‘If Imam Khomeini were alive and he registered [for president], he would be disqualified’

May 22, 2013

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

An Iranian legislator named Ali Motahari wrote an open letter this week to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei protesting the decision to bar former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running in the upcoming election. The letter, published on several Iranian outlets before being noted and translated by Al Monitor's Arash Karami, called the disqualification "unjustified" and warned that it would be "damaging to the upcoming elections."

Motahari's letter made the provocative case that not even former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, the now-deceased founder of the Islamic Republic, would qualify for the upcoming presidential election. "My strong assumption is that if Imam Khomeini were alive and he registered under a pseudonym, he would be disqualified, because sometimes he expressed criticism," Motahari wrote, according to Karami's translation.

That's something of an Iranian version of the Republican lament, made by such party mainstay moderates as Jeb Bush, that not even Ronald Reagan would win the support of today's more ideologically unforgiving GOP. Of course, neither Reagan nor Khomeini would much appreciate being compared to one another, but the point is not to equate Iran with the GOP so much as to note that sometimes political ideologies can shift even beyond their most celebrated figures.

Khomeini, to be clear, was no moderate, having pushed his hard-line ideology right up until his 1989 death, for example with a fatwa calling for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie. Still, Motahari is right that his views and statements could be complicated. As Kenneth Pollack wrote in his book "The Persian Puzzle," in a chapter on post-Khomeini politics that also discussed the now-faltered cooperation between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, "Khomeini's various statements and writings on domestic affairs were often so confused, ambiguous, and contradictory that Khamenei, Rafsanjani and the pragmatists were able to cite the Imam's words for virtually everything they did – leaving the radicals protesting lamely that they were abusing the spirit, if not the letter, of the Imam's legacy."

The issue of following Khomeini's legacy is a big one for some political factions in Iran. Motahari seems to feel that Khameini has betrayed it by allowing Rafsanjani to be barred from running. It's not clear whether or not others in Iran share this view.

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Max Fisher | May 22, 2013