Iran's presidential candidates offer no hope for change

Finding no hope in the election, Iranians deem it as illegitimate, superficial and a sham that has turned into a revolving door mechanism between the inner and gilded circle of the Islamic republic.

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This week, Iran's Guardian Council has whittled down the candidates eligible to participate in the June presidential election to just eight, from 450 registered figures.

But it is still possible that one or all of the disqualified candidates will be reinstated by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as happened before the 2005 election when reformist candidate Mustafa Moin was reinstated and ended up fifth in the race.

The most intriguing figure among those blocked from running for this election is former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known by the Iranian public as a pragmatist, tycoon and heavyweight figure within the regime.

Two other reformists did not run for presidency: former president Mohammad Khatami, who is under house arrest, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, a presidential candidate in the 2009 election. Mr Khatami had instead endorsed Mr Rafsanjani, who currently leads the Expediency Council, a political arbitration body.

One of the major reasons behind the disqualification of Mr Rafsanjnai is the tension between him and the Supreme Leader. After he lost the 2005 presidential election to the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Rafsanjani sided with Mr Khatami and Mr Mousavi during the disputed 2009 elections and then expressed support for the reformists rather than the Supreme Leader-endorsed candidate Mr Ahmadinejad.

Because of these moves, he has been at odds with the Islamic republic's rulers.

Mr Rafsanjani, 78, is one of few remaining political figures that belonged to the generation of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was one of the leading and founding members of the current Islamist establishment.

He also played an instrumental role in consolidating the Islamist rule during the Iran-Iraq war and pressed for Mr Khamenei's appointment as Iran's Supreme Leader after the death of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini in June 1989.

If Mr Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the incumbent president's chief of staff, who is also the spiritual mentor and father-in-law of the president's son, are not reinstated, the candidate with the best prospects to win the reformists' votes will be Hasan Rowhani.

Mr Rowhani, who is close to Mr Rafsanjani, will most likely tap into the votes that would have otherwise gone to the two disqualified candidates. The votes of reformists and moderates were predicted to be won by Mr Rafsanjani.

Some of the eligible candidates are prominent, influential and powerful hardliners, loyal and close allies to Mr Khamenei. They have considerable political and social support to win the votes of conservative, hardliners, traditionalists, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the followers of the Supreme Leader.

Currently, the conservative candidates with the best odds of winning the election are Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, who is close to Mr Khamenei; and Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a conservative with strong ties to Mr Khamenei. Mr Ghalibaf has also formed a coalition with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Mr Khamenei, and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former parliamentary speaker.

All three political figures are comparable; their political ideologies are conservative and the victor among the three would represent the hardliners.

These traditionalists have so far taken a more aggressive position than reformists in terms of negotiating with the West on Iran's nuclear programme.

They have also been pressing for abolishing Iran's executive branch, which they argue has become a locus of opposition to their power.

And yet, there is another fundamental element to this election which has to do with the sentiments of the Iranian populace. Many young Iranians and other ordinary people with whom I have talked deeply question the legitimacy of the election.

The presidential candidates have been carefully pre-selected by the Guardian Council based on their loyalty to the Islamic revolutionary fundamentalists and particularly to the Supreme Leader. As such, they do not represent ordinary citizens' ideals or the young generation that constitutes roughly 60 per cent of the population.

The presidential race is in reality a closed competition among those who share fundamental Islamic principles, such as protecting Velayate Faghih - the rule of religious clerics, according to modern Shia theology - and Islamist political structure. Their differences lie only in relation to minor policies.

Kambiz, a 24-year old computer engineering student at Tehran University, told me: "I am not going to vote. Many of my friends will not vote too. All these candidates are the same.

"We trusted Khatami, but he was one of them and did not stand for us. Rafsanjani, Mashaei and the rest [of the conservatives] are all supporters and beneficiaries of the current corrupt and theocratic regime."

While the West, Russia, China and Arab Gulf states are closely observing the election, which is less than four weeks away, Iranian people, particularly young people like Mr Kambiz, are apathetic.

Finding no hope in the election, Iranians deem it as illegitimate, superficial and a sham that has turned into a revolving door mechanism between the inner and gilded circle of the Islamic republic.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian scholar and political analyst, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East

On Twitter: @majidrafizadeh