Iran's Guardian Council, the powerful vetting and oversight committee of the Islamic republic, announced Tuesday its list of eight approved candidates for the June 14 Iranian presidential election. A total of 686 presidential hopefuls had submitted their names for approval, though in recent days dozens of politicians and clerics had withdrawn their candidacies in support of better-known figures. Chief among them were former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
The Iranian Interior Ministry on Tuesday also confirmed rumors that had swirled for 36 hours that Rafsanjani had been dismissed due to his advanced age. Mashaei, long a subject of derision by the conservative clerical and political establishment (despite having the support of many of the members of Ahmadinejad's Cabinet and who would have enjoyed the backing of the president's considerable political machine and populist connections to Iran's rural and urban poor), also was dismissed.
Rafsanjani and Mashaei can appeal the Guardian Council's decision. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could also decide to intervene on their behalf and help have their candidacies approved. Khamenei recently renewed Rafsanjani's position as chairman of the Expediency Council (a powerful governmental oversight body Khamenei headed before he became supreme leader). Ahmadinejad meanwhile has threatened to release damaging information regarding corruption implicating family members of the Supreme Leader himself, a threat Ahmadinejad has used to defend himself from accusations in recent months. It is unclear if the supreme leader would be willing to be seen as bending to this.
The June 14 elections will mark a significant shift in the political history of Iran. Since becoming supreme leader of the Islamic republic in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has overseen a series of elections that have carefully balanced the competing interests of pragmatic conservatives like Rafsanjani or reformists like former president Hojjat-ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad is the first non-clerical president in nearly a quarter century to serve in the country's highest popularly elected office. He has come under fire from conservatives in the establishment for his attempts to transform the office of the Iranian presidency into one with executive authority in competition with the supreme leader.
Ahmadinejad's populist policies and pursuit of independent executive authority have upset the largely pro-clerical balance of power that has been in place since the founding of the republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By disqualifying the main moderate (albeit the one with overt reformist backing) and populist candidates, the Guardian's Council has left former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Air Force Commander and current Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf without meaningful competition barring his path to the presidency.
Intense infighting among clerical and political camps has resulted in a situation where Iran's conservative leadership is facing a rapidly shrinking body of appropriate political candidates. Should Khamenei decide not to encourage Iran's Guardian Council to reverse its decision on Rafsanjani or Mashaei, the country's conservative political elite risk alienating two powerful political bases within the Islamic republic.
Iran's clerical regime can ill afford domestic political isolation at a time when domestic economic pressures and regional Sunni Arab pushback against the republic are rising. By reducing Iran's ability to maneuver politically, the country's conservatives have become increasingly reliant on integrating former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into civilian and political society. In the past, political infighting in Iran has also impeded Western attempts at foreign policy outreach to that country.
Whatever decisions are made between now and June 14, one thing remains clear: Iran's next president -- whether or not Qalibaf wins -- will have to manage the same challenges of a divided domestic political arena, growing economic pressures and an increasingly hostile regional sectarian landscape.