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Iranian Politics - 18 June 2021 Presidential Election

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an authoritarian theocratic republic with a Shia Islamic political system based on velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). Shia clergy, most notably the rahbar (supreme leader), and political leaders vetted by the clergy dominate key power structures. The supreme leader is the head of state. The members of the Assembly of Experts are nominally directly elected in popular elections. The assembly selects and may dismiss the supreme leader. The candidates for the Assembly of Experts, however, are vetted by the Guardian Council (see below) and are therefore selected indirectly by the supreme leader himself. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the position since 1989. He has direct or indirect control over the legislative and executive branches of government through unelected councils under his authority. The supreme leader holds constitutional authority over the judiciary, government-run media, and other key institutions.

While mechanisms for popular election exist for the president, who is head of government, and for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament or majles), the unelected Guardian Council vets candidates, routinely disqualifying them based on political or other considerations, and controls the election process. The supreme leader appoints half of the 12-member Guardian Council, while the head of the judiciary (who is appointed by the supreme leader) appoints the other half. Parliamentary elections held in 2016 and 2020, and presidential elections held in 2017, were not considered free and fair.

In response to widespread protests that began 15 November 2019 after a fuel price increase, the government blocked almost all international and local internet connections for most of a week, and security forces used lethal force to end the protests, killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600. Significant human rights issues included executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of “most serious crimes” and without fair trials of individuals, including juvenile offenders; numerous reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, as well as systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; hundreds of political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; significant problems with independence of the judiciary, particularly the revolutionary courts; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminalization of libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Although the majority of executions during the year were reportedly for murder, the law also provides for the death penalty in cases of conviction for “attempts against the security of the state,” “outrage against high-ranking officials,” moharebeh (which has a variety of broad interpretations, including “waging war against God”), fisad fil-arz (corruption on earth, including apostasy or heresy), rape, adultery, recidivist alcohol use, consensual same-sex sexual conduct, and “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.” Prosecutors frequently used “waging war against God” as a capital offense against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of “struggling against the precepts of Islam” and against the state that upholds those precepts.

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose the president, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts and parliament, provided all have been vetted and approved by the Guardian Council. Elections are based on universal suffrage. Candidate vetting conducted by unelected bodies, however, abridged this right in all instances. The country’s electoral system continued to fall short of international standards for free and fair elections primarily because of the Guardian Council’s controlling role in the political process, including determining which individuals could run for office and, in certain instances, arbitrarily removing winning candidates.

Most assessments and predictions so far about Iran's June 18, 2021 presidential elections take a conservative victory for granted. Conservatives control the levers of power, from the parliament to religious institutions, election watchdogs and having the advantage of a close alliance with the Revolutionary Guard. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)'s power and influence has been growing in Iran amid reports that several former Guards commanders could run in next year's presidential vote, which could contribute to a unification of power in the Islamic republic. Looking at the uncertain political fortunes of potential reformist candidates, perhaps there is a reason why most assessments and predictions so far have taken for granted a conservative victory. Despite their differences and infightings, the conservative camp has historically enjoyed wholehearted support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Conservatives would be met with little resistance in the vetting process by the conservative-held Guardian Council.

Repeated statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has called for the electing of a young militant conservative figure as Iran's next president, will almost certainly discourage reform-minded candidates from coming forward. A divide among Iran's conservatives casts doubt whether a victory in the May 2021 election is within their reach, despite their overwhelming majority at the Iranian parliament and the fact that many of the institutions that affect the election and its results are also held by conservatives.

Iranian conservatives thrived as a like-minded camp until 2005, when ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election for the first time. The emergence of Iranian neo-cons around Ahmadinejad ignited divides that shattered the image of unified conservatives, challenging their status as Iran’s most important pillar of power. During the second term of office of Ahmadinejad from 2009 – 2013, new groups emerged within the conservative camp, particularly with the emergence of Paydari Front. Since 2013, conservatives have not been able to unite under any leadership, and the party’s status as a unified group seems ultimately altered.

