June 3, 2021

#IranElection2021: The Players, Issues, and Impacts

Iran’s presidential election is fast approaching on June 18th. The Guardian Council, a governmental body composed of 12 clerics and jurists, has disqualified all but 7 out of the 592 candidates who registered to run. Out of these, the leading candidate is conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who lost to moderate President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 election but has since taken the post of Judiciary chief. The disqualifications of all the prominent reformist and moderate candidates gives Raisi a far easier path to winning the presidency and has fed speculation that he is being groomed to be the next supreme leader. 

The presidential election this year is set to be an inflection point in Iran’s already highly constrained electoral politics. After eight years of Rouhani’s presidency, the seven-man candidate lineup reflects an effort to ensure minimal competitiveness and Raisi’s victory. Of course, Iranian elections are notoriously unpredictable and ostensible “establishment” candidates have lost presidential races in the past, but the stage for this year’s election has been openly rigged for Raisi in a far more brazen way than has occurred in the past. 

This has fed further disillusionment in political participation, already dampened by Iran’s dire economic straits and the failure of the Rouhani government to secure far-reaching domestic reform. Many in Iran are fearful that the already securitized political environment in Iran will further tighten if and when conservatives secure domination over all levers of state power.

This explainer will give an overview of the key trends in Iranian politics heading into the election, the background of the approved candidates, and how the election’s results may impact Iran’s political trajectory at home and with respect to its foreign relations.

Do Iranian Presidential Elections Matter?

Iranian presidential elections have never been free or fair by the standards of the world’s liberal democracies. They have, however, been generally competitive and their results affect the state’s foreign and domestic policies. The victory of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 election saw him push for increased openness domestically and a conciliatory foreign policy, though entrenched conservative forces tried to obstruct him at every turn. In contrast, the victory of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw him roll back many of Khatami’s reforms and adopt a bellicose foreign policy.

While there are many centers of power in Iran, the presidency is one of the most powerful positions in the country. The executive branch manages most day-to-day governmental affairs, oversees the national budget, and plays a significant role in shaping key policy decisions. The president largely controls the makeup of governmental ministries and to a lesser extent, the Supreme National Security Council, which sets key national security policies and consists of members from different branches of government but is chaired by the president. Even as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on high-level decisions, these decisions are often made by consensus and the president influences who sits at the decision-making table.

U.S. Pressure Has Helped Create the Current Situation

The election will take place in a context of broad public disillusionment and discontent after two terms of President Rouhani. While Rouhani secured a surprise victory against conservative front runners when he was elected in 2013, and enjoyed record turnout and support for reelection in 2017, years of severe U.S. sanctions, economic deterioration, and violent government crackdowns have turned away many who voted for Rouhani from voting altogether. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), strengthened the most hardline elements of Iran’s system while discrediting Rouhani and his allies. Had it not been for “maximum pressure,” it is hard to imagine that hardliners would be in such a strong position to feel comfortable to openly manipulate the election in the manner they are doing.

Turnout in this year’s election was already set to be low following last year’s record-low turnout for the parliamentary election. The Guardian Council’s mass disqualifications are widely viewed as overtly aimed at giving Raisi the election and have further turned many away from participating in the vote. A lower turnout typically benefits conservatives in Iranian elections. Whenever large numbers of Iran’s educated middle class turnout for elections, moderates and reformists typically win. The official turnout for Khatami’s victory in 1997 was 79.9% and around 73% for Rouhani’s victories in the 2013 and 2017 elections. In contrast, the conservative Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election when the official turnout was around 62%.

The Establishment May be Counting on a Low Turnout

In the past, senior Iranian officials, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, consistently and strongly emphasized the need for a high turnout in elections. Amid various legitimacy crises, most notably the 2009 disputed election and subsequent Green Movement that shaked the system to its core, officials have cited high turnout to claim a public mandate and paper-over rifts. This rhetoric is noticeably less pronounced this year, and some officials have dismissed the need for a high turnout to demonstrate the system’s legitimacy. The main power centers in Iran do not seem concerned about a low turnout and to the contrary, seemingly view it as necessary for Raisi to win the election. The candidates who could have generated public excitement have all been disqualified or, in the case of foreign minister Javad Zarif, dissuaded from running.

The disqualification of former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani surprised many. He is not a reformist but rather a loyal confidant of the system and belongs to the pragmatic wing of the conservative establishment. While Larijani lacked meaningful grassroots support heading into the election, he is a veteran politician who seemed capable of mounting a serious challenge to Raisi and was gaining traction the week before he was disqualified. His brother, the cleric Amoli Larijani, is himself a member of the Guardian Council and denounced the disqualifications as “indefensible” and claimed security forces intervened in the work of the Council with false information.

Larijani’s disqualification marked a further narrowing of the political spectrum within the Islamic Republic. Other prominent moderates who were disqualified included Rouhani’s first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist MP with populist credentials who gave a fiery note in parliament after his disqualification. The main reformist political coalition heading into the election said none of the candidates it was considering were approved by the Guardian Council and that it supports no candidates in the race. 

Iranian state television recently censored an ad from one of the approved presidential candidates, Mohsen Rezaee, for airing a common refrain heard from many Iranians right now: that there will be no election, but an appointment. While Ebrahim Raisi appears to be the shoo-in for the presidency, twists and turns are possible in the race, especially after televised debates that usually generate public excitement. The following is an overview of the seven approved candidates and their prospects in the race.

