Hassan Rouhani has accused the Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council of undermining democracy and diminishing the people's role in elections by vetoing candidates with disapproved political views.

“This is not a defense of myself, but the defense of the system's republican (and Islamic) foundations, a defense of the institution of presidency which as the direct representative of all Iranians should not be weakened any more than this,” the former president who was barred from running in the March 1 elections of Assembly of Experts has written in an open letter.

The letter which is addressed to the “Iranian Nation” was published on Rouhani’s personal website earlier this week.

The Guardian Council comprises twelve members, half of whom are clerics with expertise in Sharia laws and appointed by the Supreme Leader. The remaining six members, who may be laymen or clerics versed in civil law, are appointees of the chief justice, who is also appointed by Khamenei. They require parliamentary approval and over the years have expanded their role in disqualifying election candidates.

Opponents of the clerical regime and dissidents have always been barred from running in the elections, but now prominent insiders are being disqualified. Hundreds of candidates running for parliament and the Council were disqualified this year. The pattern was that those who are not members of hardliner factions or have been tossed out of Khamenei’s inner circle were barred.

Centenarian Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council

Rouhani has been challenging the decision since February without any result. He said in his open letter that he has not received a satisfactory response form the Council. The reasons cited so far do not constitute legal violations on his part to warrant disqualification.

Rouhani said the “classified letter” he received from the Council’s Secretary, Ahmad Jannati, amounted to “an indictment” not only against him and his government but also against “the institution of presidency” and refuted all the reasons cited, namely insolence against the Judiciary and the Council itself, “lack of political insight”, failing to comply with the Constitution, and “contradicting pure Islamic beliefs.”

The contents of Jannati’s letter prove that the president who is the “highest directly-elected official” of the country does not have the right to freedom of speech even as much as an ordinary citizen and his statements about other institutions of the country, including the Guardian Council, Judiciary, and the Parliament can always be turned into an indictment against him, Rouhani argued.

“The Council uses my presidential record as the legal as reasons for not having been convinced of my qualification to run, as if the second highest official of the country is an opposition figure,” Rouhani said while pointing out that the Council itself had twice before found him qualified to run for the presidency and three times to run in the elections of the Assembly of Experts.

He also pointed out that he had served as the secretary and chairman of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for 24 years and represented Khamenei in the National Security Council the whole time.

The Guardian Council, originally empowered to interpret the Constitution, review legislation, and supervise elections, bestowed upon itself discretionary supervisory powers in 1991, giving it the final say on candidate eligibility. Over the past two decades, it has used these powers to eliminate various political factions, targeting reformists, moderates, and even some conservatives.

The pattern of candidate disqualification has turned into a serious concern about the transparency and fairness of Iran's electoral process for over a decade resulting in continuous decline of election turnout in the past few years.

Some prominent former officials previously disqualified from running in elections include former presidents Akbar-Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2017, and conservative parliament speaker Ali Larijani in 2021, ostensibly due to concerns about their loyalty to Khamenei.

The Council, however, always cites other reasons for disqualifying candidates or argues that it could not “confirm the candidate’s qualifications” due to lack of sufficient evidence. Religious jurisprudence (ijtihad), required for running in elections of the Assembly of Experts, for instance, has often been cited for disqualification of candidates in its elections.

Larijani, for instance, repeatedly called on the Council to publicly announce the reason he was barred but was told it would not be “in his interest” if they did so.

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