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Iran’s Populism at The Polls

Iran’s presidential election, set for May 19, has been transformed into a battlefield for a gamut of populists. Some candidates from among the top political elite have downgraded their economic manifestos to unattainable demagogic promises, writes Radio Farda economy analyst Fereidoun Khavand in two recent Persian language op-eds.

From an economist’s viewpoint, populist politicians are demagogues who seek power by making empty promises such as cash handouts and rosy outlooks for employment and millions of new jobs. All of these promises are made without saying where or how the necessary fund would be acquired.

Those in high office who seek to keep their posts by giving out subsidies and employing more people for pointless government posts and public services could also be described as populists.

Populist politicians do not care about real reforms, improvements to the economy, or much-needed structural change.

The outcome, of course, is economic stagnation, a lack of good jobs, and more suffering for the working classes.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmud Ahmadinejad are the epitome of such ruinous populism. Today, we can clearly see the horrifying results of their populistic management in Caracas and Tehran.

However, it’s true that not all politicians who promise to raise people’s incomes and reduce unemployment are necessarily populists. As a rule, all politicians seeking power in any given corner of the globe promise to improve economic conditions. But in countries enjoying an open and established civil society, the media and opposition political parties play a significant role in scrutinizing campaign promises.

Undemocratic Elections

Time and again, we have seen that Iran’s electoral system is not fair or free. Candidates are disqualified arbitrarily. Minority and women candidates are disqualified. There are no political parties that represent the people. The nation is divided into us and them. Only those who belong to the ruling clique are allowed to run for official posts; even nominees who are counted among “us” could be subject to a harsh filtering procedure and eliminated by the elections vetting body, the Guardian Council.

The situation has some echoes of South Africa’s experience during the rule of apartheid.

South Africa’s black majority were free to vote but only for the white candidates picked by the minority white ruling class.

It would be overly generous to describe the electoral procedure in Iran as even remotely fair, free, or democratic.

During the presidential campaigns and debates, there is no legally protected framework or even sufficient time to discuss the reasons behind the closure of factories, continually rising unemployment, the endless brain-drain, or the ever-worsening water shortages threatening the future of the country.

The banking system is in shambles. Arbitrary tax exemption for financial empires, money-laundering, corruption, and embezzlement are all forbidden topics. A candidate is only allowed to mention any of these for the purpose of smearing a rival -- not as valid criticism of the established system.

Furthermore, candidates are given no chance to debate Iran’s foreign policy. Other important matters such as poverty, housing, drug addiction, women’s and minority rights, and insolvency of retirement funds -- to name but a few -- are completely absent from the Iranian presidential campaigns and debates.

Paying Cash, Gaining Votes

In the absence of a healthy debate on vital matters, Iran brings in male candidates willing to ignore national or international concerns. Most candidates are armed only with obsolete slogans and promises of cash for everyone in the hopes of gaining votes. Those cash subsidies became a reality in Ahmadinejad’s second term as president, but critics immediately called it the “great catastrophe.” Tens of billions of dollars disappeared while adding nothing to the nation’s infrastructure.

It is now a foregone conclusion that handing out cash might gain votes, but it would be ruinous or even lethal for the national economy. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped most of the current candidates from following Ahmadinejad’s example. Populism, once again, is the name of the game.

Conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has promised cash handouts to the unemployed, which constitute a huge army by any estimation. He and the other hard-line candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, have also promised 6 million new jobs in the next four years, which would mean double-digit annual economic growth. Iran’s average economic growth over the past three decades has been around 3 percent.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the shah under the banner of populism. One can clearly see the traces of populism in the constitution, which talks about implementing a so-called Islamic Plan to pave the way for equality, jobs, and a prosperous future for all.

Nobody questioned the feasibility of such an Islamic Plan. Nobody demanded details or questioned the tools or resources needed to implement it. It was a shining example of populism, but nobody cared to put it under any sort of professional scrutiny.

Alas, the sad story of populism continues in Iran to this day. The only way to close the chapter of populism is to open the windows of economic and political facts and letting people see the realities for what they are.

Talking Points: Social, Economic Issues Focus Of First Iran Debate

Top left to bottom right: Eshaq Jahangiri, Mostafa Hashemitaba, Hassan Rohani, Ebrahim Raisi, Mostafa Mirsalim, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf

Six men have been approved to appear on the ballot for Iran's presidential vote on May 19, with a potential second round to follow. They are meeting on April 28 for the first of three planned televised debates, this one focused on social and economic issues. The subsequent debates run through May 12.

The candidates are: incumbent President Hassan Rohani, a reformist; conservative cleric and former prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi; Tehran Mayor and former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a Rohani ally; conservative former Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim; and former Iranian National Olympic Committee head Mostafa Hashemitaba, a centrist.

Here are some of the social and economic issues that are likely to arise in the April 28 debate and throughout the campaign.

Where's The Growth?

President Rohani's rivals are seizing on the country's sluggish economic performance to attack his four-year record, promising especially to tackle poverty and unemployment.

Candidates are already making promises regarding the creation of much-needed jobs in a country where many are either unemployed or underemployed.

Raisi has promised to create 1.5 million jobs per year, while Qalibaf has said that if elected he will generate 5 million jobs.

Rohani's critics have said that the 2015 landmark nuclear deal placing curbs on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief has failed to improve the life of the poor.

The February parliamentary elections and voting for the Assembly of Experts (which can pick and dismiss the supreme leader) appeared to demonstrate significant public approval for Rohani and the nuclear deal, seen as key to a thaw in relations with the West.

