The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is sure that the approaching election to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second term ends in June, will be free and fair. So sure, in fact, that he has forbidden discussion of it. This was the import of a speech he gave last month in the holy city of Qom. In the way of such speeches, it had the opposite effect to the one he wanted. There had been grumbles before Mr Khamenei’s intervention, mostly recalling the country’s last presidential poll, in 2009, which returned Mr Ahmadinejad in dubious circumstances at the expense of his reformist rivals. The supreme leader’s words were uttered on the same day that one of his clerical representatives, Ali Saeedi, bluntly called on the Revolutionary Guard to “engineer” the elections. The result, even in an increasingly authoritarian Iran, was uproar.
Mr Saeedi has borne the brunt of the anger, but the challenge to the supreme leader is implicit. Hassan Rowhani, a probable candidate in the election, said Mr Saeedi’s words were “very dangerous…anyone who speaks like that has committed treason.” Muhammad Khatami, a reformist former president, demanded “assurances” that the poll would “not be engineered”. Even Mr Ahmadinejad, widely believed to have benefited from the Guard’s engineering in 2009, waded in with criticism.
The dispute illustrates the difficulty Mr Khamenei will have in trying to conduct the poll in a way that both strengthens his hold over the country and perpetuates the idea that it is worth turning out to vote. The unpredictability of Iran’s elections used to be good for the country’s image, with the press given a longish leash and colourful campaigns putting neighbouring sham democracies in the Arab world to shame. But things went too far in 2009, when Mr Ahmadinejad’s bogus victory led to months of unrest. Since then, Messrs Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have become estranged; this time, the supreme leader is expected to favour a candidate who is absolutely loyal. But he also calls for a competitive atmosphere and a big turnout.