Khamenei 'Yes Men' Fill Iran's Ballot, Analysts Say

Millions of Iranians go to the polls Friday to elect a president, and it will be a "one man, one vote" election. But experts say that only one man's vote really counts: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Screen grab of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Millions of Iranians go to the polls Friday to elect a president, and it will be a "one man, one vote" election. But experts say that only one man's vote really counts: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Across the nation, echoes of the massive protests, riots and violence that marked 2009's re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stay with Iranian voters, but the crowds are not likely to return. After the Green Revolution rose up in protest when Ahmadinejad declared victory, the movement was stamped out by Khamenei's regime, its leaders silenced.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images.

In uprisings that preceded the Arab Spring, Iranians tweeted and shared their depictions of censorship, voting fraud and violence. The memory of protester Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death by the Basij paramilitary spread wildly online, weighs particularly heavy as one of the defining moments of the revolts. As voters return to the polls to reassure Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's strong hold on the country, the economy is in shambles, crippled by sanctions imposed by the West due to their nuclear enrichment program.

A new set of candidates vie for the presidency, but in this race a majority of remaining candidates are former Revolutionary guard officers, effectively supreme leader "yes men". Moderate conservatives have become "reformers" and opposition candidates have either been barred from running or put under house arrest. Of the 686 candidates who registered, only eight were approved by the Guardian Council, a body hand-picked by the Supreme Leader to verify and approve candidates. The six candidates (two dropped out) are:

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, Mayor of Tehran and former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Ali-Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and adviser to the supreme leader

Saeed Jalili, head of National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator

Hassan Rowhani, former National Security Council head and chief nuclear negotiator

Mohsen Rezaei, lead commander of the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war

Mohammad Gharazi, former Minister of Petroleum

To get more insight we spoke with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading Iran researcher, and Ali Alfoneh, an Iran analyst specialized in civil-military relations and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Their responses have been edited for clarity.

On the candidates

Alfoneh: Of the six remaining candidates there are four veterans of the Revolutionary Guards (Rezaei, Qalibaf, Jalili, and Gharazi), one cleric (Rowhani) and one technocrat (Velayati). This is the highest number of Revolutionary Guards officers running for president in the entire history of the Islamic Republic. Tehran Mayor Qalibaf signaled his modern managerial style by bringing his iPad into the first presidential debate; while IRGC Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Suleimani's public support for Qalibaf served the purpose of mobilizing the IRGC voters. Jalili's election videos depict him as a pious man of the people, and he is mostly among members of the Basij rather than the IRGC, which distinguishes his support base from that of the mayor of Tehran. Rohani is taking the mantle of Khatami and Rafsanjani upon his shoulders, and has managed to get public declarations of support from the former presidents.

Sadjadpour: Jalili was previously head of Khamenei's office, and his campaign slogans-which preach Islamic principles coupled with political and economic resistance against hegemonic powers (that is, the United States)-align closely with Khamenei's worldview. He and Velayati represent the so-called "principlist" camp [those loyal to the principles of the Islamic Revolution], although Velayati projects a more urbane image. While Qalibaf is nominally a member of the "principlist" camp and pays lip service to Khamenei and revolutionary values, his main focus is to portray himself as a strong manager who can improve the country's moribund economy. Several opinion polls-which admittedly should be taken with a large chunk of salt-show Qalibaf in the lead. Rowhani, an acolyte of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani (who was prohibited from running), is the lone "reformist" in the race, which is a reflection of the Iranian political spectrum's shift to the right. A decade ago, many of the reformists who dominated Iran's elected institutions-namely the presidency and the parliament-would have considered Rowhani more a rival than an ally.

On the supreme leader's authority

Sadjadpour: Iran's most powerful institutions-including the Revolutionary Guards, Basij paramilitary, Intelligence ministry, Guardian Council, parliament, judiciary, state television, and religious foundations, to name a few-are led by individuals either hand picked by Khamenei or unfailingly obsequious to him. In this context, it would appear uncharacteristic for such a micro-managing autocrat to refrain from actively influencing, if not deciding, the outcome of such a powerful institution as the presidency.

Alfoneh: Supreme Leader Khamenei gave the green light to the Guardian Council's approval of the candidates, but by allowing four members of the Revolutionary Guards to run for president, and because of the fraudulent 2009 election, the public will also suspect him of "engineering" the result of the 2013 election. Should the next president not live up to the expectations of the public - particularly in the economic field - the public will held Supreme Leader Khamenei responsible for the shortcomings of the president.

On Syria

Sadjadpour: Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East is controlled not by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs but by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reports to Khamenei, not Iran's president. As such, a different president will have little impact on Iran's regional policies, be it Tehran's hostility toward Israel or its deep commitment to keeping the Assad regime in power in Syria. Tehran has spent billions of dollars arming and financing the Assad regime, and I don't see that resolve wavering. If Assad falls they could lose their most enduring global alliance since 1979 and their geographic thoroughfare to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On the nuclear program

Sadjadpour: Several of the presidential candidates have critiqued Jalili's diplomatic ineptitude, but they refrain from calling into question the wisdom of the nuclear program itself. In other words, their critique is focused primarily on Jalili's tactics, not Khamenei's strategy.

Like Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East, the nuclear program is led by Khamenei and managed by the Revolutionary Guards. A different president could bring about some cosmetic changes in Iran's nuclear posture and could impact negotiating dynamics. But I don't see that altering Khamenei's entrenched strategy and his worldview that Iran should never compromise in response to pressure.

Alfoneh: Given the economic hardships of the Iranian public, it is no surprise that the economy is the major if not the only issue for the largest part of the voters. In the [presidential] debate however, the economy has been connected to the nuclear issue, and the candidates accuse each other - and mostly Jalili - of losing opportunities for reaching agreements with the 5+1 Group in the nuclear issue, and of provoking further sanctions. Jalili on the other hand insists that the Rowhani, who is also a former nuclear negotiator, betrayed the regime by suspending enrichment of uranium, which in turn made the 5+1 Group make greater demands. Otherwise, the difference between the candidates is mostly symbolic.

On possible demonstrations in this election

Alfoneh: Elections in Iran are unpredictable, but I have the distinct feeling that the regime is far better prepared for this presidential election than the 2009 election. Even if there are demonstrations, the regime would be in a better position to suppress them.

Sadjadpour: At the moment there are no signs of impending popular unrest. The Green Movement no longer exists as a cohesive entity (if it ever did). Its nominal leadership have been under house arrest for the last three years. The movement's brain trust has been either exiled, imprisoned, or intimidated into silence. The same political, social, and above all economic frustrations that compelled people to take to the streets in 2009 still very much exist, but this time around there is no organizing principle or common cause. In contrast to opposition movements in the Arab world in which the aspiration was and is to bring down regimes, the disgruntled masses in Iran still haven't coalesced around a common end game. People are understandably reluctant to take to the streets when it's not clear what they're risking their lives for.

On what election might mean for U.S.-Iran tensions

Sadjadpour: A new president in Tehran has the potential to impact Iranian lives far more than it will impact Tehran's nuclear and foreign policy principles. The Obama administration is cognizant of the fact that regardless of who wins the election, Ayatollah Khamenei will likely continue to have veto power over issues like the nuclear program and relations with the United States.

Some would argue that a victory by the line reformist candidate, Hassan Rowhani, could provide an opening that might help reduce tensions. While I think Obama and his national security team-particularly Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel-would love to see a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, I don't get a sense that many people are holding their breath.

Alfoneh: The United States government should closely watch the election, not because the election will change Iran's strategy or posture towards the United States, but because the election gives an indication of the internal balance of power within the regime.

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