But reports from Iran suggest there is rising public frustration over a lack of tangible benefits from the deal. Most respondents in a recent poll said they believe the nuclear accord has not improved the life of average Iranians.

Rohani's rivals will complain that he conceded too much while obtaining little in return. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the United States of not keeping its side of the bargain -- whose signatories also include the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia -- and presidential challengers are likely to cite sanctions still in place (in connection with issues like human rights, Tehran's missile technology, and alleged support for terrorism) to argue that despite the deal, Washington has not lifted all its sanctions.

Challengers are also likely to propose ways to create a "resistance economy" -- as emphasized by Khamenei -- to make the country more self-sufficient.

In an implicit criticism of Rohani, who has pushed for Western investment, Khamenei earlier this week urged candidates to focus on domestic capabilities to resolve the country's economic problems. Speaking on April 25, Khamenei, who has the last say in virtually all domestic affairs, said candidates "should promise not to look outside the borders [but] rather inside the nation itself for progress, for economic growth, and to untie the knots."

Civil Liberties

Many Iranians have expressed a desire for less censorship -- both online and offline -- and appear fed up with state intervention in even the most private aspects of their lives.

Rohani's promises to expand individual freedoms and civil liberties and lessen censorship and state restrictions on people's lives was among the reasons many voted for him in 2013. He is campaigning on themes that include fewer curbs on the press, more civil freedom, and greater openness generally.

Nearly as a rule, conservative candidates in Iran refrain from openly advocating for more restrictive policies. For example, in his 2005 presidential campaign, hard-liner Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that women's adherence to the dress code -- for instance, whether their hair is completely hidden -- should not be an issue; yet a crackdown ensued after his election in which many women were detained and harassed for not fully respecting a strict interpretation of the so-called hijab.

In an interview with state-controlled TV, Raisi spoke broadly in positive terms about cyberspace, which is tightly controlled in Iran, amid demands for even greater control by his hard-line allies. He also spoke in support of art and culture, a frequent target of conservatives including his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayers leader in Mashhad who has pushed for concerts to be canceled in that city.

Rohani could also face pressure over his 2013 promise -- so far unfulfilled -- to release opposition figures whom hard-liners regard as "insurrectionists." Mehdi Karrubi, Mir Hossein Rohani, and Rohani's wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging Iranian authorities over the results of the 2009 presidential election and highlighting human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, many pro-reform Iranians remain concerned about their house arrest. Rohani's supporters chanted Musavi's name at one of his recent campaign events, according to a video posted online by young reformists supporting him.

Reformists are likely to use Raisi's role in the 1980s mass executions of dissidents and political prisoners to campaign against him. But talk of those killings is unlikely to erode support among Raisi's hard-line supporters.

Ties With U.S. And The West

While Rohani argues that mending ties with the West makes Iran more powerful, his rivals are likely to say that Iran needs to project power and that the country should avoid appearing weak in the face of pressure and rising tensions with the United States under President Donald Trump.

Rohani has argued that confrontational policies could take Iran to the brink of conflict.

"In the coming election, the issue is whether we want to begin confronting the world and bring back the ominous shadow of war or continue on the path of honorable interaction with the world," Rohani said in an April 23 speech.

The president has been criticized by hard-liners for giving away too much in the nuclear negotiations.

Raisi, who is widely seen as the most potent of Rohani's rivals in this election, in an interview with state-controlled TV on April 26 cited unity and national authority as the best ways to confront the United States. He claimed that the United States "is afraid of the name Iran."

He also appeared to express support for last year's brief detention of U.S. sailors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"We all saw in the Persian Gulf how our youth brought the Americans with tied hands and put them in a humiliating situation," Raisi said.

The sailors were detained for 15 hours after their boat drifted into Iranian waters during a 450-kilometer journey from Kuwait to Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is located.

Women's Issues

Candidates will almost certainly issue promises regarding women's rights to boost support among female voters. Rohani is expected to be bolder in his declarations, as he was in 2013 when he pledged to create more jobs for women and appoint them to senior posts, while conservatives, who support limited roles for women in Iran's clerically dominated society, are expected to keep their promises more modest.

A video posted online by Raisi's campaign appeared to be an attempt to reach out to women. In the video, the hard-line cleric praises the work of his wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, who teaches at Shahid Beheshti University, and says that he doesn't mind coming home to an empty household.

"If there's no dinner, I don't mind," said Raisi, who added that his wife's work helps the country.

Profiles: Candidates In Race For Iran's Presidency

Here are brief descriptions of each of the six men who were approved by the Guardians Council to run in Iran's upcoming presidential vote. A first round is scheduled for May 19, with a possible second-round runoff if no candidate gets more than half of the vote.

Update: Two of the candidates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Eshagh Jahangiri have dropped out of the race, as of mid-day May 17. There can be other withdrawals before the deadline on mid-night, May 17.

President Hassan Rohani

A relatively moderate cleric, Rohani, 68, came to power in 2013 by promising to improve ties with the West, give Iranians more rights, and lessen state intervention in their lives.

A former nuclear negotiator, Rohani oversaw the landmark nuclear deal in 2015 that ended a decade-old standoff with the West. Under the deal, Iran significantly limited its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani gestures to the camera after registering to run for reelection at the Interior Ministry in Tehran on April 14.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani gestures to the camera after registering to run for reelection at the Interior Ministry in Tehran on April 14.

During a 2013 trip to New York to attend the UN General Summit, Rohani shared an unprecedented phone call with former U.S. President Barack Obama. The call, the first between the presidents of the two countries since 1979, was criticized by hard-liners in Iran.

