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The Candidates

05 May 2009 16:56No Comments
09-4-25-11491852A blast from the past: A young Mir Hossein Mousavi (far left) is seated next to then President Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili. Ayatollah Khomeini is seated on the bed (far right). In the Farsi caption of the photo from Mr. Mousavi's Web site, Ghalam, the candidate asserts his commitment to the regime's survival.

Iran's Presidential Election, Part III: the Candidates and their Supporters


Iran's presidential election, which will be held on Friday June 12, 2009, is drawing near. The election comes at a critical juncture in the history of contemporary Iran, as the Islamic Republic grapples with mounting domestic and international problems. On the domestic front, the landscape is pretty grim. Inflation is out of control; the official rate is 30 percent, but believed to be much higher. Unemployment and underemployment are at least at 20 percent. And corruption is rampant. Add to this the many social and political ills that have resulted as a result of a systematic suppression of dissent and discrimination, especially against women and ethnic minorities.

At the international level, Iran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear program is entering the "make or break" point, as Iran has made great strides in setting up a complete cycle for producing nuclear fuel. At the same time, the instability of Pakistan and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, coupled with the rise to power of a right-wing government in Israel, which constantly threatens to attack Iran, have raised many concerns and created great anxiety among Iranian leaders and Iranian people alike. It is against this backdrop that Iran's presidential election will take place.

In Part I of this series, I described the present political and economical landscape in Iran. Part II covered Iran's most important political parties, their historical roots, and their ideological leanings. In the present article, I describe the main candidates, both declared and undeclared, their platforms, and the groups and parties that support them.

Shock and Intrigue

The most unexpected development in Iran's presidential race was the sudden withdrawal of Mohammad Khatami from the campaign. Throughout 2008, Mr. Khatami was under immense pressure by the reformist and democratic groups to declare his candidacy. That is because even though Mr. Khatami has failed to make deep reforms in the political structure of the Islamic Republic (IR), he is still one of the most popular and respected political figures in Iran. He is also respected in the West. The respect is due partly to Mr. Khatami's sincere belief in a democratic political system and the rule of law, and partly due to his untainted credentials as an uncorrupted senior leader. Since the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1908, few Iranian leaders have resisted the temptation to use their power to enrich themselves, their families, and their key supporters. Mr. Khatami, along with Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, Mahdi Bazargan, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, belong to the small circle of senior Iranian leaders who fall in this category.

Due to the widespread respect that he enjoys, Mr. Khatami was the only figure who could have united the reformist and democratic camps. He was reluctant to be a candidate, partly because of his experience and the knowledge that he could not make the changes that he believes are necessary; and partly because of the extreme sensitivity of the reactionary right--particularly the followers of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi--to his candidacy. For months he kept saying that another well-known reformist, one who would not provoke a violent reaction by the reactionaries, should run instead.

But if not Mr. Khatami, then who? One name discussed was Abdollah Nouri, Mr. Khatami's Interior Minister during his first term, and a leading reformist who was jailed for his outspoken criticism of the IR's political system. In the opinion of the author, Mr. Nouri, if he were to be elected president, would have been the strongest person to lead the effort needed to make deep reforms in the system. He has clearly criticized the IR system, and has spoken clearly about the need to revise Iran's Constitution in order to make it more democratic, and in particular, to limit the powers of the Supreme Leader.

However, Mr. Nouri's candidacy never materialized. Although he enjoys widespread support among university students and more radical reformists, the main reformist groups were not willing to support him because they believed his candidacy would be rejected by the Guardian Council (GC), a Constitutional body that vets the candidates. This was, in the author's opinion, an unreasonable argument because if Mr. Nouri were to be rejected by the GC, so be it. Why should the reformists not put the onus on the GC to reject their candidate and, hence, become the target of people's wrath, rather than putting it on themselves by not putting Mr. Nouri forward as a candidate? In any event, Mr. Nouri announced that he would not be a candidate.

The second possible candidate was Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's last Prime Minister before the revisions in the Constitution in 1988 eliminated the post of the PM. Mr. Khatami held long discussions with Mr. Mousavi in order to convince him to run. Mr. Mousavi was also the reformists' first choice in 1997 (when Mr. Khatami was eventually elected) and in 2005; but both times he declined to run. Mr. Khatami had announced that, "Either me or Mir Hossein [Mousavi] will run." But, when it appeared that Mr. Mousavi was not ready to run, Mr. Khatami announced his candidacy.

