Pre-election Politics in Iran and the Guardian Council

Pre-election Politics in Iran and the Guardian Council
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Iran is less than four months away from the presidential elections of 19 May 2017. Those who are familiar with the country’s politics have in mind the past pre-polling vetting record of the powerful Guardian Council (GC) which, according to the Article 99 of the Constitution, is responsible for supervising the elections among its other duties. According to Article 91 the GC is constituted of six Islamic jurists, “conscious of the present needs and the issues of the day”, to be selected by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists, specializing in different areas of law, to be elected by the Parliament. The election process will officially start on 11 April with the beginning of the official registration of candidates at the Ministry of Interior which will end on 16 April. On 17th and 21st of April, respectively, the GC will start vetting the candidates and addressing the possible objections from those they have disqualified. This will be followed by the announcement of the final list of candidates on 26 April and the official propaganda campaigns will take place between 27 April and 18 May.

Iranian presidential elections are, almost unexceptionally, preceded by the debates caused by the GC’s vetting decisions. As a matter of fact, Article 115 of the Constitution is far from providing an objective framework of the eligibility requirements to run for president. It reads:

The President must be elected from among religious and political men (rejal-e seyasi) possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.

It is unclear whether ‘rejal’, the Arabic word for men, is indeed gender-specific or is it one of those words like ‘businessman’ which does not necessarily carry such a meaning. But this is only one item in a long list of ambiguities. Most of the words in the Article 115, such as capacity, a good past-record, and piety etc., automatically empower the GC to have the final say on the candidates, an authority which, until now, it has not hesitated to exercise to the full. Another factor, more or less unique to Iranian political structure, also makes such a supervisory council inevitable. Iranian presidential elections always draw high numbers of candidates many of whom hardly qualify to run for president in any part of the world, at least from a political viewpoint, for example teenagers. A quick scan of the past few elections will clarify the impact of the GC on presidential elections in Iran.

The first four presidents of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, Seyyed Abolhasan Banisadr, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, Seyyed Ali Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani were elected under rather unusual conditions. Banisadr’s tenure lasted slightly more than a year and ended when he fled the country in the summer of 1981 upon his impeachment by the parliament. The ill-fated Rajai served as president for less than a month. He was assassinated on 30 August 1981. Hence started the presidency of Khamenei who under wartime conditions remained in the post until he succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader, upon the latter’s death in 1989. Shortly afterwards, Rafsanjani became Iran’s fourth president by a sweeping victory when he received more than 90% of the votes.

Table. Presidential Elections in Iran

year Number of Candidates Registered to Run Number of Candidates Allowed to Run percentage of Candidates Allowed to Run
1980 124 96 77.41%
1981 (1) 71 4 5.63%
1982 (2) 46 4 8.69%
1985 50 3 6.0%
1989 79 2 2.53%
1993 128 4 3.12%
1997 238 4 1.68%
2001 814 10 1.23%
2005 1014 8 0.79%
2009 475 4 0.84%
2013 686 8 1.1%


As shown in the Table, in 1997 both the number of those who registered to run for president and those who were barred by the GC rose dramatically. The council disqualified 234 candidates - including all of the women - who had registered to run. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the former speaker of the parliament remained Mohammad Khatami’s principle rival and he lost. In 2001 the number of the registered candidates almost tripled but the GC reciprocated with a more ambitious vetting process. Again all of the women, 45 to be precise, and hundreds of men were disqualified by the GC. The 2005 presidential election was certainly a bizarre epoch in the country’s history. More than a thousand Iranians registered to run in the elections but only eight received the GC’s approval. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency against Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Mostafa Moin, Ali Larijani and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh. As for the disqualified candidates the GC made the following statement:

“By paying due respect to those who out of a sense of duty registered to run for president in this electoral term and by making it clear that the announcement of the eligible candidates does not mean that others are not eligible to take other responsibilities in the Islamic Republic of Iran […]”

In the 2009 presidential elections, both the vetting and post-electoral processes, turned out to be the most debated since 1979. Out of 475 registered names only four, Seyyed Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mohsen Rezai, Mehdi Karroubi and the President Ahmadinejad, were approved by the GC. Hundreds of names were vetted as being ineligible to run and Rafsanjani was also controversially barred by the Council. The post-election turmoil created by the debated results of the elections caused massive demonstrations which targeted the regime’s critical bodies including the GC. The eleventh presidential elections in 2013 drew a high number of candidates, too, but only 8, Hassan Rouhanni, Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, Saeed Jalili, Moshen Rezaei, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Gharazi, Muhammad Reza Aref and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, received approval by the GC. Shortly before the elections Aref and Haddad-Adel withdrew, first in support of the reformist Rouhani and the second in favor of the conservative candidates. Along with all of the women, Rafsanjani, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Chief Staff of the President, Manouchehr Mottaki, Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2005 and 2010 and Ali Fallahian, Minister of Intelligence between 1989 and 1997 were disqualified by the GC. The Council nixed Rafsanjani on the grounds of his advanced age, 79 at that time.

With the May presidential elections, the twelfth in the country’s history, drawing near, the GC’s decisions in the past eleven are a clear indication of its extra-judicial motivations in the vetting processes and this is rather constitutionally intentional than accidental. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran keeps, at the theoretical level, the door open to all candidates devoted to the regime, from the serious figures down to the bizarre ones, and it is left to the GC to decide the final list of competitors. Yet, the uncertain eligibility requirements in the constitution to run for president reinforces the council’s powers. Recently when President Rouhani publicized his disagreements with the Supreme Leader on some issues, the question of whether he would be barred from running for president for a second time was openly debated. Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the GC’s spokesman, even went on to say on 4 January that "there is no guarantee that the president will be approved for a second term". At the moment, the disqualification of Rouhani is a distant possibility but the GC will obviously play again a critical role in the result of the elections. Deprived of his mentor and an important supporter after the death of Rafsanjani recently, Rouhani has no chance but to refrain from outraging the GC and this is exactly what he has been doing for some time now. The elections once again will take place under the framework determined by the GC and will very likely revolve around two main principle competitors, Rouhani and his conservative rival, Qalibaf or someone else. Yet, it is the Iranian electorate that will decide who will be the country’s president. The GC’s controversial supervisory powers, on the other hand, call for a constitutional revision and this, one may say, was one of the many concerns behind Rafsanjani’s call for a new constitution for Iran shortly before his death.