This year, Iranians will take to the polls to elect a new president. Although it is difficult to predict the outcome, one thing is certain: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is out.
The Iranian constitution stipulates that a president can only serve two terms in a row. The president is responsible for the economy and diplomatic relations, as well as his cabinet and Parliament. But the most important job in Iran is not up for election this year; the position of Supreme Leader is by appointment only.
The Supreme Leader is the most powerful person in the country, acting as head of the Republic and in charge of foreign policy, defence and security. Since the founding of the Iranian Republic, only two people have held this office: Ayatollah Khomeini, who founded the Republic, and Ali Khamenei, who took over after Khomeini’s death in 1989.
The ‘Assembly of Experts’, a democratically elected body of 86 clerics, appoints the leader, but the Assembly is also able to remove them. Although they have never exercised this power, it was suggested following Ahmadinejad’s successful election in 2009.
Many of the opposition Green Movement supporters took to the streets to protest alleged election rigging. They claimed that Supreme Leader Khamenei had participated or condoned the fraud, and the protesters called for his unseating.
Reports suggest that the Assembly’s then-chairman, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had called an emergency meeting to investigate the claims. Whilst nothing seemed to come of it, the incident revealed deep splits within the assembly and the regime. There is a growing feeling in Iran that what is needed is not a new president but a new Supreme Leader.
Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s wealthiest and most powerful politician, was close to Ayatollah Khomeini and helped design the system at the Republic’s founding in 1979. Following Khomeini’s death, he publicly supported Ali Khamenei’s selection for Supreme Leader., before becoming President of the Republic himself.
But in the last few years tensions have been particularly strained between Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamenei. In 2009, he openly supported the opposition Green Movement, and last year both his son and daughter were arrested for taking part in the post-election protests three years prior.
Despite his many detractors, Rafsanjani is a very influential and successful politician. Whilst the 78 year old is too old for the presidency, exceeding the age limit by three years, many Iranian commentators have been speculating that he has his eye on a bigger prize: the office of the Supreme Leader.
Whether he is able to obtain enough support to do this remains to be seen, however, Ali Khamenei is old and very ill, and this opens up the question of a replacement. Some have suggested that Rafsanjani is the man for the job, as he has excellent experience handling the economy and foreign relations, but he would bring in sweeping reforms to save the republic.
One of Rafsanjani’s key policies is bringing to an end the ‘politics of revenge’ and score settling. Politicians are constantly trying to undermine one another, and some are said to keep files on their rivals’ exploits.
One of the most famous examples of this was in the run-up to the 2009 presidential elections, when Ahmadinejad took part in a TV debate with rival candidate Mousavi. He pulled out a file on Mousavi and began waving it around and shouted “Shall I tell everyone what’s in here?”
Ahmadinejad never revealed what was in the file, whether it was secret financial information or personal information about Mousavi and his wife. The tactic is a typical one during a political debate, and to an extent fuelled the post-election protests.
When the results didn’t go Mousavi’s way, he made his grievances public. He openly challenged not only Ahmadinejad, but also Ali Khamenei and the Iranian system, and it led to widespread anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations that risked splitting the political system.
It is hard to tell how popular this idea of cleaning up politics will be, as Rafsanjani seeks to temporarily suspend parliament, and call for re-elections. But if Rafsanjani becomes supreme leader it is possible that this is the future direction that the Republic might take.