Rohani's critics say he has given too much away and the deal has failed to revive Iran's economy or improve the lives of the country's poor.

Rohani, who has a doctorate of law from the Glasgow Caledonian University, is supported primarily by reformists and so-called pragmatists, but also by some conservatives.

Ebrahim Raisi

Raisi is a cleric and former prosecutor who is seen as being close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As such, he could present the strongest challenge to Rohani's reelection.

Raisi, 56, was appointed last year to the prestigious chairmanship of Iran's wealthiest state charity.

He is presenting himself as a candidate of the poor while promising to create jobs and fight corruption. Raisi recently told state controlled TV that he has personally tasted "poverty and deprivation" in his life.

He served in senior posts in the hard-line judiciary, a major tool of state repression in Iran. Raisi was reportedly involved in the mass executions of opponents and political prisoners in the 1980s.

There's been speculation that Raisi could succeed Khamenei, who served two terms as president before becoming supreme leader -- the position in Iran's clerically dominated system that has the last say in political, religious, and military matters.

If major elements within Iran's conservative leadership are keen on Raisi eventually becoming supreme leader, that could significantly raise the stakes on his presidential bid.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf

Tehran's mayor, Qalibaf has already run twice unsuccessfully for president. Once was in 2005, when he was defeated by hard-liner (and mayoral predecessor) Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The second time, in 2013, he finished a distant second behind Rohani.

Qalibaf, 56, has criticized Rohani's economic policies and pledged to create jobs.

A former police chief and air-force commander within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qalibaf has publicly boasted of his active role in suppressing student protests in 1999 and 2003, and after the much-criticized presidential election in 2009.

Qalibaf was among some two dozen IRGC commanders who penned a letter to then-President Mohammad Khatami threatening the reform-minded leader with intervention if he didn't rein in the 1999 student protests.

He was criticized and accused of incompetence after the deadly collapse of an iconic building in the Iranian capital in January. Some people called for his resignation as mayor. His supporters said the attacks against him were politically motivated.

Qalibaf has also been accused of corruption over reports that he allowed the sale of discounted land in Tehran to politicians.

Eshaq Jahangiri

Iran's first vice president, Jahangiri is widely seen as having registered for the election to stand by Rohani in the face of attacks by rivals and to defend the government's policies, particularly during the planned debates.

Jahangiri served as minister of industries and mines in 1997-2005, under reformist President Khatami.

He reportedly worked with the 2009 presidential campaign of ex-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, an opposition leader who has been under house arrest since 2011.

Jahangiri is said to have good ties with Supreme Leader Khamenei and his closest allies.

Mostafa Mirsalim

Mirsalim is a former culture minister whose 1994-97 tenure was marked with increased restrictions and censorship.

He has criticized Rohani's outreach to the West as ineffectual, saying the result has been new restrictions on Iran and continued sanctions against the country.

The French-educated Mirsalim teaches mechanical engineering at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. He served as police chief following the 1979 revolution.

Mostafa Hashemitaba

Hashemitaba is a former head of the Iranian National Olympic Committee who is widely seen as a centrist.

He has vowed to improve the quality of life for Iranians and fight corruption.

At 71, Hashemitaba is the oldest candidate in the race.

He ran for president in 2001 and finished 10th, winning a paltry 28,000 votes.

2017 World Press Freedom Index

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise. We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.

I. Democracies falling, advent of strongmen

RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index highlights the danger of a tipping point in the state of media freedom, especially in leading democratic countries. (Read our analysis entitled Journalism weakened by democracy’s erosion.) Democracies began falling in the Index in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall.

The obsession with surveillance and violations of the right to the confidentiality of sources have contributed to the continuing decline of many countries previously regarded as virtuous. This includes the United States (down 2 places at 43rd), the United Kingdom (down 2 at 40th), Chile (down 2 at 33rd), and New Zealand (down 8 at 13th).

Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom were marked by high-profile media bashing, a highly toxic anti-media discourse that drove the world into a new era of post-truth, disinformation, and fake news.

Media freedom has retreated wherever the authoritarian strongman model has triumphed. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland (54th) lost seven places in the 2017 Index. After turning public radio and TV stations into propaganda tools, the Polish government set about trying to financially throttle independent newspapers that were opposed to its reforms.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary (71st) has fallen four places. John Magufuli’s Tanzania (83rd) has fallen 12. After the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey (down 4 at 155th) swung over into the authoritarian regime camp and now distinguishes itself as the world’s biggest prison for media professionals. Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains firmly entrenched in the bottom fifth of the Index at 148th.

“The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Where will this downward spiral take us?”

II. Norway first, North Korea last

RSF Report on Iran

Iran; One of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists

Media freedom was one of the key demands of the revolution that toppled the Shah and swept Ayatollah Khomeiny to power in 1979, but it is a promise that has never been kept.

The media are mostly under the Islamic regime’s close control and there has been no let-up in the persecution of independent journalists, citizen journalists, and media outlets.

Media personnel are still constantly exposed to intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and long jail sentences imposed by revolutionary courts at the end of unfair trials. Despite an improvement in its international relations, Iran continues to be one of the world’s five biggest prisons for media personnel.

In the emerging new world of media control, even the top-ranked Nordic countries are slipping down the Index. After six years at the top, Finland (down 2 at 3rd) has surrendered its No. 1 position due to political pressure and conflicts of interests. The top spot has been taken by Norway (up 2 at 1st), which is not a European Union member. This is a blow for the European model. Sweden has risen six places to take 2nd position. Journalists continue to be threatened in Sweden but the authorities sent a positive signal in the past year by convicting several of those responsible. The cooperation between the police and certain media outlets and journalists’ unions was also seen as a step forward in combatting the threats.

