Sunday, June 07, 2009

Iran Prepares for Presidential Elections: A Brief Guide to the Candidates & Political System

Iran's presidential candidates (from left): Current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected in 2005 with the heavy support of the officer corps and membership of the conservative Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and pro-government Basij militias; Reformist camp candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is backed by former president al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami;

(from bottom left):
Hujjat al-Islam (a mid-level Twelver Shi'i religious scholar) Mehdi Karroubi, another Reformist who served as speaker of the parliament from 1989-1992 and has criticized Ahmadinejad's idiotic questioning of the Holocaust; Mohsen Rezai, a conservative hardliner and, like Ahmadinejad, former officer in the IRGC.

An Iranian-American friend of mine, Majid, tells me that I should also focus on the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, in addition to the Lebanese parliamentary elections, which have already begun today. I have focused on Lebanon's elections as they are closer to my own areas of academic study and research, whereas Iran is a bit further afield at the moment. Nonetheless, that country's elections, scheduled for June 12, will have a major impact both within the country, regionally, and globally. I am not as well versed on the candidates in the Iranian presidential elections, and thus welcome recommendations of news sources from readers.

First brief biographies of the four candidates:


A mid-level Twelver Shi'i religious scholar (Hujjat al-Islam, literally "proof of Islam"), Karroubi is a 72-year-old self-identified member of the Reformist camp. Iran's former president al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami, also a hujjat al-Islam, is also a Reformist, but is backing another candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Karroubi served as speaker of the Iranian (parliament) from 1989 to 1992, during the presidency of the then-president, Hujjat al-Islam 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Khumayni ally who has moved to the center politically, and who lost in the second round of presidential elections in 2005 to Ahmadinejad. Karroubi received the third most votes in the 2005 elections and he has criticized Ahmadinejad's ahistorical and needlessly (and rather useless) provocative statements about the historicity of the Holocaust and the wider Nazi German atrocities against numerous peoples during the Second World War. Karroubi seeks a more diplomatic approach toward other nations and has criticized the past interference of the IRGC in national elections.


Mousavi, considered to be the main challenger to Ahmadinejad, is a member of the Reformist camp and like many Reformists, he seeks to reform within the political system established in the 1979 constitution. He is running on a platform of repairing Iran's strained diplomatic relations with other nations and standing in the world, which have been damaged by the often reckless rhetoric of Ahmadinejad. Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 until the post was abolished in 1989, handling a war-time economy during Iran's long, costly war with Iraq, a war instigated by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and needlessly prolonged by Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni. Mousavi also supports a relaxation of stringent social regulations. He is endorsed by former president Khatami, and he has also criticized Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on the Holocaust and other issues. He speaks Arabic and English, and serves as the president of the Iranian Academy of Arts. He himself is a painter.


The current president, Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. The former mayor of Iran's capital city, Tehran, he is supported by the IRGC, the "guardian" body of the revolution, and the pro-regime quasi-official paramilitary, the Basij, and conservative student activists (hizbullahis). The son of working-class parents, Ahmadinejad ran in 2005 on a populist platform, promising to end corruption and fix the economy. Outside of Iran, he is of course most widely known for his provocative (needlessly so) rhetoric about the Holocaust and Israel. He has been demonized and called "Hitler," a common tactic of radical Zionists and Israelis. Nonetheless, his rhetoric is of little practical use, if any, and does not help the Palestinian people. In fact, it gives Israel a red herring with which to deflect the attention away from the injustice of their occupation of Palestinian land. Since his election, Ahmadinejad's reputation as a "man of the poor" has been somewhat tarnished since the country still faces serious economic problems and poverty.


Rezai, the former general in charge of the IRGC, is also a conservative. He is challenging Ahmadinejad primarily on economic issues, promising to fight poverty, decrease inflation, and address rampant unemployment. Rezai earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tehran. He has been critical of Ahmadinejad's provocative rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear program, although he supports it, as do most Iranians according to polling. As a young man, he was a involved in the 1978-79 revolution that overthrew the country's last monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and he distinguished himself during the Iran-Iraq War (1981-88).