The Candidates and their Prospects

Ebrahim Raisi. The conservative frontrunner’s background is in Iran’s judicial system. In the 1980s, Raisi was the prosecutor general of the cities of Karaj and Hamedan and held a senior post in the Tehran attorney general’s office. He later served as Iran’s attorney general and then as deputy head of the judiciary. In March 2019, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of the judiciary. From 2016 to 2019, he was also head of Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran’s largest religious foundations.

Raisi has a track record of human rights abuses during his tenure in the judiciary. During the 2017 presidential election, a tape from 1988 was leaked in which Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, then the successor to the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, severely reprimanded Raisi. In the tape, Montazeri censured Raisi and three other judicial officials over mass executions of dissidents at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Montazeri says in the tape: “The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic and that history will condemn us for was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.”

Raisi lost the 2017 election with roughly 16 million votes to Rouhani’s 24 million. During that election, many believed he performed poorly in televised debates against Rouhani and lacked charisma. Since then, he has become judiciary chief and has overseen an anti-corruption drive that has boosted his favorability ratings among the public according to polling done by the University of Maryland and other sources. The main conservative factions have united in support of Raisi for this election, but the Guardian Council’s broad disqualifications have created a public perception that Iran’s power centers are handing Raisi the presidency. This may damage prospects for Raisi to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader, a post for which many have speculated he is being positioned for.

Abdolnaser Hemmati. Hemmati served as Iran’s Central Bank Governor during Rouhani’s second term. He is emerging as the candidate that many in the moderate and reformist factions are coalescing around. He is an ally of Rouhani and was close with the late President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the father of the pragmatic centrist school of thought in the Islamic Republic. Hemmati’s campaign slogan is “engagement at home and with the world” and he has called for lowering tensions in Iran’s foreign relations.

Hemmati is not a politician but a technocrat with an economics background. He was not one of the top candidates that was under consideration by the moderate and reformist camps heading into the presidential registration period in May and has little name recognition. His close association with the now unpopular Rouhani and the economic situation of recent years also hurts his chances in the race. Many describe his potential presidency as a third Rouhani term.

However, Hemmati has gained support for his sharp-witted attacks against Raisi and the other conservative candidates since his approval by the Guardian Council. His comments have raised the specter of his disqualification by the Guardian Council, whose spokesperson recently said that the approved candidates can be disqualified all the way up to election day.

Hemmati may do well in three upcoming televised debates and pose a challenge to Raisi. But he still has a narrow path to victory if he is not disqualified by election day. Some polls out of Iran show that turnout may be as low as 45 percent. Hemmati’s best hope for victory would be to get Raisi to under 50 percent of the vote and take the election to a runoff. To do this, he will need to spur enormous public enthusiasm and get the traditional reformist and moderate base to vote for him. This will require a high turnout, perhaps as high as 70 percent if the past is precedent. This will be a longshot and Hemmati’s chances will be difficult in any case if Raisi manages to get at least the 16 million votes he received in 2017.

Saeed Jalili, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, and Alireza Zakani. These three are among Iran’s most anti-American and anti-diplomacy hardliners. Saeed Jalili was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during the Ahmadinejad presidency and presided over a period of escalation and little diplomatic progress. Ghazizadeh and Zakani are parliamentarians who have been some of the most ardent opponents of the JCPOA and diplomacy with the West. Zakani has called the accord a “stinking corpse” and pushed for the impeachment of Rouhani and all officials who seek to improve Iran’s relations with the West. Ghazizadeh, has blasted those who “believe in Europe and defend the JCPOA” as “infiltrators” that should be “thrown out of the system.”

Jalili, Ghazizadeh, and Zakani will support Raisi from the right and strongly attack Rouhani and his policies in the televised debates. All of them will likely withdraw in Raisi’s favor before election day.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Mohsen Rezaee. Mehralizadeh is the only reformist in the race. He was an official in the Khatami administration and was formerly the mayor of Isfahan province. However, he has been largely out of the political scene since the 2000s and is not supported by the main reformist groupings in Iran. Rezaee is a former IRGC commander who has mounted four unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the past.

What the Election Could Mean for Iran’s Trajectory 

What is clear heading into the election is that the Islamic Republic during the maximum pressure era has gone in the direction of becoming more insular, ironfisted, and repressive. The most authoritarian hardline forces have consolidated power and are trying to kick their moderate and reformist rivals out of the system. Some in the West hoped that maximum pressure would collapse the Iranian government. The impact maximum pressure ended up having on Iranian politics was contributing to the withering away of the republican institutions in Iran, as embodied in competitive elections, and the empowering of the authoritarian and theocratic forces and institutions.

Raisi is surrounded by individuals from Iran’s most anti-American and anti-diplomacy factions. However, he himself has voiced support for the nuclear deal in the past and has not openly opposed the current Vienna negotiations to restore the deal. A Raisi presidency may not lead to the end of the nuclear deal, but it may ensure that it will become the ceiling, not the floor, for Iran’s engagement with the West.

While this election certainly appears to be more of a selection and appears to represent a further tightening of the political space in Iran, predicting political developments in Iran is a humbling experience that can quickly turn into a fool’s errand. Prior elections have seen political turmoil and violent repression, as well as late-breaking surges for unexpected candidates who gain the support of key stakeholders and galvanize the electorate. Neither possibility can be ruled out.



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