In January, the same day Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech forbidding officials from discussing the fairness of Iranian elections, his representative in the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) said the military unit had "a responsibility to engineer a rational and logical elections." Now, with the presidential election less than three weeks away, Khamenei and his Praetorian allies in the IRGC have done just that. Of the nearly seven hundred would-be candidates, only eight were approved last week by the Guardian Council—six of them kindred souls of the conservative ruling coalition, including four past IRGC commanders. Perhaps more surprising, though, was who wasn't allowed to run.
When Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—one of the two most powerful men over the first two decades of Iran's Islamic government (1979-1997), and who helped created the IRGC in 1980—announced his intention to run, there was a surprising surge of support for his candidacy. Once the bane of reformists, he has become something of a savior for them since the last president election, in 2009. Some sources, like Abdullah Nouri, a one-time minister of interior in the Mohammad Khatami administration (1997-2005), even spoke of a political tsunami of support for Rafsanjani, making him the odds-on favorite to win the June 14 presidential election.
But Rafsanjani was disqualified from running by the twelve-man Guardian Council (which did approve Rafsanjani protégé Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric among the group of eight). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hand-picked successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was also disqualified. In spite of Ahmadinejad’s many implied and explicit threats about what might happen if Mashaei were to be barred from running, they have yet to challenge the decision—the only response from the Ahmadinejad camp has been the rumor of a “red disc” about to be distributed, laying bare the dimensions of corruption among Ahmadinejad's critics. Meanwhile, many activists in the Ahmadinejad–Mashaei camp have been arrested, some of their websites have been shut down, and the parliament has announced that articles of possible criminal malfeasance by Ahmadinejad—including profligacy in his last trip to the United Nations, when he took 125 friends and family members—are being introduced in the parliament. The message is clear: One wrong move, and Ahmadinejad and his allies will go to prison after his term ends next month.
Even the eight approved presidential candidates have not been free to run their campaigns. Each candidate, for example, is allotted some time to make his case on television. Two of the candidates—Mohsen Rezai, for many years the commander of the IRGC and a comically permanent presidential candidate ever since, and Mohammad Reza Aref, playing the role of the token reformist—have had their messages censored by the state-controlled media. In the case of Rezai, the censored passages referred to the need to allow Iran’s ethnic minorities, like the Kurds and Turkish-speaking Iranians, to speak and teach their own languages in their areas. Aref had dared refer to Rafsanjani as a worthy leader of the Islamic regime.
Though Rafsanjani has refused to publicly challenge the Guardian Council's decision, many of his supporters have taken up the slack. In a large number of letters (some open letters, some addressed to Khamenei, and many written to Rafsanjani himself), announcements (by reformist groups, clerical associations, and ayatollahs), and interviews (by key reformists and opposition figures), many Rafsanjani supporters have registered their disapproval over the disqualification of a man who is—both by law and by virtue of his position as the head of the Expediency Council—the second-highest-ranking official in the regime after Khamenei. If the conservative coalition hoped to finally eliminate Rafsanjani from the political landscape, they miscalculated: He is more popular and powerful today than he has been since 1997, when he left office as a powerful president who exercised nothing short of dual power with Khamenei.
One of the most surprising aftershocks of the Rafsanjani elimination was an open letter to Khamenei by Zahra Mostowfi, a daughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the letter, she warns about the stark economic and political realities of Iran today, and goes on to claim that "the same day that I heard Imam [Khomeini] approve your name as” a possible successor, “I also heard him mention” Rafsanjani as an equally worthy candidate for the job. Hitherto, Khamenei’s main claim to the mantle of Khomeini has been that the latter hand-picked him as the successor. It turns out that Rafsanjani, too, was no less a possible candidate for the job, making his disqualification to run for president appear even more absurd—and further undermining Khamenei's legitimacy.
In response to these mounting pressures, Khamenei and his IRGC allies have taken a multi-pronged approach. On the one hand, sources representing the conservative ruling coalition deny that Rafsanjani’s fitness to serve as president has been rejected. “His fitness was simply not confirmed,” these sources claim. Other sources, like the daily Keyhan, the most reliable reflection of Khamenei’s views, have suggested that Rafsanjani in fact owes the Guardian Council a debt of gratitude. Reformists and opponents of the regime, Keyhan claims, were planning to use Rafsanjani against the regime, and the rejection of his candidacy saved him from this fate of becoming a puppet of the opposition, and of the U.S. and Israel. (By this logic, the man who is responsible for deciding what is “expedient” for the regime is somehow incapable of deciding what is expedient for himself.) And lest there be any doubt about Khamenei’s real source of power, consider his first major appearance after the Guardian Council announced its list of approved candidates: He asked the Iranian people to vote for those who will stand up to the enemy, and said that those who were not allowed to run have nothing but themselves to blame—all while surrounded by IRGC commanders and other military officials. A couple of days later, Iran's police chief—another IRGC commander—announced that 300,000 policemen will be on hand on election day to forcefully abort any attempted demonstrations.
In spite of Khamenei’s show of force, there has been increasing criticism of his foreign policies. Rouhani, Rafsanjani's protégé, said that when he and his allies were in charge of nuclear negotiations with the international community, there were no sanctions, Iran’s case was not referred to the Security Council, and Western as well as regional presidents and prime ministers were more than eager to negotiate with Iran. Now, he says, Iran is weak and isolated, and more than eager to negotiate with deputies, instead of ministers and heads of state. Though he makes no mention of Khamenei, and offered the criticism ostensibly of his presidential rival, chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, there is no mistaking that the real subject of Rouhani’s criticism is not his opponent—a mere cypher—but the IRGC and Khamenei coalition who have controlled Iran’s foreign policy for the past eight years.
Unless there is a deus ex machina, Khamenei is unlikely to get the political "epic"—massive voter turnout—he repeatedly says the regime needs and wants. Instead, Iran is more likely to take yet another step toward becoming a Praetorian despotism dominated in every domain—politics, construction, oil, media, even soccer1—by the IRGC. If criticism of Khamenei becomes more routine, the IRGC might easily find it convenient (and profitable) to jettison the clerical veneer of power altogether. Iran’s history is full of examples of soldiers who were brought in to protect the Sultan, but eventually decided to become Sultans themselves.
Some of the most popular clubs are now run by IRGC commanders.
Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of The Shah (Palgrave Macmillan). He is a contributing editor at The New Republic.