What authority does the president have?

The president of the republic, who can serve a maximum of two, four-year consecutive terms, is chosen via popular election, but has limited authority, though he serves as head of the executive branch of government. Presidential candidates must be approved by the powerful, half-appointed, half-elected (by the parliament after being nominated by the head of the judiciary) Council of Guardians, a 12-member body dominated by conservative religious jurists and lawyers. Hundreds of hopeful candidates for the presidency and parliament have been banned from running in past elections. Control of the IRGC, military, and many other organs of government are controlled by the supreme leader, al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei and not the president. The Council of Guardians can also effectively quash laws deemed contrary to the constitution or values of the Islamic Republic. Former Reformist president al-Sayyid Muhammad Khatami and the then-parliament, which included many Reformists, saw their agenda stymied by the supreme leader and Council of Guardians.

What authority does the Parliament have?

The 290 members of parliament serve four-year terms and must approve the president's cabinet. All bills they pass must be approved, and can be overturned, by the Council of Guardians. The current speaker of the parliament is the popular former international nuclear negotiator 'Ali Larijani, who reportedly resigned his former post due to disagreements with Ahmadinejad. Larijani favored a more pragmatic, and less provocative, diplomatic approach than the current president.

'Ali Larijani

What is the Assembly of Experts?

The 86 members of the Assembly of Experts must be religious scholars and they are elected to eight-year terms. They appoint the supreme leader and can remove him if they deem him incapable of fulfilling his duties. The Assembly is based in the Iranian shrine city of Qum, south of Tehran, which is also the center of Twelver Shi'i religious learning and scholarship in Iran, and the world, since the decline of Iraq's shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala under Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba'th Party. The next elections are set for 2014. The current chair of the Assembly is Hujjat al-Islam 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, who lost to Ahmadinejad in run-off elections in 2005.

Hujjat al-Islam 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Another powerful member of the Assembly of Experts is conservative Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who is close to President Ahmadinejad. He opposes the Reformists and religious scholars ('ulama) who are critical of the current political system.

Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi

Supreme Leader, Judiciary, & Council of Guardians: Power-Brokers

The supreme leader controls most of the organs of power in the Islamic Republic (military, IRGC, nuclear program). The current supreme leader of the republic (rahbar-e jumhur) is al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, a close confidant and student of the late supreme leader, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni, who died in 1989. The head of the judiciary, IRGC and military commanders, Friday prayer leaders, and media chairmen are all appointed by the supreme leader.

Supreme Leader al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei

Six members of the powerful Council of Guardians are appointed by the supreme leader, and the other six are nominated by the head of the judiciary and must be approved by the parliament. All members are religious jurists or lawyers, and they vet all laws passed by the parliament. They can veto bills and ban potential candidates from standing in presidential and parliamentary elections, and for the Assembly of Experts. As the Council is dominated by pro-Khamenei conservatives, Reformists are often banned from running, including sitting members of the parliament in past years. Elected members are selected in a phases so that half of the members change every three years. The current chair of the Council is Ayatullah Ahmad Jannati, a conservative religious scholar opposed to the Reformists, many of whom, like former president Khatami and current presidential candidate Karroubi, are also religious scholars. Indeed, some of the most powerful voices for institutional, political, and social reform have come from religious scholars, including Hujjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, Hujjat al-Islam Hasan Yusefi Eshkevari, Hujjat al-Islam Mohsen Sa'idzadeh.

Ayatullah Ahmad Jannati


What is the role of the Head of the Judiciary?

The judiciary ensures that all laws are in line with the constitution and Twelver Shi'i law. Six members of the Council of Guardians are nominated by the head of the judiciary, which is currently Ayatullah al-Sayyid Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an ally of supreme leader 'Ali Khamenei. The judiciary is dominated by conservatives and has blocked Reformist programs.

Ayatullah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (right) with parliament speaker 'Ali Larijani



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