At first, it appeared that Mr. Khatami was on his way to another landslide victory. During the trips that he made to Iran's southern provinces, he was greeted by huge crowds chanting in his favor and denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But two developments changed the dynamics. One was the fierce response reactionaries had to his candidacy. He was even threatened to death by Kayhan, the Tehran daily, which is the mouthpiece of the hardliners in the security forces.

The second and more important development was Mr. Mousavi's sudden announcement that he would run. After consulting with his senior advisors, and despite their vehement opposition, Mr. Khatami announced that he was withdrawing from the election because (i) he did not want the reformist vote to be split among several candidates, and (ii) he had always stated his preference for Mr. Mousavi's candidacy.

What were the real reasons behind Mr. Khatami's withdrawal? Few people know, and they do not wish to speak about it publicly. As a result, there are many speculations. One rumor is that he was strongly discouraged from running by the Supreme Leader. Mr. Khatami has denied this, and there is evidence to suggest that was indeed not the case. Or if true, Mr. Khatami was clearly not persuaded. There were similar rumors before Mr. Khatami announced his candidacy. So, if the rumors were in fact true, by announcing his candidacy, Mr. Khatami had already indicated that he wished to put his loyalties to the nation and the aspirations of his country above whatever relationship that he has with the Supreme Leader. Others attributed Mr. Khatami's withdrawal to his promise of "either me or Mir Hossein," but that promise was made under a completely different set of circumstances.

In any event, with Mr. Khatami leaving the scene, and Mr. Nouri not entering the election, the main candidates have entered the ring. Below, I describe them. But, keep in mind, there are many intrigues and surprises in Iranian politics. Whether another dark horse candidate will emerge remains to be seen.

The Candidates

As of the time of writing this article, four candidates have been publicly announced, two of whom belong to the reformist camp. They are Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Mahdi Karoubi, the former speaker of the Iranian parliament (the Majles) and the leader of the National Trust Party (see Part II for the description of the political groups). The third candidate, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaee, is a conservative. The fourth candidate is the current president, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mir Hossein Mousavi


Mr. Mousavi was born on September 29, 1941, in Khameneh (near Tabriz) in east Azerbaijan province, the main home to Iran's Turkish population. He obtained his master's degree in architecture from the National (Melli) University (the present Shahid Beheshti University) in Tehran in 1969. He was a lecturer in the same university from 1974-1975, and an assistant professor from 1975-1977. In this period, he founded the Samarghand Company, an architectural design and construction firm, which also served as a secret gathering place for the Islamic opposition to the Shah and his dictatorial rule.

Such notable figures as Mr. Abdolali Bazargan (Mahdi Bazargan's son and a distinguished Islamic scholar), and Hasan Aladpoush and his wife Mahboobeh Motahedin (who were part of the Islamic movement against the Shah, but later changed their ideology and became ardent Marxists and were killed by the Shah's security forces), were participants in those gatherings.

Mr. Mousavi worked on the architectural design of the Towhid Center, a center of Islamic opposition to both the Shah and the present political system, and where Ayatollah Morteza Motahari (a leading Islamic scholar assassinated a short time after the 1979 Revolution), lectured in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Mousavi is widely believed to be a follower and admirer of Dr. Ali Shariati, the great Islamic scholar and perhaps the most important non-clerical figure who influenced Iranian youth in the 1970s.

Mr. Mousavi married Ms. Zahra Rahnavard (born 1945) in 1969. Her father was a professor in the military college in Tehran, but was fired after a confrontation with an American military advisor. She is also (on her mother's side) a close relative of Navvab Safavi (whose real name was Mojtaba Mir-Lowhi), a leading figure in the Islamic organization Fadayan-e Eslam (he was executed in 1955). Ms. Rahnavard was also active in the opposition to the Shah. Due to those activities, Mr. Mousavi sent his wife and their two children (they now have three) to the United States in 1976, where she was active in the old Confederation of Iranian Students. Shortly before the February 1979 Revolution, Ms. Rahnavard and her children returned to Iran. Later on, she received a Ph.D. in political science, and for a while was the president of Al-Zahra University in Tehran (which is exclusively for women). After the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad to Iran's presidency, she resigned. Despite her Ph.D. in political science, Dr. Rahnavard is known as a leading figure in the arts. She is the first female full professor of arts at Tehran University, a distinction that she was awarded in 2008; she has received numerous awards for her research.

Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar (Iran's Prime Minister during the summer of 1981, and assassinated in September of that year), and Ayatollahs Mohammad Beheshti (assassinated in June 1981), Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ali Khamenei (the current Supreme Leader), and Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (a leading figure among the leftist clerics) founded the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), which was Iran's dominant political organization until May 1987, when it was dissolved. (Its dissolution was partly due to the many fissures that had developed between the leftist and rightist factions of the clerics; see Part II). Mr. Mousavi was the first political director of the IRP in 1979. When Jomhouri-e Eslami, the mouthpiece of the IRP, was founded by Ayatollah Khamenei in 1979, Mr. Mousavi was its editor-in-chief as well as its director. (Jomhouriy-e Eslami is still published; the editor-in-chief is Mr. Masih Mohajeri, a cleric.) During the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, Mr. Mousavi was the Foreign Minister for a short time. After Ayatollah Khamenei was elected Iran's President in 1981, Mr. Mousavi was appointed the PM.

Although according to Iran's Constitution at the time, the PM was to be appointed by the President and approved by the parliament, the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei was opposed to Mr. Mousavi's appointment because he was a leftist populist and supported a leftist economic program. Ayatollah Khamenei proposed Ali Akbar Velayati for the post. Mr. Velayati was the FM for 16 years, from 1981 to 1997. He is a U.S.-trained pediatrician (Johns Hopkins) and a moderate conservative. But Ayatollah Khomeini opposed the appointment and supported Mr. Mousavi, and the Majles that was dominated by the Islamic leftists who voted Mr. Velayati down. It got to the point that Ayatollah Khamenei stayed home for several days in protest and threatened to resign. Through mediation by several leading clerical figures, he finally relented.

To placate the right wing, Mr. Mousavi appointed Mr. Velayati as the FM, and two other right wing ministers to his Cabinet, namely, Mr. Ahmad Tavakoli (Tehran's representative to the current Majles), and Habibollah Asgar Oladi Mosalman (a leading figure in the Islamic Coalition Party; see Part II). But, he also appointed to his Cabinet such leading leftist figures as Mr. Behzad Nabavi (an important figure in the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization; see Part II) and a young and little known cleric, Mr. Mohammad Khatami. It is widely believed that Mr. Mousavi wished to resign several times during his premiership, but was ordered to stay on each time by Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 1988, the right-wing clerics succeeded in revising the Constitution and eliminating the post of the PM. Thus, Mr. Mousavi quit the government in 1989, after Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed the Supreme Leader.

In 1997, Mr. Mousavi was the leading choice of the reformists to run in the presidential election, but he refused to do so. His wife, Dr. Rahnavard, later explained in an interview that the reason he had not run was the "discouraging messages that he received from higher officials," which was interpreted by many to be Ayatollah Khamenei. But, he was so popular that the reformists made huge posters of him and Mr. Khatami together during the 1997 election campaign (just as they are doing now).

Mr. Mousavi was a senior advisor to Mr. Khatami during his presidency. In 2005, the reformists, and in particular Mr. Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoiniha (a leading figure among the leftist clerics; see Part II), asked him to run in the presidential election, but he refused again. Since 1999, he has been the president of the Iranian Academy of the Arts, as well as the managing editor of the Khiyal (Imagination), a quarterly published by the Academy. In addition to Persian, he speaks English, Arabic, and Turkish fluently.

Mr. Mousavi has been highly praised for his management of Iran's economy during the war with Iraq. Despite a meager income of $6 billion a year derived from oil exports, the immense expenses associated with the war, a rapidly growing population, the great brain drain, and sanctions by the United States, there was never a shortage of essentials, nor was there high inflation. He, along with Mr. Rafsanjani, were instrumental in convincing Ayatollah Khomeini to accept the United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 and the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988, despite powerful opposition by the army and Revolutionary Guard commanders. However, it is highly doubtful that his economic policy during the war can address the mounting crisis Iran is currently facing.