Conservatives won the latest election in Iran, the Majles election of February 2020, with the reformist and moderate parties edged out partly because of their own weaknesses, and also due to the intervention of the Guardian Council, which refused to endorse the qualifications of most eligible reformist and moderate figures who wanted to run for the Majles. The performance of conservatives, neo-cons, hardliners, and ultraconservatives in the Iranian parliament may make the parties’ candidates less electable next year. The four conservative blocs have a total number of 200 to 230 MPs. Traditional conservatives at the Majles are overshadowed by the tremendous influence of Paydari members who are said to be secretly supporting Ahmadinejad and other conservatives who declare their affiliation to the political line of former President Ahmadinejad more prominently, as well as the new conservative faces who gather around Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

With roughly nine months before the presidential elections, Iranian media is mostly discussing conservative candidates for the position. Conservative figures such as State Auditing Organization Chief Mehrdad Bazrpash, former state TV chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, Mostazafan Foundation Chief Parviz Fattah, Vice-President Surena Sattari and Majles Research Center Chief Alireza Zakani are some of the aspiring candidates. Well-known conservative politicians including Majles Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi are also said to be still eying the position of president of the country, despite their powerful current positions as heads of the other two of the three branches of the Iranian government. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pondering a presidential run as well.

Unlike the conservative camp that has branched out into at least four different groups with varying conservative tendencies over the years, the combination of political forces in Iran's once-popular reform camp has remained more or less the same during the past two decades. Two centrist parties, the Executives of Construction and The Moderation and Development Party, as well as one major reformist party the Unity of Nation Party, and the remnants of the Participation Party and national Trust Party which are reminiscent of Iran's political parties in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s.

Politicians close to the Executives of Construction party have occasionally named Mohsen Hashemi, the head of the Tehran City Council and a son of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as someone who would be willing to run for president in 2021. There was also talk of Hashemi's candidacy in 2017 but it was unlikely at the time that he would want to step in the presidential race while like-minded Hassan Rouhani and Es'haq Jahangiri were also competing for the post. Even if Hashemi, a more or less popular figure, gets the go-ahead to run and his qualifications are endorsed by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, his kinship to President Rafsanjani was not likely to work in his favor considering the fact that Rafsanjani senior he had lost his popularity in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's inner circle.

Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was widely anticipated to become even more influential in Rouhani’s second term. Quite the contrary, he was marginalized. Close to the same party as an influential politician and one of the few reformists welcomed in Khamenei's household is current vice-president Es'haq Jahangiri. He has never concealed his interest in the post. Nonetheless, during the past seven years not only he did not have any opportunity to shine in the Rouhani administration, but he also lost some of his influence in the rivalry over power with Rouhani's Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi. Pointing out his powerlessness, Jahangiri said once that he did not even have the power to replace his secretary. His biggest achievement, the government rate of exchange now known as "the Jahangiri rate" has been questioned by politicians and businessmen alike as the preferential rate for importing essential commodities was blamed as a source of financial corruption.

Another reformist figure said to be a contestant in the 2021 presidential election is former vice-president and former MP Mohammad Reza Aref. In late 2020 he resigned his position as the chairman of the reformists umbrella organization following the state of indecision that left the camp entirely out of the competition in the Iranian parliamentary elections last winter 2020. Aref was also harshly criticized by reformists and other politicians as well as a range of Iranian analysts for his inaction in the reformist-dominated previous Majles. He said "silence" was his strategy, but the strategy did not appear to have led to anywhere. His experience of the past four years at the Majles overshadowed any possible political capital he might have accrued during his career as chancellor of Tehran University, the Minister of Science, President Mohammad Khatami's vice-president and finally the leader of the reform camp at the parliament.

