Presidential Elections in Iran. One “Official” Candidate, Multiple Divisions

The presidential election of 18 June was well and truly locked up in advance by the Iranian system, which had eliminated the vast majority of candidates—notably the reformists, but also the women, who are not eligible. That is not to say that there may not be surprises, and whatever the case, the new president will face huge challenges, including the deep divisions in the ruling coalition.

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds up his poster during an election campaign rally in the city of Eslamshahr, about 25 kilometres south of Tehran, on June 6, 2021

Since the surprise election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997, presidential elections had become one the of the rare moments of political debate in Iran. Meetings, public discussions, live TV debates, election posters, controversies and rows enlivened the two or three weeks of the election campaigns. For a moment one might almost forget that the Council of Guardians had already selected the “good” candidates and that the “hand of God” would make sure the most “legitimate” candidate would acquire the votes needed to be elected in the first round, and avoid a contentious run-off.

The election of 18 June to designate a successor to Hassan Rouhani, whose two terms (2013–2021) have come to an end, breaks with that tradition. It might be considered normal that the Council of Guardians should disqualify all but seven candidates out of the 596 applicants (40 of them women), but the scandal lay in the elimination of all the personalities who might have disturbed the election—the appointment—of Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, the “official” candidate supported by the clerical and conservative factions. Was this a missed opportunity to develop the Iranian republic?

To general surprise, even Ali Larijani, former speaker of Parliament, adviser to the Supreme Leader, close to the Revolutionary Guards (the Pasdaran), and himself the son of a highly respected ayatollah, was eliminated, although—perhaps because—he might have given the clergy’s candidate a run for his money. Four other candidates, notoriously conservative, seem to have been simply covered for the designated victor, and were likely to stand aside before the poll to avoid the necessity for a second round. Only Mohsen Rezaie, former commander of the Pasdaran during the entire Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) and a candidate on several previous occasions, has a national standing and could win a significant number of votes. This could also have been the case for the very pious Said Jalili, former secretary general of the National Security Council under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he finally chose to step down on the eve of the election.

The absence of “reformist” candidates is undoubtedly due to censorship by the Council of Guardians, but also, perhaps more seriously, to the weakness of that political current made up of technocrats and intellectual and pragmatic Islamists who were shaken by Donald Trump’s abandoning of the 2015 nuclear accord (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), by sanctions and the economic blockade. They were unable to become the leaders of the new popular middle class, already crushed by the economic crisis. They never managed to bounce back after their heavy defeat in parliamentary elections in May 2020. For this presidential election, the reformist front was unable to put up one or two candidates who were well known, with a support network and solid political experience. At the last minute, only some “reform-minded” personalities registered to stand in a personal capacity, without any institutional backing.

After the withdrawal of Mohsen Mehralizadeh, an engineer, one of Mohammad Khatami’s vice-presidents very much appreciated and popular as national sports director1, The “opposition” is now represented only by Abdolnaser Hemmati, an economist who has just given up his position as governor of the Central Bank. A moderate technocrat, with no political experience, he is closer to the Executives of Construction movement (the Kargozaran) of the late president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Ebrahim Raisi, conservative, modern, clerical

For the past several months it was obvious that Sayyid Ebrahim Rasi, born 60 years ago in Mashhad and close to the Leader Ali Khamene’i, was going to stand. His title—hojjatolislam or ayatollah—is not clear, because he spent all his career in the judicial system rather than the religious seminaries. A particularly capable and energetic apparatchik, he nonetheless managed to get himself elected vice-president of the assembly of experts, the body which elects the Supreme Leader. His strong point is his appointment in 2016 by the Leader as head of the very rich, influential, respected and powerful Astaneh Quds Razavi Foundation of Mashhad, which manages the mausoleum and pilgrimage of the Imam Reza. That position grants him an unrivalled religious, social, economic and national authority.

The conservative label is too simplistic to define the political ideas of the man who was head of the Judiciary since 2019. His action against corruption seems to have been serious, and similarly his desire not to block the press and social media. In the international arena, he supports a cautious realism in dealing with the probable lifting of US sanctions, but he rejects the financial transparency regulations of the anti-money-laundering Financial Action Task Force (FATF) whose acceptance is a prerequisite for rejoining the international market. He is aware that the discourse of “resistance” against the US, “western cultural aggression” and Israel, so beloved of the clergy and the conservative factions, is no longer enough, but he does not abandon it.

This “modern” pragmatism, of course, goes hand in hand with radical convictions on the place of the clergy in leading political life, and Islamic social norms as they are lived at Mashhad, Iran’s second city and a holy city for Shia Islam. But this portrait is marred by a very black stain, because the young mullah was a long-serving revolutionary prosecutor and was involved in the 1988 prison massacre of thousands of leftist opponents, mainly from the People’s Mujahidin.

Who will handle the economic opening?

Everybody in Tehran expects that the negotiations which began in Vienna in April 2021 between Iran and the six main powers will result swiftly in the revival of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement and the lifting of the US embargo. Hassan Rouhani remarked ruefully on 9 June that all the candidates were criticising his record, but defending the JCPOA. In tearing up the agreement, Donald Trump gave a boost to the conservatives, who by blaming the failure on Rouhani were able to strengthen their position and systematically prepare the maintenance of their grip on power. The conservative camp has well understood that the country would inevitably be drawn into a new system of power balances, with internal economic development, a US withdrawal from the region, and a probable normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia.