A major mark against Mr. Mousavi's premiership is that during that period thousands of political prisoners were executed. However, one must remember that the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Courts that were the instruments of the arrest, jailing, and execution of the political prisoners, were not controlled by Mr. Mousavi. In fact, Mr. Mousavi's intelligence minister, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri (a cleric), as well as all the IMs of Iran, are picked by the Supreme Leader. One may argue that Mr. Mousavi could have protested the executions, if he were truly opposed to them. While that is a completely valid argument, one must also note that, (i) it is known that he wanted to resign several times and, therefore, it is conceivable that at least some of the attempts to resign were due to his opposition to the excesses of that period, including the executions (although there is no strong evidence for this either), and (ii) his premiership was during the period in which Iran was involved in a bloody and long war with Iraq. Therefore, it is conceivable that Mr. Mousavi might have thought that running the country efficiently was his highest national duty.

Mr. Mousavi has been endorsed by all the reformist groups and political parties, except the National Trust Party of Mr. Karroubi (see Part II), who is a candidate himself. A faction of the Principlists (or the Fundamentalists; see Part II), critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad, has also announced their support of Mr. Mousavi's candidacy. Many believe that he has many votes among the conservatives who are not willing to publicly announce their support, fearing retribution by the radical right. Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, a journalist and a leading figure among the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (see Part II), has even speculated that Mr. Mousavi is the candidate of Iran's "political establishment." More radical students have criticized Mr. Mousavi, asking him pointed questions about several issues.

It appears that Mr. Mousavi is feared by the conservatives, since they have been attacking him fiercely. In his election campaign Mr. Mousavi has harshly criticized the policies of Mr. Ahmadinejad, saying they are "harmful to the Revolution, the country, and its good name." Mr. Khatami has fully supported Mr. Mousavi, appearing with him in several campaign speeches, and urging people to turn out in large numbers in order to defeat Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Khatami has said repeatedly that if the turn-out is large, Mr. Mousavi will be elected.

In terms of foreign policy, Mr. Mousavi will most likely follow the same pattern of resistance to the West with respect to Iran's nuclear program, as adopted by Mr. Ahmadinejad, but without his rhetoric. He has stated that he will not suspend the nuclear enrichment program, and he has said that "the achievements of our young scientists in the field of nuclear energy are irreversible." He has said that he will not recognize Israel, but has also denounced Mr. Ahmadinejad's pronouncements against Israel, calling them "wrong and harmful to the country." He has said, "We should oppose the killing of any number of Jews since killing one [innocent] person according to Koran is like killing all the human race, whether Muslim or Jew." He also supports detente with the United States. He has advocated creative diplomacy, rather than what he calls taking a "defensive posture." He is against using hot rhetoric in dealing with the West: "Sometimes [our] anti-Western sentiments gain such momentum that afterward we are forced to send [corrective] messages and letters."

Regarding domestic matters, he has said many times that the Constitution must be revised in order to allow private TV stations, and to give control of law enforcement and police forces to the President (they are currently controlled by the Supreme Leader). He has opposed the increasingly narrow "red lines" and the division of people into "friends and foes." He has declared, "The issue of non-compliance with Iranian laws is the biggest problem that the country is currently faced with."

An important negative aspect of Mr. Mousavi's campaign is the vagueness he maintains in his positions. He often refuses to respond to important questions, such as (i) How would he confront the intervention of the Supreme Leader in the affairs on the nation? (ii) How can he make sure that voting will be free of fraud? (iii) What are his positions regarding women's and ethnic minorities' rights, and the freedom of the press? (iv)What is his position regarding university student organizations? (v) What does he think of the principle of freedom of expression (more precisely, freedom after expression)? Mr. Mousavi does not address such issues and often responds in a vague and generic manner when asked about them. In effect, it appears that Mr. Mousavi is performing a balancing act between the left and the right, and wishes to be deliberately vague at this stage of the campaign.

For more information on Mr. Mousavi's positions, visit www.kalemeh.ir and ghalamnews.ir.

