Iran’s 2009 Protests Haunt Upcoming Elections

Here is my most recent article at the Huffington Post: On May 21, 2013, Iran’s Guardian Council, the powerful 12-member body charged with vetting hopefuls for the Iranian presidency, determined that Iran’s former president, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, 78, was unfit to run again for the position due to his advanced age. The fact that Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati is Rafsanjani’s elder by nearly a decade and is the chairman of the same council that disqualified the former president indicates that there are probably other motives behind the decision.

Rafsanjani was one of the most trusted lieutenants to Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution that ushered in the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, Rafsanjani was Speaker of Parliament in the 80s and served two terms as president (1989-97). He currently heads the Expediency Council, the body empowered to arbitrate legislative disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. A seasoned politician with such credentials and youth (by comparison to Jannati) had a seemingly strong résumé for the position. So why was he prevented from standing in the election?

Many analysts have rightly suggested that personal rivalries within Iran’s centers of power are to blame. Some have concluded that there was a falling out between Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader, and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the former now seeks a more loyal, obedient, and malleable president. That the eight approved candidates are very close to Khamenei gives credence to this point.

Accordingly, Haddad Adel is the father-in-law to Khamenei’s son, Ali Akbar Velayati is the leader’s top advisor, Saeed Jalili and Hassan Rohani are both Khamenei’s appointees to the powerful Supreme National Security Council, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is a former police chief appointed by Khamenei and currently serves as the Mayor of Tehran, Mohsen Rezaei is his longest serving chief of the Revolutionary Guards (1981-1997), and Mohammad Gharazi is a figure close to the leader.

The most important reason for disallowing Rafsanjani from standing, however, is rooted in the unprecedented post-election turmoil of 2009.

In the summer of 2009 and in the weeks before the presidential election, thousands of supporters transformed the campaign of their candidate, reformist and former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, into a street movement. Some even used the campaign as a cover to demonstrate against the government as a whole. So threatening was this movement that on the eve of the vote, Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the Deputy Commander of Political Affairs for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, accused the campaign of being part of a “velvet revolution” and promised that “any kind of velvet revolution will not be successful in Iran.”

Subsequently, when the results were announced and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, many Mousavi supporters emphatically alleged fraud and launched a protest movement that drew millions onto the streets. On June 15, 2009, for example, Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf (the same Qalibaf now running for president) estimated that three million people marched on the capital city alone. Protests of this magnitude were undoubtedly the largest since Iran’s historic 1979 revolution.

The protests may have reached a bitter end at the hands of a brutal crackdown, but the movement’s long-term effects continue to haunt the authorities.

Until 2009, the Iranian government always urged the electorate to participate in any and all elections. The fear was that low voter turn-out would be a vote of no confidence for the Islamic Republic. Today, and as a consequence of 2009, the Iranian government’s first priority is not a free or fair election, or even one in which a majority of the electorate participate. The priority now is a quiet and uneventful election and that’s the main reason why Khamenei loyalists are allowed to run and Rafsanjani is disqualified. If only the loyalists run then the worst case scenario for the Iranian government is a low voter turn-out. But if Rafsanjani were allowed to run then the outcome is too dangerously unpredictable for the authorities.

Indeed, in 2009, Rafsanjani backed the protest movement, Mousavi, and the other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, thereby garnering the favor of protesters. What’s more, when the Iranian government flooded the streets with security personnel to stamp out the movement, protesters began strategically using special events like political holidays or Friday prayers as a cover to come out and renew their demands to annul the election results and protest the government as a whole. They even used the occasion of Rafsanjani’s Friday sermon more than a month after the election to continue their protests.

The Iranian government wants to prevent the simmering opposition from surfacing and using a Rafsanjani candidacy as a cover to reignite 2009’s protest movement. This is an especially pressing point in the context of regional uprisings that have in recent years challenged and in some cases succeeded in ousting their autocratic leaders.

Lastly, this may quite possibly be the final presidential election in Iran as Khamenei has indicated his preference for scrapping the presidency in favor of a parliamentary system where the parliament elects a premier. This too may be a consequence of 2009 since it is far more difficult for the opposition to rally around one candidate when it is the parliament and not the electorate that chooses the premier.

Naturally, all this does not bode well for democracy in Iran.

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3 Responses to Iran’s 2009 Protests Haunt Upcoming Elections

  1. PB says:

    There is no doubt that Iran is operating under the cloud of 2009 election. Your points are well taken.

