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Iran’s presidential election will take place on May 19. Six official candidates are running for the presidency, all of whom were preselected by the Council of Guardians from among 1,653 registered candidates. This means that the Council of Guardians has approved that these six candidates have all the requirements, in accordance with the constitution, to eventually become the president of the Islamic Republic. It also means they have met with the approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The president of the republic is the second highest official after the supreme leader, the head of state. The Institute of the Supreme Leader (velayat e-faqih) is the most important constitutional body of the Islamic Republic. It was introduced into the Iranian legal system in order to guarantee the application of sharia (Islamic law) in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The president of the Islamic Republic is the head of the government. The executive power is responsible for implementing the constitution and maintaining order among the three branches of the state. During the ﬁrst nine years of the Islamic Republic, the prime minister exerted the greatest inﬂuence on the executive branch. However, following the revision of the constitution in 1988 and the abolition of the ofﬁce of the prime minister, the president became the highest ofﬁce of executive power, absorbing all authority previously shared with the prime minister. After the constitutional amendment, almost coinciding with the death of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the office of the president became the fundamental center of power of the institutional framework of the country. The president appoints and supervises the Cabinet and the vice presidents who, by appointment, oversee the ministers they are assigned. In terms of foreign policy, the president can sign treaties, conventions, and international agreements, subject to approval by the Parliament. On a domestic level, the president determines government policies, in consultation with the ministers. The Council of Guardians is the institution tasked with preselecting presidential candidates, verifying they meet the necessary requirements for participation in the elections. In Iran’s elections, there is universal suffrage, and the president must be elected by an absolute majority of voters. If no candidate wins an absolute majority, there will be a runoff between the two candidates who receive the greatest number of votes in the ﬁrst round. The elected candidate must receive the approval of the supreme leader before entering the presidential ofﬁce.
The six candidates for the upcoming election are: the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; Ebrahim Raisi; Eshaq Jahangiri; Mostafa Mirsalim; and Mostafa Hashemitaba. The last three are not among the main competitors as they are lesser known figures or quite marginalized within the main factions of the Islamic Republic. Mirsalim, for example, comes from a traditional conservative front and served as the minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the mid-1990s. Hashemitaba comes from a more pragmatist front and was the minister of industries and mining in the 1980s and head of the National Olympic Committee of Iran. Jahangiri’s candidacy is more strategic and likely on behalf of Rouhani as Jahangiri is one of his main allies. He is likely to be supportive of Rouhani during the electoral campaign, particularly during the televised debates as the six candidates challenge each other in front of the public. However, Jahangiri performed well during the first debate on April 28 and gained some points. He might have a chance to become president if Rouhani, for some reason, abandons the race before May 19.
Rouhani, Raisi, and Qalibaf, are the main competitors. Among them, Rouhani comes from the pragmatist faction of the Islamic Republic while both Raisi and Qalibaf come from the conservative front. Rouhani also has the endorsement of the reformist front and the support of some opposition groups including the so-called Melli-Mazhabi (Religious-Nationalist) faction, which is affiliated with the unrecognized Nehzat-e Azadi (Freedom Movement) party. Moreover, Rouhani might rely on certain traditional conservatives who are supportive of his foreign and economic policies.
Rouhani has an important international and domestic reputation since he negotiated the nuclear deal with the United States and five other countries in 2015, and some Iranian voters support him for this. However, the economic crisis in Iran has also grown during his first term as has the gap between the rich and the poor, while inflation and unemployment are still high. Moreover, Rouhani did not keep his electoral promises to increase civil liberties in Iran. These issues might damage his popularity in this election and lead to a lack of consensus among Iranians compared with the 2013 election. For this reason, Rouhani’s campaign will try to emphasize that the economic initiatives of his first term will be realistically felt by the population in the long term, not the short term, and that during his second term he will focus on guaranteeing more civil liberties and creating a more open society. It will not be very easy for Rouhani to stake out this position as part of the population is suffering from poverty, and society continues to experience limitations on civil liberties.
On the conservative front, Raisi and Qalibaf have different affiliations and supporters. Raisi is supported by the so-called deep state and he has close ties with Khamenei. He is among the most loyal clergy of the supreme leader, has taken relevant positions within Iran’s judiciary system, and has filled strategic roles in the national security apparatus. Lastly, Raisi was appointed as head of one of the most important and wealthy religious foundations, Astan-e Quds-e Razavi, in Mashhad, with responsibility for overseeing the country’s holiest Shia shrine of Imam Reza.
Moreover, Raisi has the endorsement of the conservatives and hard liners of the Shia clergy in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. He is also supported by a portion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the supreme leader’s office. However, Raisi has not been a very public figure in recent decades and so not many Iranians know him well. Further, there has been damage to his image related to his conduct as an Islamic judge in the so-called death commissions during the 1980s, which were responsible for approving the death penalty for many political prisoners opposing the Islamic Republic.
On the other hand, Qalibaf has the support of a part of the conservative front, particularly sections of the IRGC that have recently been more involved in the economic, logistics, energy, and banking fields. As mayor of Tehran for the last 10 years, he has provoked a wide range of reactions from citizens. There are groups who criticize him because of the high level of corruption in the Tehran municipality and for his lack of efficiency in the administration of the city, while other groups praise him for making Tehran a modern capital in the Middle East. However, he ran unsuccessfully for president already in 2005 and 2013.
Considering this background, what are the differences in this election in comparison with previous presidential elections?