At the other end of the Index, Eritrea (179th) has surrendered last place to North Korea for the first time since 2007, after allowing closely-monitored foreign media crews into the country. North Korea (180th) continues to keep its population in ignorance and terror – even listening to a foreign radio broadcast can lead to a spell in a concentration camp. The Index’s bottom five also include Turkmenistan (178th), one of the world’s most repressive and self-isolated dictatorships, which keeps increasing its persecution of journalists, and Syria (177th), riven by a never-ending war and still the deadliest country for journalists, who are targeted by both its ruthless dictator and Jihadi rebels. (See our analysis entitled 2017 Press Freedom Index – ever darker world map.)


Media freedom has never been so threatened and RSF’s “global indicator” has never been so high (3872). This measure of the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations worldwide has risen 14% in the span of five years. In the past year, nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured* have registered a deterioration in their situation, while the number of countries where the media freedom situation was “good” or “fairly good” fell by 2.3%.

The Middle East and North Africa region, which has ongoing wars in Yemen (down 4 at 166th) as well as Syria, continues to be the world’s most difficult and dangerous region for journalists. Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the second worst region, does not lag far behind. Nearly two third of its countries are ranked below or around the 150th mark in the Index. In addition to Turkey’s downward spiral, 2016 was marked by a clampdown on independent media in Russia, while the despots in such former Soviet republics as Tajikistan (149th), Turkmenistan (178th), and Azerbaijan (162nd) perfected their systems of control and repression.

The Asia-Pacific region is the third worst violator overall but holds many of the worst kinds of records. Two of its countries, China (176th) and Vietnam (175th), are the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers. It has some of the most dangerous countries for journalists: Pakistan (139th), Philippines (127th) and Bangladesh (146th). It also has the biggest number of “press freedom predators” at the head of the world’s worst dictatorships, including China, North Korea (180th), and Laos (170th), which are news and information black holes.

Africa comes next, where the Internet is now routinely disconnected at election time and during major protests. More than five points separate then the African region from the Americas, where Cuba (down 2 at 173rd) is the only country in the black (i.e. “very bad”) zone of the Index, which is otherwise reserved for the worst dictatorships and authoritarian regimes of Asia and the Middle East.

Finally, the European Union and Balkans region continues to be the one where the media are freest, although its regional indicator (of the overall level of constraints and violations) registered the biggest increase in the past year: +3.8%. The differences in regional indicator change over the past five years are particularly noticeable. The European Union and Balkans indicator rose 17.5% over the past five years. During the same period, the Asia-Pacific indicator increased by only 0.9%.

The word’s regions (in descending order of respect for media freedom)
The word’s regions (in descending order of respect for media freedom)

III. Rises, falls, and illusory improvements

Nicaragua (down 17 at 92nd) distinguished itself in 2017 by falling further than any other country on the Index. For the independent and opposition media, President Daniel Ortega’s controversial re-election was marked by many cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary arrest. Tanzania (down 12 at 83rd), where President John “Bulldozer” Magufuli keeps tightening his grip on the media, also suffered a significant fall.

Amid all the decline, rises in two countries seem particularly promising and will hopefully continue. After ridding itself of its autocratic president, Gambia (up 2 at 143rd) has rediscovered uncensored newspapers and is planning to amend legislation that is restrictive for the media. The historic peace accord in Colombia (up 5 at 129th) has ended a 52-year armed conflict that was a source of censorship and violence against the media. No journalists were killed in 2016, making it the first time in seven years that journalists survived their work.

However, other sizeable jumps in the 2017 Index are probably deceptive. Italy (52nd) has risen 25 places after acquitting several journalists including the two Italian journalists who were tried in the VatiLeaks 2 case. But it continues to be one of the European countries where the most journalists are threatened by organized crime.

France has risen six places to 39th position but it was simply recovering from the exceptional fall it suffered in the 2016 Index because of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is a country where journalists struggle to defend their independence in an increasingly violent and hostile environment. Excepting the 2016 Index, France’s latest score (22.24) is its worst since 2013, a decline that is due inter alia to problems arising from businessmen using the media as a source of influence. RSF welcomed a new law on media independence but it did not suffice to significantly modify the situation.

In Asia, the Philippines (127th) rose 11 places, partly because of a fall in the number of journalists killed in 2016, but the insults and open threats against the media by President Rodrigo Duterte, another new strongman, do not bode well.

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists. The 2017 Index takes account of violations that took place between January 1st and December 31stof 2016.

The global indicator and the regional indicators are calculated based on the scores assigned to each country. The country scores are calculated from the answers to a questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts throughout the world, supported by a qualitative analysis. The scores and indicators measure the level of constraints and violations, so the higher the figure, the worse the situation. Because of growing awareness of the Index, it is an extremely useful and increasingly influential advocacy tool.

* The term “country” is used in its ordinary sense, without any special political meaning or allusion to certain territories.

A Giant Step towards Election Engineering: Candidate Alignment and Campaign Manipulation

Six Presidential nominees Clockwise; Raeisi, Mirsalim, Rouhani, Ghalibaf, Hashemitaba, Jahangiri.

Islamic Republic of Iran's elections vetting body, the Guardian Council, has approved the qualifications of only six candidates while rejecting 29 other prominent nominees, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and numerous ministers, governors, MPs, heads of official funds and administrations.

The election date is set for May 19.