The issue of who would succeed the Leader in the event of Ali Khamene’i’s demise adds an institutional uncertainty to these fundamental changes. Thus for each of the three main components of the power-sharing elite—the clergy, former Revolutionary Guards combatants, and Islamist technocrats—the question is who will manage, control, exploit and benefit from the historic new phase. Who will handle normalisation with the US and Saudi Arabia? And above all, who will handle the financial transparency of banking activities imposed by FATF for engagement in international commerce? How can the illicit gains accumulated over decades be admitted?

Tensions are all the stronger because the same people have been sharing power for more than 40 years. Everybody knows the secrets, qualities, rivalries, the dark sides and sometimes the crimes of the others. The political struggle is not between supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic, but between all the components of the power system in place. This election is thus a crucial stage for the political and personal futures of a great number of people. That explains the insults, invective, criticisms and accusations which have rarely reached such a level in number or intensity, between individuals and factions whose solidarity had thus far provided the strength and stability of the Islamic Republic. The first televised debate on 5 June, in principle devoted to the economy, descended into bitter personal exchanges. Nothing about the candidates’ programmes.

Generational Change

This election also coincides with a generational change. The companions of Ayatollah Khomeini, those who overthrew the Shah, are now more than 80 years old, while the presidential election contestants are only 60. They are the actors of the Iraq-Iran war and the fierce political battles accompanying the establishment of the new Islamic Republic. They may now take decision-making positions. So the rifts are not so much political as they are corporatist or network competition for control of oil proceeds and the country’s future economic development.

By choosing Raisi, the clerical corporation has opted to turn in on itself and lock the system, at the risk of breaking with its former allies. The Revolutionary Guards, especially Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, the very active new speaker of Parliament, ultimately decided not to stand. The Bonapartist solution they were advocating for getting the country going again in good order did not for the moment seem possible given a more adroit clerical force, but they are biding their time, ready to “shoulder their responsibilities” if the clergy should prove unable to meet the new challenges. As for the technocrats who have served the Islamic Republic and want to open up internationally, they admit their lack of a popular base. At the time of the disturbances of 2019, they showed that they did not support the Lumpenproletariat and feared the still-entrenched populist trends represented by the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These elites are hoping for massive support from the new popular middle class, which, however, has absolutely no confidence in them and often takes them to task for their arrogance and corruption. Mass abstention? In this context, the notion of “regime change” through a popular revolution seems more Utopian than ever, because the economic crisis and above all the disappointment after the abrupt halt of development hopes since 2017, have focused the demands of most of the population on issues of everyday life. The new popular middle class, made up of young adults between 25 and 50 from the modest and traditional strata of society is well formed and more numerous than the under-20s since the fertility rate plummeted from 1986 on. This majority is attached both to Iranian nationalist and religious traditions and to the dynamics of a modern world of which they have knowledge but no experience, and it does not want to be another generation sacrificed to politics and ideology. For them, choice of regime and even political freedom take second place to daily life issues. The economy comes before ideology, even for many women, who put the struggle for jobs above objections to wearing the veil.

The Islamic regime’s loss of legitimacy, and that of the clergy or the elites in power for the past 40 years, is a reality which aggravates the disarray of most of the 83 million Iranians facing hardship in daily life and an uncertain future for their children. Few are those who are still fans of a political life which endlessly repeats the tired old slogans about the liberation of Jerusalem, rejection of the US, and the revolutionary power of an Islam which has become corporatist. The Covid crisis magnifies a stagnation which points to a massive abstention for the first time since the establishment of a republic to which the Iranians are attached. Opinion polls suggest a 38% turnout, a figure reminiscent of the 42.6% for the parliamentary elections in May 2020 and of the sad times when there was only one serious candidate in the presidential election, and when abstention was very high, as in 1993 (50.3%). Such a scenario would assure Ebrahim Raisi of victory, but would weaken his power vis-à-vis the other actors on the political scene, the Revolutionary Guards, technocrats, and the public, which might demonstrate its discontent through fruitless local riots. But most likely, the economic easing which will follow the end of the harshest US sanctions will respond to social demand and allow the elected president, a product of the clergy, another four-year term.

A resurgence?

But in Iran everything is always possible, especially the improbable. The televised debates of 5 and 8 June were boring and failed to produce either an alternative strategy or startling new personalities. Moreover, the prospect of having yet another conservative cleric with a somewhat dark past for president could add to fears of an explosion of inter-factional conflict or riots which would plunge Iran into chaos or a stagnant situation from which the only way out would be exile or the reverse, a national resurgence. After the first debate, an opinion poll conducted by ISNA (the Iran Students News Agency) gave a 60% approval rating to Abdolnaser Hemmati, the very serious and moderate former Central Bank governor, as against 30% for Ebrahim Raisi. For his part, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, whose political history was linked to the reformist president Khatami, showed his seriousness and convictions, and his supporters may turn to Hemmati. In 1997, the little-known reformist Khatami, defeated the powerful speaker of Parliament Ali-Akbar Nategh-Nouri.

The conservative camp is in fact divided locally over the municipal elections which are held on the same day. Despite last minute withdrawals, Raisi does not seem certain of victory, since he is wooing the Sunni Kurds and Baluchis who always vote for the reformists. This brings to mind Mehralizadeh’s success with the Turkophone Azeris in 2005, and that of Mohsen Rezai the former Bakhtiari shepherd in 2013 with the Lori-speaking nomads. Might a run-off open new prospects in a second round, as in 2005, when Ahmadinejad beat the “official” candidate Rafsanjani? In every sense, it is not impossible that the “hand of God” might supplant the very real dynamic of society.

1Standing in the 2005 elections, he did well in his home province, Azarbaijan, but then retired from political life.