Mahdi Karroubi

Former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi (L) points at ally Mehdi Karroubi, Iran's former parliament speaker and reformist presidential candidate for upcoming June elections, during a press conference in Tehran on April 28, 2009. Karroubi said that he will not pull out of the presidential race, though he is concerned about possible tweak of votes. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi (L) points at ally Mehdi Karroubi, Iran's former parliament speaker and reformist presidential candidate for upcoming June elections, during a press conference in Tehran on April 28, 2009. Karroubi said that he will not pull out of the presidential race, though he is concerned about possible tweak of votes. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Mr. Karroubi, a mid-rank cleric and Secretary General and founder of the National Trust Party (see Part II), has been a fixture in Iranian politics since the 1979 Revolution. He was born in 1937 in Aligoudarz in Lorestan province, and was a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini. After the Ayatollah was arrested in 1963 (due to the riots of June 1963), he was highly active in distributing the Ayatollah's open letters to government officials. Between 1963 and 1977 he was arrested many times and spent years in jail. In addition to his religious education, he also received a B.S. degree in Islamic Laws from the University of Tehran.

In 1978-1979, while massive protests against the Shah were taking place and labor strikes had paralyzed the nation, Mr. Karroubi was leading all the local committees that were distributing food and other essentials to protesters and strikers. In 1979 he was elected to the first Majles after the Revolution, representing the people of his hometown. On the order of Ayatollah Khomeini, Mr. Karroubi founded the Martyr Foundation in 1980, which provides aid to the families of those who have lost their lives as a result of the Revolution and its aftermath. He was elected again to the 2nd and 3rd Majles in 1984 and 1988, representing the people of Tehran. The 3rd Majles, dominated by the Islamic leftists, elected him as the Speaker for the period of 1989-1992. He did not play any role in the execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. He was elected again to the 6th Majles in 2000 that was dominated by the reformists and Islamic leftists, and was elected again as the Speaker, but failed to get elected to the 7th Majles in 2004 in elections that were widely believed to have been rigged.

Mr. Karroubi's record as the Speaker of the 6th Majles was mixed. On the one hand, he played a leading role in preventing the Majles from revising the draconian press law that the conservative-dominated 5th Majles had passed, after Ayatollah Khamenei sent him a letter and ordered the Majles to end the discussions. On the other hand, he was an outspoken foe of several actions by the hardliners, including Dr. Hashem Aghajari's death sentence, a popular Islamic leftist professor and a follower of Dr. Shariati, after he had spoken against the conservative Ayatollahs in a speech. (The death sentence was later overturned by Iran's Supreme Court.) He was also very outspoken against the Guardian Council. Mr. Karroubi has repeatedly declared his opposition to the vetting process.

After Mr. Mousavi refused to run in the presidential election of 2005, Mr. Karroubi declared his candidacy. He ran a strong campaign and in the vote counting in the early hours after the elections on June 17, 2005, he was running second to Mr. Rafsanjani. But he was later declared to be in 3rd place, after Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Ahmadinejad, and therefore unable to make it to the round-off election (no candidate can get elected without at least 51 percent of the vote). It is widely believed that irregularities and cheating took votes away from him.

In response, Mr. Karroubi wrote an angry and public letter to the Supreme Leader, alleging fraud and vote rigging and denouncing the alleged intervention of his son, Mojtaba Khamanei, and several commanders of the Revolutionary Guard on behalf of Mr. Ahmadinejad. In one blatant example, Mr. Karroubi pointed out that the Guardian Council had counted 298,000 votes in South Khorasan province, whereas officials had previously stated that there were only 270,000 eligible voters there! The Guardian Council rejected Mr. Karroubi's accusations, but the Interior Ministry, which runs the elections, and still then under the control of the reformists, declared about a week later that a prominent military figure had been arrested who had admitted to committing electoral violations.

Ayatollah Khamenei responded in a terse letter, rejecting the accusations and even implicitly threatening Mr. Karroubi. He said that Mr. Karroubi's actions may cause a national crisis and that, "Feeling the full wrath of God and his power, I for one will not allow any individual to create a crisis in this country." Mr. Karroubi responded by sending a 2nd letter, calling the elections "the blackest page in the history of ideological struggle in Iran" between the various political trends. He resigned from his post as a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader, and from membership in the Expediency Council, a Constitutional body that arbitrates when there are differences between the Guardian Council and the Majles. He was even put under house arrest for several days. Soon afterward, he also resigned from the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics, known as the Rouhanioon, in the formation of which he had played a leading role in 1988 (see Part II), and founded his own moderate National Trust Party.

