With One-time Protege Ahmadinejad Out, Iran's Supreme Leader Vows Never to Repeat Same Mistake

June's election may simply be a way for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to select the most compliant president, one that would seriously and effectively deal with the country's financial woes and relax tensions with the West.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It looks like Iran's dream team. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body of six jurists and six theologians, last week approved eight highly educated candidates to run for president. One of them, Mohammad Reza Aref, studied engineering at Stanford; Mohammad Gharazi went to school in France; Ali Akbar Velayati is a physician; Hassan Rowhani has a doctorate in law from the University of Glasgow; Saeed Jalili did his doctorate in Iran on Political Thought in Islam; and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf has a doctorate in international relations.

None of them, except for Rowhani, is a theologian or jurist of Islamic law. Most of them have some management experience. Qalibaf is the mayor of Tehran and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard. Velayati has vast experience in foreign relations, and Jalili has been Iran's top nuclear negotiator since 2007, a job filled by Rowhani during President Mohammad Khatami's term in office.

However, on June 14, Iran's citizens will not be voting for the best doctor, engineer or commander. And judging by the 2009 election, there will also not necessarily be any correlation between the ballots cast and the winner.

Election fraud is an inseparable part of Iran's electoral process. The interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar - a close ally and confidant of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - is in charge of supervising the ballots.

An Iranian news analyst recently wrote that Iran actually has two presidential campaigns: one in which the public participates; and a second run by Khamenei's people. In the first stage of that campaign, Khamenei has determined whom he doesn't want to see in the president's palace - located next door to Saadabad Palace (the official residence of the former Shahs of Iran, Reza and his son, Reza Pahlavi ). "You can't let such an old man, who shows up for work just a few hours a day, run the country," said the Guardian Council, explaining the ban on Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's candidacy.

The Iranian constitution doesn't, in fact, have an upper age limit for presidents, and the attempt, in a parliamentary vote, to set the limit at 75 failed. Rafsanjani, 79, is only five years older than Khamenei. Both are founding members of the revolution. They were close friends and part of Ayatollah Khomeini's inner circle, and back then were considered among the more moderate of the revolutionaries. Before Khomeini's death in 1989, it was Rafsanjani who worked to have Khamenei appointed as his successor and was himself elected president (until 1997 ). Until the 2009 election, they were thought to be on close terms, holding one another in high regard.

After the fraudulent election four years ago and after the Iranian Green Movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi - who'd been prime minister under Khomeini - was brutally crushed and Mousavi and his wife placed under house arrest, Rafsanjani became a sort of patron of the protest. His relations with Khamenei steadily worsened and hit rock bottom with the jailing of Rafsanjani's children last September.

Rafsanjani represents a threat to Khamenei - not because he's considered a moderate in the West, and not because he's a billionaire who made his money off pistachio nuts and the airplane company he owns. Rafsanjani, who heads Iran's Expediency Discernment Council, an influential assembly with supervisory powers over all branches of government, enjoys the support of Qom's Islamic legal scholars and is liable to want to succeed Khamenei.

In the 2005 election campaign, when Rafsanjani was running against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei ensured the former's loss by backing the latter. The personal relationship between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is actually one of the most important keys to understanding the cogs moving the political wheels of Iran.

Worst political decision

The personal relationship was the reason Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad. Later on, it also fed the startling clash between the two. Eight years ago, Khamenei assumed that Ahmadinejad would be a docile president who wouldn't challenge his authority. Ahmadinejad was a not very prominent member of the Revolutionary Guard, the governor of Ardabil Province who moved to Tehran after being ousted in 1997 by President Khatami, becoming Tehran's mayor in 2003. He was "elected" president in a move that Khamenei now probably rues more than any other political decision he's ever made.

Ahmadinejad was responsible for Iran's economic crisis long before the crippling sanctions imposed by Western powers two years ago. A humble man who never even wears a tie, he has conducted an ostentatious, wasteful and corrupt presidency that has emptied the nation's coffers and generated unprecedented criticism not only of the president but also of the one who put him in power.

Relations between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei reached a nadir three years ago, when the president's deputy and close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, openly started speaking out against the clerics' far-reaching involvement in politics.

Khamenei, who ordered Ahmadinejad to dismiss Mashaei, was also the one who supported the Guardian Council's decision to ban Mashaei from running for president this year. Khamenei even tried to dismiss Ahmadinejad, after he boycotted cabinet meetings for 11 days because of the presence of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi - a close Khamenei ally - whom Ahmadinejad had asked to resign but whom Khamenei had reinstated. Mashaei was supposed to continue the legacy of Ahmadinejad for another term after the latter leaves the palace and pave the way for Ahmadinejad's return four years hence, but now Khamenei has cut off Ahmadinejad's political right-hand man.

Khamenei's dilemma

Now that Khamenei has ensured that none of his enemies will be a presidential candidate, he can pick and choose the most compliant among the pack of eight. Conventional wisdom in the West says that it doesn't matter who is president; what matters is what Khamenei decides. But the extended hullabaloo with Ahmadinejad, the struggles Khamenei had with Khatami, and the independence displayed by Rafsanjani in his two terms as president all indicate that Khamenei's status as supreme leader is dependent on a heaping measure of political support.

An out-of-control president is liable to cause irreparable harm to the delicate political balance between the numerous power elites in Iran. Ironically, Khamenei has no problems on the nuclear issue; with regard to Iranian nuclear power - its civilian aspects, at least - there is cross-party agreement. Here he has the final say. None of the candidates is demanding a freeze on the program, considered an integral part of the nation's foundations of independence. But it is also the issue that has pushed Iran into one of the most profound economic crises since the revolution. It will make a difference whether Iran's next president is someone who understands the West's sensitivity on the issue or someone who'll wave a red cape; someone who can conduct restrained discussions or someone who is strident and argumentative.

Khamenei's dilemma is whether to pick someone who can conduct successful foreign relations and thereby ease the pressure exerted by the West - as Khatami did - or pick a shrill president who will step on every toe, engage in Holocaust denial or call for the destruction of Israel.

If foreign affairs are guiding Khamenei's choice, then Velayati has the necessary qualifications. If Khamenei's preference is for someone who can manage the economic and social crises, he could find the right man in Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.Credit: AP

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