Council of despair: Iran’s uncompetitive presidential election

Iran’s presidential election will do little to boost frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi’s popular legitimacy

Iran’s presidential election on 18 June will bring about tectonic shifts in politics and governance. The vote will strengthen the security services’ hold on power in anticipation of a transition to a new supreme leader, and will raise further questions about the political system’s popular legitimacy. For the first time since 1997, the Guardian Council has disqualified candidates from the so-called Reformist and the Moderate camps, prompting widespread calls for a boycott of the election. Their rivals, the Principlists – who are aligned with Iran’s hardline power centres – are ready to capitalise on these shifts. But the election has also aggravated chronic disputes within their camp.

The latest joke on the streets of Iran is that Ebrahim Raisi, chief justice and de facto leader of the Principlists, will run against six other spellings of his own name. He is the only prominent figure to receive permission to run in the election from the Guardian Council, which is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and can veto any candidacy. Raisi’s two main rivals were Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a Reformist, and Ali Larijani – a former Majlis (Parliament) speaker who is now widely regarded as a Moderate, having been banished from the Principlist camp in 2013 after he formed an alliance with President Hassan Rouhani. The Guardian Council vetoed the candidacies of Jahangiri and Larijani but approved those of two of Raisi’s subordinates, who look set to drop out of the race. Saeed Jalili, a hardline former chief negotiator and a vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, is also in the contest. But, judging by the polls, he has little chance of winning – and some Iranians joke that his involvement will only help Raisi seem moderate by comparison. And then there is Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who, given his place in the polls, is preparing to lose his fourth presidential bid.

The contest also involves two other public figures: Abdul-Nasser Hemmati, who until last Sunday was the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, who headed the National Sports Organisation from 2001 to 2005. Both have declared themselves independents, but Raisi’s campaign insists on calling them “Reformists”. Hemmati and Mehr-Alizadeh are likely intended to function as political vaccines: a weakened form of competition that will immunise Raisi against accusations of vote-rigging. They could yet draw some votes from panicking Moderates and Reformists who want to block Raisi, but they are unlikely to challenge the hardline establishment in the same manner as Rouhani did.

All the signs are that Raisi – nicknamed the ‘Execution Ayatollah’ by the Iranian opposition because of his role in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of prisoners in 1988 – will easily win, giving hardliners control over all the country’s key levers of power.

The public mood

The Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify Larijani and Jahangiri came as a surprise even to many rank-and-file Principlists. Three flagship Basij centres in Tehran universities, which play an important role in recruiting and mobilising supporters of the Principlists, criticised the decision and warned that the next president would lack popular legitimacy. In an unprecedented move, Sadegh Larijani – one of the members of the council appointed by the supreme leader – also condemned the council’s decision and attributed it to meddling by the “security apparatus”, a term for the IRGC. This is an ironic twist given the role that he, a former chief justice, played in the suppression of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and the imprisonment of hundreds of political activists. Even former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose candidacy the council also vetoed, has said he will not vote in the election. Key figures across the political spectrum, including Rouhani, asked Khamenei to reverse the vetoes – to no avail.

This could result in the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic; recent surveys suggest that it will be between 27 per cent and 37 per cent. The supporters that Reformists and Moderates had mobilised since 1997 now see it as futile to choose the best bad option. They are no longer interested in voting. The perceived inconsistency of the political decision-making process has also fuelled their frustration: Ali Larijani was appointed as an adviser to the supreme leader just a year ago, and was Iran’s lead negotiator in critical talks with China. Yet, despite Ali Larijani’s proximity to the establishment, he was rejected by the Guardian Council.

During previous presidential elections, up to 50 per cent of eligible voters decided whether to vote and whom to vote for only a week before the vote. But, on those occasions, there was a full cycle of campaigning. The frontrunners would travel across the country while their media platforms fed a lively public debate that some observers described as ‘election fever’. This year, by contrast, Iranians have not even broken a sweat.

