x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

An election with no choice for Iranians

The Guardian Council's decision to disqualify some presidential candidates raises serious questions about Iran's political establishment and the upcoming election.

Iran's Guardian Council has disqualified several registered candidates from running for the presidency in the June 14 election.

Among those banned are Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a trusted aide to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president.

The abrupt exclusions remind the world again how hollow Iran's "democracy" really is. The election is widely seen as being engineered in advance by the country's Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Few doubt that among the candidates still on the ballot, one or another of Mr Khamenei's supporters will win.

There was near-euphoria in some circles inside and outside Iran after Mr Rafsanjani, a regime figure yet known for his pragmatic views, decided last week, at the last minute, to enter the race; his exclusion and that of Mr Mashaei will trigger the opposite feelings.

Remember that Iran's 2009 election was officially reported as an easy re-election victory for Mr Ahmadinejad, who had started as protégé of the Supreme Guide. But the election was widely believed to have been stolen and widespread protests, known as the Green Revolution, were bloodily put down.

Mr Rafsanjani is seen as a centrist. He expressed support for the demands of the youth protesters in 2009, but he is also a pillar of the regime and has served in key positions and consistently avoided any confrontation with the Supreme Guide.

But although Mr Rafsanjani is not a real reformer, his candidacy might well have reinvigorated Iranian society politically. With the economy struggling because of international sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme, the country might be thought to have some real alternatives to consider. But those at the top in Iran tend to perceive any form of polarisation as divisive and to be avoided. It is no coincidence that this month has also seen a clampdown on dissent, with new arrests, stern warnings, and restrictions on visitors to some dissidents already in jail.

How will Iran's voters respond to the non-choice they face on June 14?

For years, it was hoped that Iran's political system would open up as the generation of the 1979 revolution fades away. But what the run-up to this election shows is that the political establishment is becoming even narrower, with no openness in sight.