Qualified or not, all the prominent candidates are believed to be obedient followers of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Therefore, it seems that there are new rules for selecting the favorite candidates, regardless of the old conditions set by the constitution and ideological necessities for filtering the candidates. Based on the new guideline, being loyal to the Supreme Leader is still necessary but not enough to qualify a nominee as a presidential candidate.

The new approach is, in fact, the most important step toward ‘engineering the election’ i.e. setting the candidates on the stage, in desired positions, and directing the campaigns on the ideal course chosen by the Supreme Leader. In this new approach, five main points highlight the obsession and concerns of the ruling establishment:

Balancing the Factions

Out of six approved candidates, three (Hassan Rowhani, Eshaq Jahangiri and Hashemi-Taba) are on the side of the so-called ‘moderate’ government, led by the incumbent president Hassan Rowhani.

The other three belong to the conservative faction, opposing Mr. Rowhani and his cabinet.

The latter (mid rank hard line cleric and custodian of Imam Reza shrine, Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor, Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf, a conservative former military commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, Mostafa Mirsalim, a member of the extreme right leaning ‘Islamic Coalition Party’) are unified under the banner of ‘Ossoolgarayan’ or ‘Principlists’.

In picking these candidates, the Guardian Council has aimed to balance the factions even in equalizing the number of approved nominees. This is exactly an approach that was left aside and ignored by ayatollah Khamenei in 2005 and 2009 presidential elections. Now, it looks like the heavy price for openly siding with the conservatives and ignoring the necessity of balancing the factions in presidential elections have forced him to adopt a new approach.

It is worth noting that the flawed election in 2009 sparked the Green Movement, which brought tens of thousands into the streets and led to a brutal crackdown with hundreds of people detained. The government officially declared at least 27 were killed during the protests but human rights groups put the death toll higher.

That’s why the Supreme Leader is resolved to avoid repeating such a bitter experience now. As a matter of fact, in the past five years, he has been contemplating on how to engineer the next elections and eliminate any pretext for a popular uprising. So, in the May 19 election, the equality of the factions and balancing them will be the name of the game.

No to Bi-Polar Race

‘Don’t worry about the turn-out’, ayatollah Khamenei and his ruling apparatus have decided. Their main target is to manage the election, as smoothly as possible. That is why former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his close aide, Hamid Baqai were disqualified.

Ayatollah Khamenei has made it quite clear that he hates having another bi-polar race. His advice to Mr. Ahmadinejad to stay out of the race was rooted in this new approach. Mr. Ahmadinejad ignored the advice, so he was simply disqualified and thrown out of the ring. 'No controversy this time', the Supreme Leader has decided.

No Stoking Needed

The initial decision (later reversed) to refrain from airing presidential debates live is another reflection of setting the stage for a smooth election procedure far from any unpredictable development or unwanted controversy.

Recent suspension of seven Islamic Societies and arraigning fifty student rights activists are also the result of the new approach in engineering the May 19 election.

The ruling clique does n-o-t want any sort of agitated atmosphere either, even at the price of a low level voter participation. Surely, a significant turn out will be welcomed but, if it does not happen, the establishment is not going to be concerned too much.

Let’s Go for a Tri-Polar Election

The ruling clique most desired version for the May 19 election is a tri-polar competition.

The Supreme Leader, IRGC commanders, Security heads and the Guardian Council know well that Jahangiri and Hashemi-Taba have thrown their hats into the ring as the back-ups for the incumbent president. It is expected that these two will quit the race sooner or later, in favor of president Rowhani.

The ruling clique also knows that Mostafa Mirsalim, a hardliner conservative, has no chance of receiving a significant chunk of votes. He is also believed to leave the scene sooner or later.

Then, the ideal stage will be set for a tri-polar race between the incumbent, who is considered a moderate and two conservative candidates, Raisi and Qalibaf. Later, Mr. Qalibaf is expected to exit the race as well, in favor of Mr. Raisi.

Meanwhile, if Mirsalim and Qalibaf insist to remain in the race, Mr. Jahangiri is going to stay in, as well; hoping to gain some of the votes of those who have decided not to support Mr. Rowhani. In such a scenario, there will be a quartet election which is not the regime’s most desirable setting, but still much better than a bi-polar one.

Votes: Raisi v Qalibaf

Tehran Mayor, Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf is facing two legal cases. He is accused of financial corruption, distributing astronomical sums of money among persons close to him. He is also accused of illegally employing four thousand panegyrists, offering them extremely high salaries to be employed at Tehran Underground network.

Therefore, his chance to win the election is quite slim. Furthermore, he has been twice defeated in previous elections. As a rule, transforming former losers into winners is next to impossible. Nevertheless, the regime is going to keep him in the race until the final stage to use him as a spearhead in attacking the incumbent and, in the meantime, gaging his popularity. If Mr. Raisi fails to attract enough voters to defeat the incumbent, the presence of Mr. Qalibaf will guarantee a bi-polar election. That’s why the military and security institutions are constantly conducting polling as well as measuring voters’ mood. The day to day results of the polling are presented exclusively to the Supreme Leader, senior IRGC and security commanders.

To sum up, it seems highly likely that the May 19 election is going to be a duel between the incumbent and Mr. Raisi. The Supreme Leader, as well as senior military and security commanders are set to make it a duel without controversy and violent consequences. However, time and again, Iran has proved to be the land of surprises.

Navigating Iran's Political Streams

Iranian President Hassan Rohani waves to media after he registered his candidacy at the Interior Ministry in Tehran on April 14.

The names are in, but in Iran just registering your candidacy is not enough to actually participate in a presidential election.