Aside from his own party, Mr. Karroubi has not been endorsed by any of the major reformist groups. Even the Rouhanioon have endorsed Mr. Mousavi. Mr. Khatami attempted to persuade Mr. Karroubi to stand down in favor of Mr. Mousavi, but he refused. However, some leading figures among the reformists have endorsed Mr. Karroubi, including Mr. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Mr. Khatami's vice president and close advisor. His campaign manager is Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former popular Mayor of Tehran and a member of the leadership of the Executives of Reconstruction (EoR), a moderate reformist group (see Part II). But, the EoR has officially endorsed Mr. Mousavi. In addition, Mr. Abbas Abdi, an outspoken reformist who was jailed for his opinions, Hossein Mara'shi (the brother-in-law of Mr. Rafsanjani), Eshahgh Jahangiri and Mohammad Ali Najafi (ministers in Mr. Rafanjani's and Mr. Khatami's cabinets, with the latter being a current member of Tehran City Council), Reza Amrollahi (former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran), and Ataollah Mohajerani (the relatively liberal Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Mr. Khatami's Cabinet), all leading figures of the EoR, have endorsed Mr. Karroubi and are campaigning for him. Moreover, Mrs. Jamileh Kadivar, Mr. Mohajerani's wife and sister of Dr. Mohsen Kadivar, a leading cleric and outspoken critic of the conservatives, and Tehran's representative in the 6th Majles, is also part of Mr. Karroubi's campaign.

Many of Mr. Karroubi's positions are more or less similar to those of Mr. Mousavi. In foreign policy, he has endorsed the continuation of the uranium enrichment program, and will not recognize Israel. But, at the same time, while he has condemned Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, he has also condemned Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric against Israel, and has said repeatedly that, "Some of the Palestinians have criticized our support of their cause," implying that Iran's support of Hamas has not been in Iran's national interest. He has endorsed detente with the United States.

Domestically, Mr. Karroubi has harshly attacked the Guardian Council and its power of vetting the candidates, calling it illegal and against the Constitution, and has been at particular odds with Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the old and powerful Secretary General of the Guardian Council and an ultra-reactionary. His daily, the National Trust, which consistently criticizes the government, is considered Iran's best reformist newspaper.

One of the most positive aspects of Mr. Karroubi and his campaign are his bluntness and honesty. Mr. Karroubi speaks his mind freely and courageously. It was a very courageous act to accuse, in a public and widely distributed letter, the Supreme Leader's son and the high command of the Revolutionary Guard (and, hence, indirectly the Supreme Leader himself) of vote rigging, and then resigning after not receiving a satisfactory response. In addition, not only has Mr. Karroubi spoken much more clearly (than Mr. Mousavi) about freedom of press and expression, but has also promised to directly speak to the people about the right wing's intervention in the affairs of the state. Moreover, he has put together a highly competent team of experts and managers.

For more information about Mr. Karroubi's position on the issues, visit his two official websites, www.roozna.com and www.campaign88.ir.

Mohsen Rezaee


Mr. Mohsen Rezaee (his complete name is Mohsen Sabzevar Rezaee Mirgha'ed), a conservative, was born in 1954 in Masjed Soleiman in Khuzestan province. In 1972, he was accepted to Aryamehr University (currently Sharif University), a leading science and engineering university in Iran, with a major in mechanical engineering. But, being a student activist against the Shah, he left Iran and went to the Palestinian camps in southern Lebanon to be trained in guerrilla warfare. He went back to Iran before the 1979 Revolution and actively participated in it.

He was the second top commander of the Revolutionary Guard. He was appointed to the post in 1981 at the age of 27, and remained in that post until 1997. He was a Major General when he resigned to pursue politics. Many believe that he played a leading role in prolonging the Iran-Iraq war. In a letter to Mr. Rafsanjani in 1988 (who at that time was the commander of the armed forces), just before Iran's acceptance of UNSC Resolution 598 and the ceasefire with Iraq, Mr. Rezaee spoke of another 5 years of war. He now denies his role in prolonging the war.

Mr. Rezaee's successors in the Guards are Major Generals Yahya Rahimi Safavi and Mohammad Ali Jafari, both hardliners. They have made many changes in the structure of the Guards, one byproduct of which has been Mr. Rezaee's diminishing influence among the top commanders of the Guards.

After resigning from the Revolutionary Guard he was appointed Secretary General of the Expediency Council, a post which he still retains. He obtained his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tehran in 2001. He helped found Emam Hossein University (controlled by the Revolutionary Guard), where he teaches . He is married with five children. His younger brother, Omidvar Rezaee, is Masjed Soleiman's representative to the Majles.

