Iran's powerful clerical council has reversed its decision to bar two leading pro-reform candidates from running in the June 17 presidential election — a day after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the council to reconsider the disqualifications. Although the Iranian regime does not face an immediate threat from reformists, a threatened election boycott could have undermined the regime's legitimacy. By urging the council to reverse its decision, Khamenei hoped to strike a balance between the demands for reform and the intransigence of the unelected clergy — and thus enhance the position of the pragmatic conservative faction.
Iran's powerful Guardians Council (GC) on May 24 reversed its decision to disqualify two presidential candidates ahead of the June 17 elections. The reversal came a day after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly asked council chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati to reconsider the candidacies of Mostafa Moin, key reformist group the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), and independent Mohsen Mehralizadeh. The IIPF and other reformist groups had threatened to boycott the elections over the disqualifications. It is not as if the Khamenei regime faces an immediate threat from the reformists and is trying to appease them. Instead, Khamenei felt low voter turnout would undermine the Islamic regime's legitimacy in the long run. By convincing the hard-line GC to reverse its decision, Khamenei advances himself as a statesman who can rise above partisan politics — an effort to counter his image as a leader of Iran's conservative establishment. The council's affirmative response to Khamenei will allow him to strike a balance between the liberal and conservative clerics, and thereby enhance the position of the "pragmatic conservatives" — an informal group that for many years has tried to keep tensions between the two polar camps from ripping the system apart. Iran's Shiite Islamist government faces no immediate threat from the reformist opposition — not only is the reform movement disorganized, it also disagrees on the appropriate approach, direction and magnitude of reform. The movers and shakers in the Islamic republic have skillfully exploited these differences — using the situation in Iraq and the crisis surrounding the country's nuclear program to gradually undercut the reformists' power and their influence within the government. The same Guardians Council disqualified hundreds of reformist candidates, including the brother of President Mohammed Khatami, from running in the February 2004 parliamentary elections. The conservatives then took back the legislative branch of government without any backlash from the reformists. The conservatives now intend to reassert their control over the entire system, by taking the executive branch as well. To achieve that, they are looking to front-runner and two-term former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Acceptable to both modernists and traditionalists — albeit begrudgingly — Rafsanjani appeals to the pragmatic conservatives as the candidate most able to draw voters to the polls. Rafsanjani, however, is 70 years old, meaning this most likely will be his final term as president. He will use the next four years to groom a worthy successor — someone who can take over his role as the bridge between the conservatives and liberal clerics. This, of course, will come in addition to his other tasks of keeping the system at home intact and trying to catapult Iran into the position of regional hegemon. The GC originally barred 1,008 aspiring candidates from the presidential elections, but Khamenei called for a review on only two — even though state-run radio quoted him as saying, "It is desired that all people in the country from different political interests have the opportunity to take part in the big test of the elections." The two newly reinstated candidates have one thing in common: They are close to Khatami — a reformist, but one who opposes any radical move that could undermine the Iranian state and/or its Islamist regime. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's younger brother, leads the IIPF, while Mehralizadeh is vice president in Khatami's Cabinet. In other words, although Mehralizadeh and Moin are reformists, they are acceptable to the pragmatic conservatives — who now have gotten Jannati and his hard-line GC to see things their way. Jannati has openly shown his contempt for Khatami and his allies in the past. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jannati and the GC would seek to keep Khatami loyalists out of the political system — especially as they finally are about to rid themselves of Khatami. That the GC has allowed Khatami loyalists to run, therefore, suggests Khamenei and Jannati have struck a deal. The supreme leader apparently has assured Jannati that the two candidates pose no threat to the status quo and has agreed not to undermine the status of the unelected clerics. In any case, because Khatami was instrumental in persuading the IIPF and others from protesting the 2004 disqualifications, Khamenei understands that Khatami and his moderate reformist allies can help control the overall dissident movement. Jannati did not oblige when Khamenei urged the GC to rethink its disqualification of potential parliamentary candidates in 2004. That he has obliged this time around indicates a metamorphosis in the hard-line camp.