The firebrand Ahmadinejad had previously served a controversial two terms as president, from 2005 to 2013, and was required to vacate the office for a term as per the Iranian constitution. That constitution technically allowed for him to make another run at the office this year, but his registering as a candidate last week came as a surprise to many. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the final authority in all matters of Iranian government policy, had advised Ahmadinejad against running and had cited his divisive record. Ahmadinejad initially suggested he would follow the supreme leader’s wishes, but ultimately dismissed them as mere suggestions.
Other regime figures seemed to widely regarded this as defiance of the clerical head of state, leading to uncertainty about whether the former president would be permitted to continue his effort to reclaim the office. On Thursday it became clear that the Guardian Council, the body that is tasked with vetting all candidates and legislation, would not include Ahmadinejad in the list of approved presidential candidates, which the council said it would release by Sunday.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic, along with a handful of government edicts, establishes that candidates for high office must have demonstrated fealty to the Velayat-e Faqih, or the system of absolute rule by clerical authorities. The imperative to defend the /theocratic system typically leads to the disqualification of a wide variety of would-be reformist candidates. And indeed this trend has been observed in the current election cycle, with the Center for Human Rights in Iran pointing out on Monday that a parliamentary by-election in Isfahan has already been left without any serious reformist candidates, after the female reformist who won that seat in last year’s elections was disqualified after the fact, apparently because of accusations that she had shaken hands with an unrelated man.
But Ahmadinejad’s disqualification on Thursday shined a different spotlight on the role of the Guardian Council and the regime’s tight control over the electoral process. In this case, it is a well-known hardliner who has been disqualified, thereby underscoring the fact that the vetting process is not strictly aimed at enforcing a specific political ideology among presidential candidates, but is instead focused on enforcing loyalty to the unelected higher authority that is really in charge of the country’s political identity.
The incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, has noticeably failed to stand up to the supreme leader or to hardline entities like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that are closely affiliated with him. This tendency has contradicted Rouhani’s progressive campaign promises, although the sitting president did follow through on the specific promise to improve Iran’s standing in the world by pursuing an international agreement over the country’s nuclear program.
This effort was sufficiently controversial that there had been some talk among hardliners about the possibility of Rouhani being barred from a reelection campaign by the Guardian Council. But the nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, did receive tentative backing from Supreme Leader Khamenei, and Rouhani’s avoidance of other progressive initiatives seems to have left hardliners without a convincing argument in favor of his disqualification. As such, Rouhani’s candidacy was confirmed by the Guardian Council in the same initial statement that ousted Ahmadinejad from the campaign.
Several other persons were also confirmed as candidates in that initial statement, but the most prominent name aside from that of Rouhani is Ehrahim Raisi, a mid-level clerical figure and the head of one of the country’s largest religious endowments. Raisi had already been widely recognized as Rouhani’s foremost hardline challenger, and that status has been all but locked in by Ahmadinejad’s disqualification. That move has helped to reduce divisions among the hardline faction of Iranian politics, which has had a hard time unifying behind a single candidate that seems capable of taking on Rouhani and spearheading the reversal of his pragmatic approach to international relations.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s penchant for anti-Western rhetoric and his close connection to the IRGC, in which he was previously an officer, IranWire reported earlier this week that it was Raisi that appeared the have the backing of the Revolutionary Guards. The hardline paramilitary has remained fairly consistently in the headlines since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, thanks to a series of provocative gestures made toward naval vessels and aircraft in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, inside Iran the IRGC has spearheaded a major crackdown on independent journalism and activism, which has lately seemed to put particular focus on persons who are likely to support Rouhani for reelection.
“By law the Iranian military cannot interfere or take sides in elections, but recent developments suggest that the Guards, with the tacit consent of the judiciary, are trying to help boost the chances of Ebrahim Raeesi, the hardliners’ preferred candidate,” IranWire explained in the context of a report on recent clashes between the Iranian judiciary and the Rouhani administration’s Intelligence Ministry.
The judiciary reportedly criticized Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi on April 12 for making public statements on the IRGC related arrests, suggesting that they were politically motivated. Judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, asserted that it was inappropriate for Alavi to make any public comment at all on a “special case,” thereby underscoring the enforced silence that surrounds various political and law enforcement matters in the Islamic Republic.
This enforcement was further on display in the regime’s reaction to Ahmadinejad’s declared candidacy, even before it was announced that the Guardian Council would not allow him to proceed with the campaign. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Wednesday that Iranian media had been barred from covering the former president’s campaign. Simultaneous orders were issued on this matter by Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi and by the Supreme National Security Council, which is controlled by the Rouhani administration.
The CHRI quoted one anonymous source from the Iranian journalism community as saying, “Now and then, we receive orders to ignore certain topics, and we have to comply or else we could endanger our newspaper’s existence.” It also pointed out that similar gag orders have been instituted in the past with regard to comparatively progressive figures like former President Mohammad Khatami, whose image has been airbrushed out of re-published archival photographs and video in order to abide by a ban on any public mention of him.
This sorts of restrictions are of course primarily enforced on large-scale media operations, but the regime appears to also be tightening its controls over social media and personal communications in the run-up to the election. For instance, IranWire reported on Thursday that the regime had blocked access to a new voice calling feature on the popular Telegram messaging app, just four days after the feature premiered.
The report points to the obvious conclusion that this is another example of the ongoing efforts to suppress political speech in advance of the election. But it also entertains the alternative possibility that the move was motivated by economic protectionism, in order to limit competition with local telecommunications companies. But either way, the effort can be seen as expressing closer alliance with the positions of the hardline Raisi, who could be expected to eagerly support Supreme Leader Khamenei’s push for a “resistance economy” that dismisses the need for engagement with the outside world.
Rouhani may continue to push a different economic agenda, but his record in other areas of policy, together with the Guardian Council’s confirmation of his candidacy, suggests that he will not pursue any initiative at the expense of defying the supreme leader.