Pre-emptive bans by hardliners will divide Iran further

The decision to ban reformists and centrists reveals Iran's highly agitated, divided, fragile and defensive political structure.

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Barring a founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as other prominent and popular political figures, from running in Iran's 2013 presidential election will have short-term - if not immediate - and long-term negative repercussions for the Iranian regime and its ruling clerics.

It is also a significant indication of the agitated and deeply divided political structure within the country.

By disqualifying Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who helped consolidate the pillars of the current Islamic regime and pushed for the appointment of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the supreme leader, the ruling clerics and hardliners who make up the Guardian Council are attempting to convey two significant messages.

The first message is that after encountering tensions with the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a former president, Mohammad Khatami, the regime will no longer tolerate a political figure who could explicitly or implicitly challenge the traditionalists, the high generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the supreme leader's establishment.

As a result, any candidate running for the presidency will not only have to embrace the principles of the Iranian Revolution, which were primarily implemented by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but also have to project its loyalty for the values of the supreme leader, conservatives, hardliners and traditionalists.

Hardliners and followers of the supreme leader, including the IRGC, have long pushed for abolishing the presidency altogether. The repeatedly argued sentiment is that the presidency and powers that accompany the position have become a locus for oppositional groups to mobilise and challenge the status quo. Given the fact that the last two presidents, Mr Khatami and Mr Ahmadinejad, have encountered tensions and confrontations with the ruling clerics, this argument might hold some validity.

The second message that the Guardian Council is conveying by barring Mr Rafsanjani and other reformists and religious-nationalists - including Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - is connected to the lessons learnt from Iran's 2009 election. It was during that debated presidential election that Iran experienced the birth of the Green Movement and the mobilisation of the middle class, reformists, moderates and youth in widespread street protests.

This time around, the Guardian Council came to the conclusion that it is politically more effective and logical to prevent reformists, centrists and moderates from running by disqualifying them through the veto power of the council's 12 members, a non-elected, constitutionally-mandated and power-wielding influence in the Islamic Republic. The alternative would be to manipulate the votes on June 14, a day in which people would have the opportunity to gather in large groups in the street when voting, which would only risk the uprising of popular resistance, mobilisation and demonstrations.

Thus, the most significant element in this recent disqualification decision is that the ruling clerics have adopted a political approach, rather than a decision based solely on religious or legal landscapes.

Although the decision to block the centrists, reformists and moderates from running could help the hardliners avoid having a president who might challenge their principles, the decision also reveals the highly agitated, divided, fragile and defensive political structure of the ruling clerics who are even willing to tear their own roots by sacrificing a founding father of the Islamic Republic.

The Guardian Council's move might yield short-term political benefits for the hardliners; however, it also has the potential to spark wider and larger resistance against the regime and supreme leader's establishments.

Two scenarios can be envisioned in this respect:

The first scenario is that the moderate and centrist social groups, including the Bazaaris - the commercial class - and a considerable portion of the middle class (who regard Mr Rafsanjani as their legitimate representative) will boycott the elections and thus step out of the political process.

The second and more likely scenario is that there will be a coalescing of factions - reformists, centrists, followers of former presidents, supporters of Mr Rafsanjani, the Bazaaris and large portions of the middle class - who will mobilise around common objectives and grievances. In this scenario, the demonstrations against the ruling clerics could be in numbers larger than those witnessed during Iran's 2009 elections.

One of the unintended consequences brought upon the hardliners and the Guardian Council by themselves is that they have made themselves more vulnerable to the aforementioned groups, elements and communities. Therefore, they would need to build up and rely on a more robust, powerful and brutal defence mechanism to defend against those social classes and groups that they have excluded.

Hardliners, conservatives and supporters of the supreme leader have sent a formidable message - that they will not permit another political figure to become a president who will use the office as a locus for opposition.

Although this decision might entail short-term benefits for the ruling clerics, the detrimental repercussions of rejecting centrists, reformists and moderate candidates, and the exclusion of crucial social groups such as the Bazaaris and a considerable section of the middle class, could be much greater for the ruling establishment and the current status quo.

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