Two primary elements distinguish this election:
First, is the candidacy of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which was blocked by the Council of Guardians. Ahmadinejad registered as a presidential candidate, together with one of his loyal collaborators, Hamid Baqai, ignoring the recommendation of Khamenei, who had suggested that he should not run in this election. Khamenei had warned him not to create tension in the Iranian political arena with his candidacy, but Ahmadinejad did not listen. The Council of Guardians, determined by Khamenei, stopped Ahmadinejad from running because his candidacy represented a challenge on two levels: The candidacy of Ahmadinejad would have revealed a deep fissure within the elite of the Islamic Republic, particularly among the IRGC and part of the conservative Shia clergy; moreover, it would have demonstrated that the supreme leader’s power has diminished, as normally no politician in the Islamic Republic ignores his public recommendations.
The second element is the deep state’s support for Raisi. In the last 20 years, the deep state supported the incumbent president, assuring his election for a second term. This is likely because it was seen as enhancing the stability of the Islamic Republic, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. Starting with Khomeini’s death in 1989, the three presidents – Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Ahmadinejad – were all re-elected regardless of their political affiliations. The establishment did not promote challengers to impede their re-elections in any of these cases. In 2009, the candidacy of Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi against Ahmadinejad was not promoted by the deep state, but by the pragmatist and reformist fronts together, which were trying to stop Ahmadinejad’s re-election. On that occasion, Ahmadinejad was supported by the establishment and the Islamic Republic was also ready to pay a heavy cost to guarantee his re-election. The Green Movement protests following the 2009 elections were only the outcome of the intra-elite struggle between the establishment (made up of the supreme leader’s office, the IRGC, and the National Security Council) and their rivals from the pragmatist and reformist fronts, at that time represented by Rafsanjani.
The situation this time around seems different. Rouhani is a pragmatist and the establishment is promoting, at least thus far, a conservative competitor in Raisi. As stated, Raisi has the endorsement of the office of the supreme leader, together with the support of an important part of the Shia conservative clergy and a section of the IRGC. This might make this election more sensitive and less predictable than previous contests.
Do these two features suggest that the Islamic Republic is less well-managed and less capable than before of handling its internal divisions in quiet ways?
Certainly the recent death of Rafsanjani, as balancer of the internal politics in the Islamic Republic, has increased internal conflicts among the factions. However, this current scenario could be influenced and exacerbated by two exogenous shocks:
The first is the paradigm shift in global policy promoted by President Donald J. Trump in the United States, which also will influence the domestic Iranian political balance of power. The opening of former President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, toward Tehran in recent years strengthened the pragmatist position in the Islamic Republic and consequently allowed Rouhani to increase his power. Now, with Trump in office, the pragmatists might suffer and become less successful dealing with conservative challenges. Furthermore, should Trump increase pressure on the Assad regime in Syria and on other allies of the Islamic Republic in Yemen, and Lebanon, the Iranian establishment might feel threatened and decide to seek a more conservative president as a reaction to the new U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The second is the health of the supreme leader and its implications for the 2021 presidential election. Even though the news concerning the health problems of Khamenei has been circulating in the media for several years, according to several internal sources it seems that his health is failing quickly. If true, this might justify the establishment promoting the candidacy of Raisi, who is a trusted ally of Khamenei. There are also several hypotheses confirming that Raisi might be one of the possible candidates to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader. If Khamenei were to die relatively soon, then it would be important for conservatives to have the presidency of the Islamic Republic in their pocket, since it would help them better handle the transition of power to a new supreme leader. Having a pragmatist, such as Rouhani, in charge might be seen as an obstacle to guarantee a peaceful transition of power on behalf of the conservatives.
Of course, many things can change in the coming weeks. One important development to watch for will be if Raisi maintains his candidacy until May 19 or leaves the race, creating a head-to-head competition between Qalibaf and Rouhani. In such a case, the possibility of victory for Rouhani will increase.
But if Qalibaf drops out and endorses Raisi, or if all three main candidates stay in the race through election day, there will likely be a challenging election full of tensions, which might provoke new internal conflicts in Iran – for example, between the IRGC and the pragmatist/reformist elite.
Additionally, the possibility that the elections will pass to the second round will increase.
Last but not least, part of the population normally does not vote in presidential elections as an expression of protest toward the Islamic Republic. Normally, this oppositional portion of the Iranian electoral body has been around 30 percent of voters, which is quite significant. If a percentage of this block decides to go to the polls, they would likely vote for the most pragmatic or reformist candidate, following the logic of supporting the “least worst” candidate, which in this case would be Rouhani or Jahangiri. This could be helpful to Rouhani in his challenge against Raisi or Qalibaf.
The result of this election will influence significantly the domestic and foreign policies of Iran in the coming years. If Rouhani or Jahangiri emerge as the winner, Tehran would likely continue its opening toward the West, particularly on the economic level, though it is not clear what effect this would have on Iran’s involvement in Middle Eastern crises. If a conservative candidate, Raisi or Qalibaf, wins, there would likely be changes in the foreign policy of the new government. The role of Russia and China would be strengthened as global allies and the opening toward the West would decrease significantly. The Islamic Republic would be more involved in regional conflicts. On the economic front, there would likely be less attention on liberalization and privatization.
Presidential elections in Iran are not only a ritual, as can be the case in other authoritarian systems, but they represent a moment of change, which could influence and shift the internal political balance of power among various factions and influence the evolution or involution of the Islamic Republic. Iranians and observers will watch closely over the next few weeks leading up to the election for clues regarding the likely outcome, and given everything at stake, May 19 promises to be a significant date for Iran and its political trajectory.
is a visiting research fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.
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