The results of the first round of Iran’s presidential election on June 14 should be known Sunday, June 16, two days after this issue of DEBKA Weekly comes out.
Our Iranian sources disclosed that, right up to the last minute, the race’s momentum crushed all Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s schemes for bringing at least one of his favorites within reach of the presidency. Instead, according to opinion surveys sponsored by the regime, he ended the race stuck with two hopefuls, neither of which he would have chosen.
One was the 64-year-old cleric, Hasan Rohani, who is the most “moderate” of the conservative, anti-change lineup. But, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources, Rohani was challenged or even overtaken by Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran, a former Revolutionary Guards Corps Air Force commander and brutal ex-police chief.
Khamenei may have managed to disqualify Rohani in an eleventh hour spurt – failing which Rohani and Qalilbaf will probably fight it out in a second round on June 21, because neither is expected to pull the 50 percent needed to be elected president in the first. The regime could decide to postpone the second round to win time for rigging the vote in favor of one of the preferred candidate – except that Khamenei can’t decide which he dislikes more – Rohani or Qalibaf.
Two frontrunners who offer little change
The Tehran Mayor is a regime insider and loyalist, but too independent for the supreme leader’s taste. After attaining power, he is capable of striking out on his own path, just like outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad.
Qalibaf also has a dark shadow on his human rights record, according to various human rights groups. They say he was heard bragging about the “beatings on street level" he organized for the 1999 demonstrations, persuading the National Security Council to authorize live police fire on protesters in 2003, and earning the respect of the security services for his handling of the massive popular protest against the alleged forging of the 2009 presidential election for giving Ahmadinejad his second term.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran claims to hold a two-hour recording of Qalibaf boasting how he suppressed student demonstrations in 1999 and 2003 as well as the 2009 popular protest.
As Mayor of Tehran, Qalibaf has built up a more attractive record, making the Iranian capital a greener city by planting trees and laying down an important road network for easing traffic congestion.
On the sensitive issue of financial hardship, he offers a pledge to heal Iran's ailing economy "in two years,” and blames Ahmadinejad’s performance for getting the country in its current economic mess.
To his favor, it must be said that for the Iranian voter, human rights are less an issue than they would be for a Western electorate.
Khamenei’s choices rate low on opinion charts
On the last lap, Rohani improved his prospects for beating the Tehran mayor in the first round or coming in second and facing him in the rerun: Liberal, pro-reform and anti-government circles looked at the hardline roster and found him the lesser evil. Also flocking to his side were some of Iran’s minorities, which account for about a half of eligible voters: The Kurds, for instance, while not exactly Rohani’s fans, counted Khamenei’s dislike a point in his favor.
Up to the last minute, Khamenei's henchmen were still working on manipulations. They figured that by knocking Qalibaf out of the running, they might open the way for Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hard-hitting senior nuclear negotiator – and the leader’s preferred candidate – to face off against Rohani in a second round. The first two candidates accordingly dropped out of the race this week, leaving six still standing in the field of eight and more withdrawals certain to come.
Monday, June 10, the supreme leader’s wire-pullers persuaded Gholan-Ali Haddad-Adel, the 68-year-old former parliament speaker – who is Khamenei’s in-law by virtue of his daughter’s marriage to the leader’s favorite son, Mojtaba Khamenei – to pull out of the race and transfer his support to Jalili.
The next day, one of the two relative “moderates” Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out, to boost Rohani’s chances.
Rig the election to get the “right man” elected?
Khamenei was forced to swallow the unpalatable truth that none of his favorites stood a chance of winning a truly popular vote and even a candidate as prominent as Saeed Jalili fell back throughout the campaign and needed constant propping up.
As late as Wednesday, June 11, Khamenei and his advisers held a crisis meeting to determine which of his two preferred candidates stood a better chance against Rohani – Jalili or the leader’s special adviser on foreign affairs Ali Akbar Velyati.
We have no information on their final choice. But, in view of the climate of popular defiance prevailing in Iran’s Arab neighborhood, the Islamic regime understands it will be much harder in 2013 to doctor the election than it was in 2009, when millions of ballots were fraudulently tagged on to Ahmadinejad’s share of the vote, causing mass protest. All the same, many people in Tehran expect the regime to take the risk and attempt to rig the election because there is no other way for Khamenei to maneuver any of his favorites within reach of the presidency.