Succession rumours

At the heart of the Guardian Council’s power play are questions over the direction and control of the Iranian state in the years ahead. There are rumours that Raisi is being groomed to replace Iran’s 82-year-old supreme leader. To this end, Raisi’s election as president would provide a veneer of popular legitimacy. However, to ensure such an outcome, all risks need to be neutralised – hence the disqualification of his key opponents. In the 1980s, before he became supreme leader, Khamenei himself won two non-competitive presidential elections.

However, there has been speculation about Khamenei’s succession plan for more than two decades. Nothing is assured. While Raisi may be the safest bet right now, one should not forget that other high-profile individuals were once in a similar position. This includes Sadegh Larijani, who was long seen as Khamenei’s likely successor but has now been sidelined by accusations of corruption. There are signs that there is still no consensus on Raisi among the Principlists. And it is unclear whether they could maintain a consensus on any candidate in Iran’s highly volatile political environment. In recent months, many prominent Principlists shared reports that Khamenei had explicitly barred Raisi from seeking the presidency and even spread rumours about his disqualification, highlighting the opposition the latter faces even from within his own camp.

The supporters that Reformists and Moderates had mobilised since 1997 now see it as futile to choose the best bad option

Meanwhile, the infighting between Principlists has intensified disputes within the IRGC, whose generals have been equally busy backstabbing one another. For example, a dozen close associates of Majlis Speaker Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf were disqualified from running in the city council elections, which will take place at the same time as the presidential vote. Saeed Mohammad, commander of the IRGC-controlled Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters and one of the disqualified presidential candidates, reportedly helped put together a corruption case against these associates.

Overall, while Raisi may now have a clear path to the presidency, the disunity between hardline factions could kill off his prospects of becoming Iran’s next supreme leader. Hardliners’ alliances keep shifting. A smooth transition of power requires preparation and reinforcement, but Iran’s politics are too complicated to allow Raisi and his enablers to easily construct a power base according to their blueprint. The presidential race will do little to boost his popular legitimacy: his victory, with possibly the lowest voter turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history, would be widely viewed as engineered by the Guardian Council.

Policy implications

Iran’s presential vote will end the era of Moderate administration symbolised by Rouhani. The two top public priorities, fighting rampant corruption and reducing unemployment, have been the focus of Raisi’s campaign. But his lack of legitimacy could further polarise Iranian politics. Raisi held his first campaign meeting at Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, promising deregulation and liberalisation of the economy. This symbolically important move suggests that he wants to co-opt Iran’s private sector elites to reduce opposition to his political agenda, an effort that may involve an ambitious push for constitutional amendments.

For the moment, there is no indication that the supreme leader or other power structures are moving away from supporting a revival of the nuclear deal. And foreign policy is unlikely to be a major topic of debate in the lead-up to the election. Jahangiri and Ali Larijani both planned to discuss international affairs during their campaigns, promising to reconnect Iran to the global economy, but their removal is likely to push the issue off the agenda.

Raisi has only a vague position on the nuclear deal. During the heated 2017 election debates, he supported the agreement. In an April 2021 meeting with Iranian intelligence officials, he reportedly said that he backed Khamenei’s position on Iran potentially returning to the deal, contingent on the “verified lifting of sanctions”. Like other Principlists, Raisi may now hope that Rouhani can conclude the negotiations on a return to the deal before leaving office. This would allow Raisi to reap the potential benefits, while deflecting the blame if the agreement did not produce economic dividends and avoiding being associated with the appeasement of the West.

Such a sequence of events would likely complicate Western countries’ ambitions to negotiate a follow-on deal that addressed their concerns about Iran’s regional policies. Indeed, given Raisi’s political background and his alleged involvement in human rights violations, there would probably be fewer opportunities for diplomacy between Iran and the West. Nonetheless, Iran’s ruling elites now appear to be interested in reducing the country’s involvement in various international conflicts. In anticipation of a domestic political transition, they want to focus their resources on bargaining to secure their interests within the country’s future power structure.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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