Rafsanjani’s Disqualification Highlights Iranian Regime’s Shortcomings

The former president’s exclusion from next month’s election produces the very unrest Iran wanted to avoid.

A mere week after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had registered his name for next month’s presidential election at the last minute, the body in charge of vetting candidates for the Iranian presidency decided to disqualify him, underlining just how authoritarian the Islamic republic has become.

For many Iranians, it was ironic that Rafsanjani was defeated by the very political system that he helped create and nurture, both as an original founder of the Islamic republic and as president for eight years.

All of the excitement that the relatively pragmatic candidate’s registration generated was deflated by the Guardian Council’s collective decision. For Rafsanjani himself, it is a debilitating blow worthy of public condemnation — “”I think it is not possible to run the country worse than this, even if it had been planned in advance,” he was quoted as saying by opposition websites — but for his conservative rivals close to the supreme leader, it was a necessary evil in order to further consolidate their influence.

By law, the Guardian Council does not need to explain why it decided to proceed with some candidates and why it rejected others. Rafsanjani’s age — he is 80 years old — was probably a practical excuses. Analysts and Iranian reformists alike point to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s desire to conclude next month’s election smoothly as the more likely reason.

While Rafsanjani is not a reformist, he had both the backbone to speak out after the 2009 presidential election that was considered fraudulent by millions of Iranians who voted against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those public criticisms, however, were taken by hardliners as a sharp challenge to Khamenei’s authority and integrity.

The former president was also disturbed at the Islamic republic’s response to the Green opposition movement protests that sprouted out as soon as the election results were read out; the security forces killed dozens of Iranians in the street and arrested thousands more in a crackdown. That history, analysts say, could have cost Rafsanjani the support from the hardline clerical establishment that he needed to participate in this year’s race.

If reformists and centrists were the only ones complaining about Rafsanjani’s exclusion, Ayatollah Khamenei would perhaps be able to ignore it. But politicians in Iran who are relatively conservative have also voiced their disapproval, including lawmaker Ali Motahari, who wrote a letter to Khamenei lambasting the Guardian Council’s decision. The daughter of Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, urged Khamenei to personally intervene and overturn the guardians’ decision. “Demonstrate why the imam used to say that ‘the supreme leader’s role is to prevent people from doing whatever they want’ and to ‘prevent dictatorship’,” she wrote.

These letter writing campaigns put Khamenei in the very situation he had hoped to avoid. With the Iran’s economy suffering under the heavy weight of international sanctions and its popularity on the Arab street suffering from Tehran’s military and political support for Syria’s president Bashar Assad, the last thing Khamenei needed was another election fiasco that would rattle the system. Rafsanjani’s disqualification, who the one man who could have sincerely challenged one of Khamenei’s conservative loyalists, was supposed to ensure that 2009 would not be repeated.

Yet just as suspected voter fraud four years ago exposed the regime’s repression of political activism it bemoaned as “seditious,” Rafsanjani’s debunked candidacy once again demonstrates how unfair the current system is to tens of millions of Iranians who want to exercise their vote without restrictions that are imposed by a group of unelected clerics.