Now it's time for the biggest hurdle, as the Guardians Council -- the 12-member body at the heart of the Islamic republic -- vets all applications and comes up with a final list of candidates. In the course of days, nearly all of the hundreds of registrants will be rejected, leaving voters around half a dozen handpicked names to choose from on election day (May 19).

As the sifting gets under way, labels will be flying as domestic and foreign media alike try to categorize potential candidates into one of Iran's various political streams. Ultimately, most will be deemed to be incompatible with the state's Islamic values, meaning those who are closest to the Western idea of reform have little chance of advancing.

But while the names that make the final list can be assumed to be acceptable to the clerical establishment, that does not mean there are not bona fide differences among them. But what, exactly, is a reformist, a conservative, or a hard-liner?

There are overlaps between camps, of course: some conservatives, for example, hold more liberal views on, say, the economy. But in lieu of actual parties (there are none in Iran) or self-identifying factions, a handful of terms do serve to delineate the strands of loose political ideology around which Iranian politicians cluster.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was a prominent Moderate
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was a prominent Moderate

Reformists: International media often portray this group as Iran's great hope of freeing itself from the tyranny of the supreme leader and his acolytes. But the term is, in itself, inadequate. First, being a "reformer" in the Iranian context means something entirely different than what would be considered a progressive in the West -- we are not talking about people advocating for gay marriage here. There are also two distinct types of reformists in Iran.

Seditionists: The first distinct branch within the reformist camp is comprised of opposition supporters who are seen as the "seditionists" by their foes. For the most part, the seditionists are the leaders and backers of the Green Movement who took to the streets en masse to protest Mahmud Ahmadinejad contentious reelection to a second term in 2009. The conservative media labeled the uprising the fitna (meaning "sedition").

These people -- notably Mir Hossein Musavi, the second-placed finisher who lost a tight race due to what his supporters claimed was electoral fraud -- have long since been ostracized from Iranian politics. This group believes in the predominance of elected institutions over unelected -- a contentious idea in a system in which the clerical establishment plays a dominant role in steering the country -- and argues for the direct election of the supreme leader, the highest authority in the Islamic republic. It is perhaps the hardest camp to define, considering that another stream, the conservative hard-liners, label anyone with even the slightest reformist bent a "seditionist." In their purest form they will play little part in the election, although there are questions whether their most ardent followers could affect the outcome by refusing to vote or by other means.

Moderates: The second "reformist" group is the moderates, which remain firmly within the clerical establishment but also believe that a liberal society with increased participation of the people are in keeping with the Islamic Revolution.

This camp's great hope was once Mohammed Khatami, who served as Iran's president from 1997-2005. Khatami exhibited his desire for reform by extending an olive branch to the United States in 1998 with his then-unheard-of call for a "dialogue of civilizations," and at home by allowing many newspapers to open up.

But key to the moderates, while allowing for some liberalization and greater public participation, is ensuring the continued success of the Vilayat-e Faqih -- the so-called Rule of the Jurists. This political philosophy, developed by the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, holds that those best fit to govern are those most equipped to interpret God’s law -- namely, Iran’s clerics. During the last election, Mohammed Reza Aref, Khatami’s vice president from 2001-2005, represented this group until he withdrew to allow Rohani a better chance of winning. This year, Mostafa Kavakebian, Tehran’s representative in the Majlis (Iranian parliament), best embodies this faction.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

The Principlists/Hardliners: Known in Iran as the Osul-Garayan, this group congregates around the supreme leader -- currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This group is guided by an unswerving belief in the ideological principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They have a loose manifesto based on loyalty to the fundamental pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Shi'a Islam, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, loyalty to the Supreme Leader, and an unquestioning acceptance of the Vilayat-e Faqih. They are above all suspicious of "cultural invasion" -- what they term Westoxification -- Western social influence that must be resisted at all costs. They fear the West's soft power -- and its possible influence on the population -- at least as much as its hard power, if not more. They believe that Iranians should be ascetic -- material development is treated with suspicion and must be subordinated to the importance placed on spiritual development. This year their most prominent candidate is Ebrahim Raisi, custodian and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, the organization that manages several of Iran’s holiest sites.

Pragmatic Conservatives: This group is again comprised of people firmly within the Islamic Republic's clerical establishment. Pragmatic conservatives believe that the Vilayat-e Faqih is the institutional pivot upon which the entire political system should turn, but also that economic reforms are necessary. People should be allowed to get rich; the economy should open up to the world. Perhaps the best exemplar of this camp is Ali Larijani, the current chairman of the Majlis and former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Larijani believes utterly in the Islamic Revolution, but also that it must be tempered with economic pragmatism. This year their most prominent potential candidate is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.

Pragmatists: This group forms a bridge between the hardliners and those more moderately-inclined. Again, they are deeply embedded within the established elites but believe that Iran must open up more to the West, both economically and diplomatically (though they also fear its cultural influence). The undoubted head of this faction is President Hassan Rohani (often described as a relative moderate following the demise of the moderates-turned-seditionists), who faces strong opposition from hard-line elements within the state as he seeks reelection this year. His cause will not be helped by the death earlier this year of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- one of the most prominent figures in the history of the Islamic Republic and a quasi-mentor of Rohani, who also benefitted from Rafsanjani’s political networks.

Former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
Former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad

The Wildcard: On 11 April, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad surprisingly registered as a candidate, despite Khamenei's express wishes that he do no such thing. Ahmadinejad was once close to the supreme leader and was considered a hard-line principlist. But he was and remains a populist, drawing the majority of his support from Iran's lower classes. It may well be that the Guardians Council keeps him off the final list of candidates, but it would do so at the risk of alienating many voters. And if he does manage to get through (or if the attention he attracts helps boost the chances of his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei) Iran's carefully managed elections may yet throw up one more surprise.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, and many others.

