A heated debate about who will be allowed to run in Iran’s presidential election has erupted five months before the vote, stoking concerns about a repeat of the protests that followed the contested 2009 poll.
At the heart of the controversy is whether the vote will be what critics of Iran’s electoral system call “free” — that is, cast with a ballot that includes candidates from all of Iran’s various political factions and not just principlists, the conservatives who are loyal to the Shiite Muslim clerical establishment that rules Iran.
The loudest calls for an open field of participants are coming from two former presidents and the outgoing one, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They are trying to ensure that their political allies are not barred from running by the Guardian Council, the powerful committee of clerics and jurists that vets the eligibility of potential candidates. Half of the 12-member council is appointed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and half by parliament from among nominees who are also beholden to the supreme leader.
The challenges have sparked fiery responses from Khamenei, who accused Ahmadinejad and his fellow critics of trying to “discourage the nation.”
“They should not insist on saying that elections are not free,” he said early this month. “We’ve held more than 30 elections since the  Islamic revolution. Which one was not free? In which country can you see elections freer than those held in Iran?”
The open debate is delicate for Iranian authorities, who are eager to prevent a replay of the massive street demonstrations that followed the disputed election of 2009, when reformists were on the ballot. But the establishment has long pointed to high voter turnout as proof of its legitimacy, and that is likely to materialize only if the ballot includes candidates from across Iran’s political spectrum.
That would mean allowing the participation of candidates allied with reformists and Ahmadinejad, a onetime protege of the supreme leader who has since fallen out of favor with Iran’s mullahs. He and reformists enjoy popular support, and their allies could siphon votes from establishment contenders, undermining Iran’s system of clerical rule.
As the debate escalates, many hard-liners are dismissing the call for free elections as little more than a ploy to prop up factions that they say have lost support.
“Because the reformists have no hope to win in the next presidential elections, they are using the keyword ‘free election’ in the political arena of the country to make problems for the elections,” Mojtaba Zonnour, a cleric and an adviser to the supreme leader’s representative in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the state news agency. “When reformists lose the election, they can put the blame on the system and take advantage of the sympathy and emotion of the people.”
Some top officials have gone further, deeming the criticism a call for demonstrations similar to those in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets to protest what they said was Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection. A crackdown by Iranian security forces left dozens of people dead.
“Our assumption is that unrest may arise in smaller cities of Iran, away from Tehran,” Nasser Shabani, a commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, told an Iranian newspaper last week. He added that economic problems — including high unemployment and soaring inflation that has been blamed on Western sanctions and mismanagement by the Ahmadinejad administration — might fuel protests.
“It is possible that certain individuals will try to use these factors as political tools close to the upcoming presidential elections,” he said.
Although Shabani was likely referring to Ahmadinejad and his allies, the debate over free elections began with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In an address to university students in Tehran last month, he said, “The first step for returning balance to our society is to have free, transparent and legal elections. If we do this, all the factions will accept the results of the votes and cooperate and help the government to solve the problems of the country.”
A former two-term president, Rafsanjani is viewed as one of the most important and pragmatic figures in post-revolutionary Iranian politics. Although he is not considered a reformist, he supported reformist candidates’ challenge of the 2009 election results, sacrificing some political clout.
His words last month sparked a backlash, mostly from ultraconservatives who believe elections should be open only to those most loyal to the establishment.
“In the previous post-election sedition, ballot-rigging was the code name for the riots, and this time the code name for unrest is the [call for] free election,” said Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of the Guardian Council and the key decision-maker about who will be allowed to run. Speaking at Friday prayers in Tehran this month, he accused “defeated politicians” of inciting the public.
Other hard-liners deem the complaints nothing more than sour grapes from political elites — in this case, the country’s former presidents — who have seen their stock fall in recent months.
Hossein Ebrahimi, a former parliamentarian who is a member of an influential group of clerics, compared the grievances of Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani to those of exile groups operating outside Iran, an analogy that equated them with the Islamic republic’s biggest enemies.
“Ahmadinejad was chosen by the same system, and if he talks about this, he is, in fact, questioning his own election,” Ebrahimi said. “The same goes for [Rafsanjani], who ran for two terms and was elected through the same system of elections.”
But the clear disapproval of the clerical establishment has not stopped many politicians from speaking up in support of a varied political playing field.
“If the election is only between the candidates of the principlists, then the reformists will not have any appetite to take part in it,” Issa Kalantari, who served as Iran’s minister of agriculture under Rafsanjani, said in an interview with Mehr News Agency. “But if we create a situation in which all factions can take part, then the competition between the principlists and reformists will be very exciting and competitive.”