Iran is gearing up for what could be, given the existing tension in the Persian Gulf region, the most important presidential election in the Islamic republic's history. Ascendant conservative forces will be looking to cement their stranglehold on the country's political institutions. However, the conservatives are far from united, raising the odds that the election campaign will be bruising.
At present, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, is concluding his second, four-year presidential term. Political analysts in Tehran give reformists, who have been routed by a determined conservative political offensive, virtually no chance of holding on to the presidency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Thus, the early phase of the presidential campaign, a period when conservative hopefuls are battling to raise their profiles, is attracting considerable domestic attention.
The conservative movement in Iran is not monolithic, as it encompasses an assortment of interest groups. Conservatives can be broken down into two broad categories traditionalists, including a significant portion of the clerical establishment, and neo-conservatives, who tend to be younger and newer participants in the political process. In addition, the neo-cons appear willing to embrace radical methods in pursuit of their conservative vision.
Traditionalists have wielded their influence through three organizations the Association of Combatant Clergy, the Association of Theological Teachers and the Islamic Coalition Society. Up until very recently, they have enjoyed the support of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The neo-cons shot to the forefront of the conservative movement following the February parliamentary elections. The neo-con parliamentary faction has acted aggressively in trying to seize control of the country's legislative agenda. Neo-cons tend to have strong ties with Iran's security establishment, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, which has seen a marked rise in its power and status lately.
In recent months, the names of four potential conservative candidates have circulated in Tehran: the capital's mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former Foreign Minister Aliakbar Velayati; the former state television and radio chief Ali Larijani; and Ahmad Tavakoli, an influential member of parliament.
Velayati and Larijani, both old-guard conservatives, are supported by the traditionalist faction. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad and Tavakoli have broad neo-conservative backing. Analysts expect intense infighting to occur in the coming weeks, as the four hopefuls seek to become the conservative movement's standard bearer. Technically, more than one conservative candidate could stand in the presidential election, but observers say that such a development would dilute their electoral chances.
Conservatives already control Iran's judiciary and parliament, as well as the country's un-elected religious institutions, such as the Guardian Council. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Capturing the presidency would thus leave conservatives without any checks on their authority. The campaign and election, scheduled for May 2005, comes at a time when Tehran is contending with geopolitical issues namely the Iraq insurgency and Iran's nuclear program that have vital national security implications. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Islamic republic's survival could be determined by how the next president handles the international challenges.
While the reformists may be in disarray, a conservative triumph in the presidential election is not a foregone conclusion. That is because former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily and unaligned political operator, has yet to formally announce whether or not he will be a presidential candidate. If Rafsanjani runs, many analysts believe he would be a strong presidential contender. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rafsanjani is viewed by both conservatives and reformists as the consummate political pragmatist, willing to abandon policy for the sake of expediency. Accordingly, conservatives, regardless of factional affiliation, now consider Rafsanjani as a major political threat, and are making a concerted effort to discourage him from running.
Observers believe that a Rafsanjani candidacy might attract the support of a significant segment of reformists, who would be willing to set-aside lingering animosity for the former president in order to blunt the conservatives drive for total authority. Conservative-dominated media outlets have published commentaries aimed at reminding reformists that Rafsanjani, during his tenure as president, pursued policies that were antagonistic to reformist causes.
Conservatives have also sought to sully Rafsanjani's reputation with a media campaign examining allegations of financial irregularities involving his family. Some Tehran analysts believe the personal attacks on Rafsanjani may succeed in crushing his potential candidacy.
At the same time, observers believe that chances are high for an unexpected turn of events. According to some reports, traditionalists may have a hard time reaching agreement with the neo-cons on a unified candidate. Many traditionalists are said to resent neo-cons for trying to elbow members of the old guard aside in the months since the parliamentary vote. Some traditionalist leaders are said to have issued private warnings that if their preferred choice, Velayati, does not receive broad conservative backing, then they may throw their support behind Rafsanjani, instead of endorsing a neo-con-selected candidate.
According to some whispers coming out of the neo-conservative camp, Rafsanjani's potential candidacy is prompting a reevaluation of the campaign strategy. There is now talk of neo-cons shifting their allegiances away from Ahmadinejad and Tavakoli, and coalescing around Gholem-Ali Hadad-Adel, the parliament speaker and a relative of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Traditionalists and neo-cons are clearly preparing for a vigorous battle to determine the conservative candidate. Traditionalists, for example, are revitalizing an element of their electoral machine, known as the Coordinating Forces of the Followers of the Imam and the Leadership. Proponents of the neo-con agenda, meanwhile, are stoking a media campaign to push the old guard aside. A recent declaration, issued by seven student groups associated with the neo-con-oriented Basij militia, said "the first generation [of Islamic revolutionaries] should leave the way open for second- and third-generation leaders and militants to blaze the trail."
Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, may end up determining the outcome of the traditionalist-neo-con political struggle. Ayatollah Khamenei is believed to oppose a Rafsanjani candidacy, although he has made no statement on the subject. The Supreme Leader has likewise not expressed a preference for any particular conservative candidate. His chief of staff has merely indicated recently that the conservatives would be best served by settling on a single candidate.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.