No Woman Has Ever Run For Iranian President. Will Azam Taleghani Be The First?

Azam Taleghani (center) arrives at the Iranian Interior Ministry on April 14 to register as a candidate in the country's presidential election.

On April 14, a tiny, frail-looking woman wearing a chador and using a walker made her way slowly up the stairs of Iran's Interior Ministry in Tehran.

Seventy-three-year-old Azam Taleghani was there to register as a candidate in the May 19 vote for Iran's presidency.

She's hoping the third time is the charm.

In 1997, Taleghani, then a 53-year-old editor and women's rights advocate, made history by becoming the first woman to register as a candidate for president.

The move was aimed at highlighting state discrimination in the Islamic republic, where no woman has ever been allowed to run for president.

"It is the fate of half of Iran's population that is at stake," she said then.

Taleghani was not allowed to run in 1997 -- or in 2009, when she tried again. No reasons were given.

Twenty years after her initial effort, Taleghani is the most prominent of the 137 women who have registered as candidates for the vote. She knows she is likely to be rejected once again.

Direct Challenge

Taleghani's move is again a direct challenge to hard-liners in control of the Guardians Council, the unelected body that is in charge of vetting candidates for presidential and parliamentary votes. The council has in the past rejected all female candidates, based on a strict interpretation of the country's constitution.

"Women make up 50 percent of the Iranian population, so the country deserves at least one female candidate," Taleghani told the German news agency dpa on April 17.

But Taleghani, the daughter of prominent revolutionary cleric Mahmud Taleghani, said she would not be "broken" by another rejection by the Guardians Council and that she would continue to fight for women's rights.

Speaking to journalists while registering her candidacy on April 14, Taleghani said she is pressing for a ruling on whether the Iranian Constitution truly bars female candidates from running for president. The controversy centers around the interpretation of a single word.

​"I've come so that the issue with political 'rejal' can be resolved," she said.

Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution says the president should be elected from among the "religious and political rejal." Rejal, which comes from Arabic, means "personalities."

Azam Taleghani has long been one of Iran's most active women's rights campaigners. (file photo)
Azam Taleghani has long been one of Iran's most active women's rights campaigners. (file photo)

Guardians Council members have ruled in the past that the word rejal refers exclusively to men.

But a spokesman for the council, Abbasali Kadkhodayi, said in December that it had not yet come to a conclusion regarding the issue of rejal for the May 19 vote.

"'Political personalities' in Arabic is an idiom that refers to personalities with expertise and managerial [experience] who are politically savvy," Taleghani said in an April 15 interview with the New York-based Center for Human Rights.

Taleghani, secretary-general of the Islamic Revolution Women's Society, said the Guardians Council has never officially announced the reason that it prevents women from running for president.

"The Guardians Council has never said the reason for the disqualification of women is that they're women, even though this has been the understanding of the majority in society," she said. "For example, in my case, [the council] can resort to my critical political activities to disqualify me."

'Clear Message'

Many are praising Taleghani for trying to run for president again, including Iran's vice president for women's affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. She said Taleghani's move sends a clear message to all, "particularly men and the authorities, that they should also see the competent women of the country."

Others are criticizing Iran's media for largely ignoring Taleghani's possible candidacy.

Journalist Mehdi Babaei noted that none of Iran's daily newspapers covered Taleghani's registration on their front pages.

Taleghani has for years been among Iran's most active campaigners for women's rights, challenging hard-line interpretations of Islamic laws that limit the rights of women.

She was one of the first women to become a deputy in the Iranian parliament following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For years, she edited the magazine Payam Hajar, which questioned issues such as polygamy and published articles in favor of more rights for women, including equal rights to inheritance. The magazine was shut down by the authorities in 2000 as part of a crackdown on the liberal and reformist press.

Outspoken Critic

In 2003, she launched a solo protest outside Evin prison in Tehran to protest the treatment of political prisoners following the death in custody of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

She was also critical of the brutal state crackdown that followed the 2009 disputed reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

And she has publicly condemned the house arrest of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

The trio has been under arrest since 2011 for repeatedly challenging authorities over Ahmadinejad's reelection and for highlighting human rights abuses.

In a 2013 interview, the outspoken Taleghani said she believes that Iran's revolution has strayed from its original path to bring Iranians freedom and justice.

"The main principles of the revolution that were highlighted in slogans and were promised to people have not been achieved," she said.

And on April 18, Taleghani criticized some Iranian politicians for spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric, saying that they should "differentiate" between criticizing Israel's government and insulting Jews. She added that any denial of the Holocaust is the result of ignorance.

Shadi Sadr, a prominent women's rights activist who heads the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, says Taleghani has bravely used her position to repeatedly highlight the lack of political opportunities for women in Iran.

"She has been consistent and she has been also using her political background and that of her [father] to bring attention to this issue," Sadr told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

She said that this year's image of Taleghani registering while using a walker was particularly powerful.

"The photo reminded us that [Taleghani] is now elderly. She suffers from ailments, and she has been pushing for [women to be able to run] for years," Sadr said. "Yet the discrimination is still here."

Iran’s Presidential Election, In 10 Points

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In a significant move, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has thrown his hat into the ring for Iran’s May 19 presidential election. Analysts have called the move stunning but, given Ahmadinejad’s history of unpredictable reactions, his decision to register as a candidate is hardly surprising.