    We all agree that Iran’s Presidential election is an exercise in friendly competition among “friends.” Having said that, it has created very competitive races and surprising results, such as Khatami and Ahmadinejad elections. Your point that a Rafsanjani candidacy could reignite a protest movement is well put. However, I think that is not because of Rafsanjani’s credentials that you have listed, rather because he would be used as THE EXCUSE. Rafsanjani has long been disqualified by the Iranian people and has lost 2 presidential elections. He has clear record of government mismanagement as he ushered in an era of unprecedented debt which he and he alone failed to pay. The Iranian government has failed to pay its international obligations only once in its modern history, and history has recorded him to be the man who failed. Worse yet, he left a legacy of massive international debt and fiscal debt. People forget that he came out against Iran Khodro to produce its own cars because his advisers explained it would be cheaper if Iran assembled foreign cars. It was Khatami who brought fiscal order to Iran’s government and left Iran with $30 billion dollar international debt when he departed. And it IS Ahamdinejad who is about to leave Iran with NO DEBT and $90 billion cash reserves with over $600 billion in gold reserves. The World Bank had predicted Iran’s cash reserves to rise to $200 by now, but the sanctions and the war in Syria has changed all that. AN IMPRESSIVE RECORD BY ANY MEASURE.

    What is missing from this debate is the fact that, under Ahmadinejad’s coalition in Iran’s Majlis, he passed Iran’s first ANTI-TRUST LAW in history, in December of 2008. He promised to break “MONOPOLIES.” That was the principle reason why Rafsanjani who sat on the board of Iran’s Free University (daneshgahe azad) system with Mr. Mousavi, decided to deny Mr. Ahmadinejad a second term. When Ahmadinejad called Mr. Mousavi “the old guard” trying to protect their turf, he was referring to what he was going to do to Mousavi and his boss. Indeed, both Mousavi and Rafsanjani are out of that board. Rafsanjani’s son has been removed from running Tehran’s Metro system, and his other son was arrested for smuggling money to Dubai. He remains in jail. One must ask himself why does the media cover the fact that a soon to be Presidential candidate, head of Iran’s expediency counsel, is father of a jailed son for money laundering. Indeed, the threat of the anti-trust law is the very reason that Mousavi could not accept nor could he allow the winner to remain President. He chose to bring Iran’s government down for his own personal gains. No where this becomes more clear than what the media consistently refused to even write about: 1-Mousavi’s own campaign manager, the man who counted the vote for his campaign, held a Press conference stating he told Mousavi he had lost. That’s why the Tehran crowds disappeared but the Western media kept showing earlier pictures even though most had gone home. 2-Mousavi never filed an official complaint within the 3 day period as required by law. Khamanei proved to be a saavy politician and extended the deadline and forced Mousavi to file his complaint so it could be recorded for history. The GC published it on the internet for all to see. The document had nothing in it, and no opposition media inside or outside Iran has ever referred to Mousavi’s own complaint as to why he believed he was the winner. Mousavi became a crowd agitator in order to overthrow an elected government. In any country he would be jailed. But Iran being authoritarian, they responded in a typical manner despite being on the right side of history. I THINK THE REASON FOR 2009 LOOMING SO LARGE IS NOT THE ELECTION OR THE PROTESTS, RATHER THE MANNER BY WHICH THE GOVERNMENT REACTED WHICH BROUGHT THEM DISREPUTE INSIDE THE COUNTRY AND IN THE REGION.

    It is important to remember that Rohani remains a close ally of Khatami and is considered a reformer. And let us not forget that Rezae also protested against an Ahmadinejad victory and sided with Mousavi based on his own gut feeling. But your point is well valid that these are the safest candidate the GC could muster.

    As you can see, not even one person has been outraged by the Rafsanjani disgrace. I think what is really an outrage and a giant step back for Iran is the denial of women to run for President. I find that one is particularly surprising in light of the fact that Iran is under tremendous international pressure and that Khamanei had denied women’s disqualification 4 years ago.

    Finally, I think Iran’s leaders are not worried too much about the Arab Spring. What is on their minds is the laser focus of the Obama administration for regime by any means possible. The trend in the region they worry the most is not the Arab uprising, instead they are deeply troubled by the sanctions, the assault on Syria, the rise of sectarian war as promoted by the Saudis, and ANY SIGN OF WEAKNESS IN IRAN THAT WOULD ENCOURAGE all those trends.

  2. iPouya says:

    Very interesting analysis, as always. PB, are you voting? If not, why? If yes, for who? And is there anyone you prefer to the approved list?

  3. PB says:

    Hi, Hope all is well.
    I am not voting because if you recall the last election showed foreign votes are last to be counted. It seems no matter where I vote I still suffer from the “California syndrome”-too late to matter.
    I have come to hope (although a strong word) for Jallili, because of the nuclear issue. Also because of his credentials: War veteran who lost a leg, yet got his PhD. (I believe in physics), and has been doing a professional job during the negotiations (perhaps a better diplomat than Ahmadinejad), and he is relatively young.
    If I was betting man, I would say the race will be between Jallili, Velayati and Rohani, and in that order. This may be the end of the “reformists” if Rohani is rejected handily.
    How about you?

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