Mr. Rezaee was also a candidate in the 2005 election, but withdrew only two days before the election. He never gave any reason for the withdrawal other than saying, generically, that he did it for "the integration of the votes of the nation." Some have speculated that being a former Commander of the Guards he became aware of the behind-the-scene activities of some in the high command of the Guards to get Mr. Ahmadinejad elected; rather than pursuing a lost cause, the thinking goes, he withdrew. But he has stated that he will remain in the election this time. His candidacy is but one indication of the deep fissures in the ranks of the conservatives.

In recent months Mr. Rezaee has advocated the formation of a "coalition government," but has not spelled out exactly who or which political groups should be part of the coalition. He has criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad on several issues, saying for example, that he wants "change in the leadership of the country," and "the lack of wealth generation, increasing unemployment, the high cost of living, and appointing weak people to important positions, instead of competent ones, are the current major problems that the country is facing." He has declared, if elected, he will appoint a woman as the Foreign Minister.

Thus, it appears that the coalition that Mr. Rezaee has in mind is one comprised of the conservative critics and supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad. In the opinion of the author, it is inconceivable that Mr. Rezaee would make a coalition with the reformists. His talk of a coalition government has apparently been endorsed by some other leading conservatives, such as Mr. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former commander of the air force wing of the Revolutionary Guards and the competent Mayor of Tehran, Mr. Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majles, and former Foreign Minister Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati.

Mr. Rezaee's campaign manager is Dr. Davoud Danesh Jafari, an economist and a former commander in the Revolutionary Guards. He was Mr. Ahmadinejad's first Minister of Economy, but resigned to protest his economic policies. The Development and Justice Party, a conservative group in which Mr. Rezaee's brother Omidvar plays a leading role, has endorsed Mr. Rezaee. The DJP is also represented by a small faction in the Majles.

Similar to all other Iranian politicians, Mr. Rezaee supports the continuation of Iran's uranium enrichment program, and does not recognize Israel. In fact, he has spoken about Israel in a conspiratorial manner, by likening Zionism to an iceberg, meaning that only a tip is visible, and whereas more than 90 percent of it is not seen, and it is the unseen 90 percent that is the most dangerous.

Mr. Rezaee is currently on the official wanted list of the Interpol for his alleged involvement in the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 18, 1994, that killed 85 people. He is banned from entering the United States and the European Union.

For more information on Mr. Rezaee's views, visit his official website, www.rezaee.ir

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad needs no introduction. He was born on October 28, 1956, in Garmsar, a small town east of Tehran. His father was a blacksmith who moved his large family to Tehran in search of a better life. Mr. Ahmadinejad's family is deeply pious. He studied hard and was admitted to Iran University of Science and Technology in 1976 (which was called the College of Science and Technology at that time)--among the second tier of Iran's engineering schools--although Mr. Ahmadinejad claims that he ranked 132 among the 400,000 high school graduates that took the national university entrance examinations that year.

He majored in civil engineering. A devout Muslim, he was a student activist in the university's Islamic Society. Many is his inner circle are his friends and colleagues from that university.

After the Revolution, he was opposed to the take over of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but advocated doing the same to the embassy of the Soviet Union, since he was fiercely anti-communist. He joined the Revolutionary Guards and fought in the war with Iraq, although his exact role has remained unknown. After the war he was not interested in amassing wealth for himself (many former commanders of the Guards became fabulously rich after the war), but longed for a return to the early days of the Revolution when piety ruled supreme. He returned to his alma mater, received a Ph.D. in traffic engineering, and began teaching there. But I know of no published paper in a respectable peer-reviewed journal that could be claimed to be the result of his Ph.D. dissertation.

He was appointed Governor General of the Ardabil province when Mr. Rafsanjani was the president. In the 1997 election, he spent 3 billion toumans (about $6 million at that time) of the province's budget in the election campaign of Mr. Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the main rival to Mr. Khatami. After Mr. Khatami's victory, his Interior Minister, Mr. Abdollah Nouri, fired Mr. Ahmadinejad and referred his involvement in Mr. Nategh Nouri's campaign and the illegal use of the governmental funds to court. That case is still in court, although it has remained inactive for over a decade.