Ahmadinejad has entered the presidential race even after direct advice by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay out of the competition. Despite explicitly expressing his intent to comply with Khamenei’s suggestion in an open letter to the leader, Ahmadinejad subsequently changed course and decided to run for president.

At a press conference in early April, Ahmadinejad was reminded of Khamenei’s words. “That was only advice, not an edict,” he told reporters.

In an exclusive analysis for Radio Farda, Iran affairs expert Morteza Kazemian highlights 10 points about the significance of Ahmadinejad’s decision.

  1. Ahmadinejad’s Right To Be A Candidate

Ahmadinejad’s candidacy is his inalienable right as a citizen. If the Council of Guardians -- the elections vetting body -- were to disqualify him, it would further damage the process of elections in Iran.

Disqualifying him would be as despicable as the council’s arbitrary and illegal routine of preventing women, Sunnis, and members of the opposition from becoming candidates in the presidential election.

  1. A New Dilemma For The Regime

Ahmadinejad running for president will pose another dilemma for Iran, which is based on the jurisprudence of an ayatollah, or “the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.”

If the Guardian Council approves the candidacy of Ahmadinejad, it is essentially ignoring the supreme leader’s advice to him. On the other hand, disapproving the credentials of a candidate who has served an eight-year term as president would raise more doubts about the existence of healthy and free elections in Iran.

By ignoring Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is further taxing the ruling system and particularly the main axis of power in Iran.

  1. Another Blow To The Leader’s Credibility

Ahmadinejad’s registration as a presidential candidate is a new and serious challenge to Khamenei’s status as the apex of Iran’s pyramid of power.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s re-election led to the largest public protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Millions of people rallied in the streets of Tehran, saying his re-election was engineered and marred by fraud. Khamenei relentlessly supported Ahmadinejad as the unquestionable winner of the election. Calling the protesters “people with no insight,” he ordered their suppression with an iron fist.

Now that Ahmadinejad has ignored Khamenei’s advice, one might ask, who is it exactly that lacks insight?

  1. A Heavy Blow To The Principlists

Ahmadinejad’s insistence on registering as a presidential candidate alongside his close ally and protégé, Hameed Baqai, and avoiding the main strata of the so-called Principlists, will further weaken the status and influence of the loosely united front of conservatives.

Although Ahmadinejad will lose a significant chunk of conservatives’ support, he will certainly gain the support of a considerable part of their social base. Therefore, the conservatives will be left with no other option than demarking their territory from the former president’s. Any confrontation between the two camps would further divide and weaken the conservatives and the main social body that supports them.

  1. A Blow To The Conservatives Candidates’ Votes

Ahmadinejad and Baqai’s candidacy, if approved by the Council of Guardians, would harm the conservative (Principlist) candidates more than any other candidate in the coming election. And if the Council of Guardians disqualifies Ahmadinejad and his ally, the Principlists will have a hard time luring disappointed supporters back to the conservative mainstream.

  1. Backing Baqai Against Rowhani

Should either Ahmadinejad or Baqai be approved as a candidate, the conservatives would lose but also somewhat gain from their orchestrated campaign against incumbent President Hassan Rowhani. For the conservatives at the center of power, a campaign by Ahmadinejad or Baqai could hurt the chances of a Principlist candidate but would be even more detrimental to the incumbent president’s campaign.

  1. Disqualifying Ahmadinejad And Baqai

Disqualifying a former president would not be an unprecedented move by the Council of Guardians. The vetting body disqualified Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013, ignoring his previous two consecutive terms as president and his post as head of the Expediency Council. But Ahmadinejad’s disqualification would not end his career as an influential personality in Iranian politics. He would remain on the political stage as the most prominent character to have been disqualified by the Council of Guardians.

Ahmadinejad is a maverick politician, notorious for his love of the spotlight. Thus his mere presence as a candidate is a win for him, regardless of whether he is approved by the vetting council.

  1. An Exciting Multi-Polar Election For The Ruling System

Regardless of the paradoxical challenges facing the Council of Guardians in approving or disqualifying Ahmadinejad, the May 19 election will be an exciting multi-polar race. The very presence of Ahmadinejad facing such candidates as Ebrahim Ra’issi (custodian of the Imam Reza shrine and president of a multibillion-dollar religious fund known as Astan-i Qods-i Razavi), Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf (mayor of Tehran), and incumbent President Hassan Rowhani is certainly more than enough to make the coming election much more exciting than the previous one.

This should mean a higher turnout, which would undoubtedly be a development welcomed by Khamenei.

  1. Immoral Political Behavior

A lack of morality in politics is par for the course for those who present themselves as something different than they truly are. As a rule, these kinds of actors say things they do not believe in, and they are experts at committing themselves to outlandish promises that are impossible to fulfill. Ahmadinejad’s highly questionable two-term presidency is the reflection of such an approach. Last winter, he declared he would never back any candidate regardless of their partisanship or factional leanings, and yet now he is supporting Baqai.

  1. A Player For The Crucial Moment

Regardless of what observers may think of Ahmadinejad’s political behavior and discourse, let alone his expertise or capability of running the government, it is undeniable that he will become a significant symbol of an influential political faction.

Through his outlandish generosity in wasting billions of dollars of Iran’s oil and gas income on cash subsidies for citizens, Ahmadinejad has been successful in attracting the support of some segments of society. Coupled with his political audacity, this has transformed him into an effective character capable of maneuvering in crucial moments.

Ahmadinejad’s tenacity as a wild card in Iranian politics and future elections cannot be ignored.