should continue."

Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a 24 May speech in Tehran that candidates should avoid creating a "tense and antagonistic climate," state radio reported. He also criticized those who create tension in the print and broadcast media.

The trading of insults and accusations is an increasingly common, albeit unfortunate, aspect of political campaigns throughout the world. Resulting tensions are therefore unavoidable. In Iran, the interference of the Guardians Council is responsible for much greater problems. That body answers only to the supreme leader, who is ultimately responsible for much of the current political strain in Iran.