The Islamic Republic’s cleric-dominated top Guardian Council disqualifies all moderate and reformist candidates ahead of the June presidential election, paving the way for a conservative victory.

As Iran gets ready for a crucial presidential election in June, the Islamic Republic’s conservative clergy has started what appears to be a crackdown against moderate politicians. 

The Shia-majority Iran’s Guardian Council, an institution that decides which of the candidates can stand for election, has struck down the candidacy of 14 reformist and moderate leaders in recent days. In total, the council disqualified 32 candidates including18 conservatives, like the country's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   

So far the council has allowed seven candidates, all of whom have conservative credentials, to run in the election. Among them is Ebrahim Raisi, a prominent conservative and the Chief Justice of Iran, who lost to current reformist President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 elections. Experts say Raisi can easily win. 

“All of the approved seven candidates are connected to the Revolutionary Guards,” says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political analyst, who was an advisor to the former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi. Bulovali says there has long been a political tug of war between the Rouhani government and the Revolutionary Guards, which reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

The Guardian Council’s decision comes on the heels of a high-profile leak involving Iran’s reformist Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In a confidential audio conversation leaked last month, Zarif could be heard making critical comments about the role of Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s foreign policy. 

Immediately after the leaks, Zarif, the country’s most popular politician, was publicly rebuked by Khamenei. Prior to this, Zarif was seen as a potential reformist candidate. But after the leaks, he did not even bother declaring his candidacy for the presidential elections. 

In this Feb. 23, 2021 file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran.
In this Feb. 23, 2021 file photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

“Under current circumstances, Raisi, backed by the Guards, is the only candidate to win the elections,” Bulovali tells TRT World. The Council under the influence of the Guards wanted “to leave nothing to chance” as it has shown by dismissing all moderate candidates, he adds. 

The Guards wants Iran to take a hard approach towards Washington and its allies, while moderates advocate some kind of compromise with the West. 

Rouhani’s opposition

But Rouhani, who cannot run for a third time due to constitutional limits on presidential terms, has openly shown his opposition to the Council’s decision and urged Khamenei to intervene and influence the ruling. 

"Whatever his excellency thinks is expedient. The decision lies with him. What we could do was to appeal to him and ask him to take action in this regard if he finds it expedient," Rouhani said during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. 

Khamenei, who directly appoints six jurists of the 12-member Council, does not usually intervene in such matters. But depriving moderates to run in the presidential elections, which they had won back-to-back in 2013 and 2017, could be seen as too extreme a measure even for a country like Iran. The rest of the Council’s members are also indirectly selected by Khamenei. 

Guardian Council Chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (top L) and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah (R) listen to the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011.
Guardian Council Chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (top L) and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah (R) listen to the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011. (Raheb Homavandi / Reuters Archive)

Rouhani said that the disqualification of moderate candidates can be seen by the Iranian public as an attempt by the establishment to curb their right to choose a leader. 

"We have forgotten that elections guarantee the legitimacy of the system and that it's fundamental," Rouhani added. 

A rigged election? 

A Tehran-based Iranian analyst, who asked not to be named, was also critical of the Council’s decision, saying that it almost equates to election rigging. 

She thinks that “almost all of the accepted candidates are less likely to compete with Raisi”, meaning that the Council “actually ended the election before it started!” 

Even Raisi has reportedly asked the Council to reconsider its decision and allow more candidates to participate. 

“They said that they tried to act lawfully, but they didn't,” the source tells TRT World, referring to the Council members’ decision. 

She also sees no “chance” of Khamenei intervening “to change the situation” in response to Rouhani’s request. “The president wrote a letter to the [Supreme] leader just last night. If they [moderates] had any hope of getting [the Council to] reverse its decision, they wouldn’t have published the letter in the media,” she says.  

Two of the Council-approved candidates “do not meet the lowest standards of the law that the Council is referring to,” the source said, explaining that a political atmosphere has been created in which people are being forced to elect someone desirable to the establishment. 

The Tehran-based analyst also does not see any possibility that a low-profile candidate could pose any serious threat to Raisi. 

“I cannot see any resistance. People are tired and hopeless, but some analysts think that some people will vote for Abdolnaser Hemmati, the current chief of the Central Bank, to say no to Raisi,” the source says. “But the resistance is not that strong to change” the election results, she says. 

While almost all reformists and moderates are against the Council’s decision, they don't have adequate political means “to go against it or influence it”, she adds. 

Some analysts had already seen the noose getting tighter around the necks of reformists after what happened with American-educated Foreign minister Zarif. 

In the comments leaked to the press, Zarif complained that without the approval of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, he cannot take critical foreign policy decisions, limiting his ability to work as a foreign minister.

Source: TRT World