Iran has a presidential election coming up, and, earlier this month, former two-term president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani submitted his bid for candidacy. Rafsanjani, a powerful figure who is considered more moderate than other candidates, could shake up the race -- but only if the country's Guardian Council approves his candidacy.
Iranians, and much of the world, are watching to see if Rafsanjani is allowed to run. A slight but discouraging-for-Rafsanjani hint came Monday morning, when a Guardian Council spokesman announced, "If a person is able to work only few hours a day, it’s natural that he can’t be approved." The Associated Press called it "a clear reference to Rafsanjani." Reuters also suggests that the comment may signal that Rafsanjani could be disqualified.
Here's why people are taking the comment as a warning that Rafsanjani might not be allowed to run: he is 78 years old. And, as The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian reported over the weekend, the former candidate's critics are increasingly focusing on his age:
Over the weekend, conservative rivals — via newspaper editorial pages, Friday prayer leaders, lawmakers and other presidential candidates — began taking shots at Rafsanjani’s advanced age.
“A young nation will not elect an 80-year-old man,” ultra-conservative candidate Kamran Bagheri Lankarani said in a domestic news interview Saturday. Former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, also a candidate, said Rafsanjani “does not have energy to run the country.”
Rafsanjani's conservative critics within Iran have expressed skepticism before focusing on his age, so it's reasonable to wonder whether that's actually their main objection. After all, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council that will approve or reject his candidacy, is 86. If an 86-year-old man declares a 78-year-old too elderly to work, that will raise some questions about the sincerity of the ruling.
It's also possible that we're all just reading a little too much into the Guardian Council spokesman's statement. When I asked Rezaian about the statement, he noted it was just one comment and not very explicit. An English-language article on Iran's quasi-official Mehr News Agency included a bit more context. And it reads like the spokesman was actually responding to questions about age and, although it's tough to tell from the somewhat awkward translation, may have actually been downplaying an age-based disqualification (my emphasis added):
He also provided comments on the health of the candidates. “The law remains silent about the president’s physical abilities, or it does not make clear that if the president has or does not have the full health, [then] we [should] comment on it,” he added.
Kadkhodaie also said that conditions set forth in Article 115 was taken in its general face, especially for those individuals who passed this stage and belonged to the sphere of political and religious authority. “these individuals naturally should have necessary abilities,” he added, and that “up to this election, there has been no candidate with old age or specific disability which would require us to provide specific comments on, if anyone runs for a demanding and important position, if he is able only to work few hours a day, naturally he might not be qualified.”
“Whether physical conditions will be taken into consideration in president’s abilities, yes, it might be considered, but we have not discussed it,” Kadkhodaie said.
Again, it's entirely possible that something was lost in translation here, but Mehr's account certainly makes it sound like the spokesman was offering some awfully vague comments on the issue of Rafsanjani's age rather than raising it himself, and seems to explicitly avoid suggesting any particular response. He didn't green-light Rafsanjani, to be sure, but it might be too soon to conclude that he ruled out the former president's candidacy, either. Of course, that doesn't mean that the Guardian Council couldn't still reject him. We'll have to wait and see.