In 2003 the reformists who controlled the government held the most democratic election in Iran's history--the elections for the second city councils around the country. Tehran's first city council was dominated by the reformists, but they kept squabbling among themselves, instead of solving Tehran's immense problems of traffic and air pollution. Thus, only 11 percent of the eligible voters of Tehran participated in the election, and Mr. Ahmadinejad's group, the Abaadgaran (the Developers), easily won the elections. Mr. Ahmadinejad was appointed Tehran's Mayor, with his star starting to rise among the conservatives. He did not accomplish much as Mayor, although his supporters claim otherwise.

Mr. Ahmadinejad then put together a coalition of some Revolutionary Guard commanders, some leaders of the Basij (the militia made up mostly of poor young people), some ultra-reactionary clerics led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, and his allies among the Abaadgaran. His humble background and lifestyle, together with his promise that he would root out corruption and bring the oil wealth to people's homes, attracted many poor and lower-class people. With Ayatollah Khamenei's help he was elected the president in 2005. It is widely believed that Ayatollah Khamenei suggested to the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij commanders to order their members to vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad, and to take with them to the voting stations as many family members and friends as possible.

But, once elected, Mr. Ahmadinejad began purging the bureaucracy on a vast scale and appointing his allies. That indicated the extent of his secret network around the country, and gave clear meaning to what a key ally General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, a hardliner in the Revolutionary Guard, said after his election. He declared that Mr. Ahmadinejad's election "was not an accident. It was a result of two years of complex, multifaceted planning." It is said that even Ayatollah Khamenei was surprised by the extent and depth of Mr. Ahmadinejed's network.

But, despite the skillful planning for the 2005 election, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven incompetent when it comes to the economy (see the introduction above). His actions have put the conservatives in a precarious position in Iran, and have, to a large extent, isolated Iran internationally. He did get tough with the West regarding Iran's nuclear program. Despite immense pressure by the Bush administration, he relentlessly pursued Iran's uranium enrichment program, to the point that Iran now has close to 7000 centrifuges in Natanz, making Iran's progress in this area essentially irreversible.

Despite the best efforts of Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters of casting a rosy picture that the conservatives are united behind Mr. Ahmadinejad, the deep fissures among their ranks are pretty visible. The candidacy of Mr. Mohsen Rezaee is but one indication of such fissures. Even those who have endorsed him have been criticizing him. For example, after half-heartedly endorsing Mr. Ahmadinejad, the Front of the Followers of the Imam's and Leader's Line (a coalition of some traditional conservatives; see Part II), Mr. Asgar Oladi of the Islamic Coalition Party asked publicly and sarcastically, "What happened to the $250 billion in the oil income, Mr. President? Was the 'box' open, or did its bottom have a big hole?"

The Association of Militant Clergy (see Part II), the conservative group that supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005, has yet to announce its endorsement of Mr. Ahmadinejad. In an internal voting of its central committee, Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Ahmadinejad received essentially the same number of votes.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's most ardent supporters seem to be his political group, the Sweet Scent of Service [to people], which does not have much support among the population, the Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees (a group of the former commanders of the Revolutionary Guards who fought in the Iran/Iraq war), the Basij, and followers of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (see Part II). Even Iran's Hezbollah (a group of hardliners) has declined to endorse him. Given the terrible state of the economy, and the high rates of inflation and unemployment, it is highly doubtful that Mr. Ahmadinejad will be able to retain his support in the rural areas among the peasants and poor people (depite distributing bags of potatoes to feed families in the provinces).

For more information about Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters, visit rajanews.com.

Other Candidates

Other dark horse candidates may yet emerge, although as of the date of writing this article (May 3, 2009), they have not. One, for example, may be former foreign minister Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati who has been rumored to be entering the race. He is senior foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader and is considered a relatively moderate conservative.

A third reformist candidate is Mr. Akbar A'lami, the Tabriz representative in the 6th and 7th Majles. He is outspoken, and has frequently spoken against the hardliners, which may have cost him his candidacy for the 8th Majles. The Guardian Council disqualified him from running. If he passes the GC's filter of vetting, I'll write about him in a future article.


The stage is set for one of the most critical elections in Iran. If the reformist camp can take advantage of Mr. Ahmadinejad's terrible performance and convince people to turn out in large numbers, it will have a very good chance of defeating the conservatives. If not, Iran will be in for another four years of conservative rule with unpredictable consequences.

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