U.S. Must Pay Attention to Iran's Unfair Election

By Mehdi Khalaji

On May 12, Iran's Guardian Council will begin deliberations on which candidates can participate in the June presidential election, perhaps the most important step in selecting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's successor. The uncertainty regarding the outcome, coupled with the regime's repeated claims that nuclear sanctions are intended to hurt the people, gives Washington ample room to criticize the highly controlled electoral process and call for a more open and democratic Iran.

BACKGROUND

To be considered for this year's election, all presidential aspirants must file by May 11. The Guardian Council -- a powerful body with twelve members, six of whom are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader -- then decides which candidates are permitted to run based on its subjective judgment of their qualifications. The results of that process will be announced on May 16. Those disqualified can ask the council to reconsider; any such appeals would be decided by May 23.

On June 14, elections will be held for president, municipal council seats, and two vacant seats in the Assembly of Experts, which selects a new Supreme Leader if Ali Khamenei dies. Holding major elections simultaneously helps the regime keep costs down while exploiting the people's interest in local politics to raise turnout for the presidential vote. Hundreds of thousands of candidates have already registered for the municipal elections; here too, the Guardian Council determines who is qualified to run. Simultaneous elections also decrease the chances of a boycott -- reformists and technocrats have applied to run at all levels, so they would have difficulty asking voters to stay home on election day if the Guardian Council disqualifies their presidential candidates but approves their local candidates.

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Past presidential elections have frequently produced surprising results, and no one is sure how this one will turn out -- at least in terms of which conservative will prevail. If no candidate wins a majority on June 14, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held on June 21.

REFORMISTS SIDELINED BUT NOT ELIMINATED

Despite efforts to convince the Islamic Republic's two previous presidents -- seventy-nine-year-old Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami -- to enter the race, neither has accepted thus far. In addressing his supporters recently, Khatami asked how one can run for president if he is not even allowed to travel abroad, implicitly referring to himself (he has been barred from leaving the country to participate in international conferences since 2009).

In addition, the regime has heightened its vitriolic rhetoric against both men. In an April 29 editorial by the leading Iranian daily Kayhan, publisher Hossein Shariatmadari, a close confidant of Khamenei, called Khatami a "traitor," "corrupt on earth," and "fifth column." Similarly, Intelligence Minister Haydar Moslehi recently declared, "We have information that the person who claims that he predicted the fitna was himself involved in creating it," referring to the mass opposition protests of 2009. This was interpreted as a clear warning that neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami should run for president.

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Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute.

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