Yet one more prominent reformist figure who might run for president in 2021 is Mostafa Moein, a former presidential candidate whose qualifications were endorsed by the Guardian Council only after Supreme Leader Khamenei intervened. Yet, he won just a few million votes in the 2005 election. Moein was Iran's Science and Higher Education Minister under Khatami, but he resigned from his post after a major student unrest. One of the biggest criticisms of his performance is that his career is marked by several resignations that cast a shadow of doubt on his resilience as a politician. Like most prospective candidates, Moein has said that he no plans to nominate himself for the presidential race, but he certainly has political ambitions. His latest effort was his candidacy for the Majles in 2016. But he was disqualified by the Guardian Council. A fate that might be awaiting him if he decides to run.

The two main contenders to become Iranian president, hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, registered on 15 May 2021 to run in next month's election. Raisi is a 60-year-old mid-ranking cleric in Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim establishment. Appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as head of the judiciary in March 2019, he emerged as one of the country's most powerful figures and a contender to succeed Khamenei. Reformists and rights activists say they are alarmed by Raisi's background as a hardline judge, especially during the 1980s when he was one of four judges who imposed death penalties on thousands of political prisoners. Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and an advisor to Khamenei, hoped to secure backing from both moderates and hardliners and bridge the gap between them.

Iran's Guardian Council on 25 May 2021 approved seven hopefuls to run in June's presidential poll. One of the early favorites was ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. The other candidates include former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, former Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohsen Rezaei, former lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani, current lawmaker Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, former provincial governor Mohsen Mehralizadeh and the current head of Iran's Central Bank, Abdolnasser Hemmati.

Several prominent names were not approved to run for office. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not permitted to try for the post. The populist held the position from August 2005 to August 2013, and had threatened to boycott the election if he was not allowed to run. Former parliament speaker Ali Larijani — a key supporter of Rouhani's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — was also barred from running.

Larijani, who was noticeably active on social media during the 10 days he thought he was running for president, had appeared to be the consensus candidate of the self-described reformist and moderate factions in Iran. This was especially apparent from the reactions to his disqualification, as reformist politicians, activists and journalists appeared more outraged by his disqualification than the barring of any other candidate, including their own Eshaq Jahangiri, the current vice president and the most prominent reformist candidate.

Raisi won 38% of the vote in the 2017 elections, but was defeated by current President Hassan Rouhani, who was constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Raisi is also believed to be a favorite of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi, who read out the list of approved candidates on state TV on Monday, has been linked to mass executions in 1988 at the end of Iran's war with Iraq. Raisi was a deputy prosecutor at the time, and took part in panels at some prisons that held political prisoners. A recording of Raisi and his boss meeting Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri leaked in 2016, with the Grand Ayatollah calling the executions "the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic." International rights groups have estimated that as many as 5,000 people were put to death, while members of the opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq have said 30,000 were executed. Iran has never fully acknowledged the executions, and Raisi has never publicly acknowledged his role.

This presidential election is critical for Iran’s supreme leader. There is a chance that the Islamic Republic’s next president may very well be the supreme leader’s last given his age. So it’s critical for Khamenei to get this election right to advance his top priority – regime preservation. Thus, succession is at the top of his mind – it’s driving his decision-making on all fronts. But the exclusion of every candidate that could have possibly posed a challenge to Raisi is arguably not the first sign that Khamenei and his inner circle – known as Beit-e Rahbari, or the leadership base – have a candidate in mind they want president at any cost. The choice is very, very limited and it's probably going to be a next hardline president. Under the next president, the country would likely become an Iran where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is going to have more political say than in the past, and extend the dominance that it has into other areas such as the economy, the intelligence services, into the political realm.

On 16 June 2021 Alireza Zakani announced his pullout from the Friday presidential election in favor of Ebrahim Rayeesi. Zakani said in a statement to his supporters that he considers Rayeesi as the most qualified candidate who can bring fundamental reforms to the country. Earlier, Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, another candidate, had also withdrawn from the Friday election. Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh declared his withdrawal in support of the main reformist-moderate camp nominee Abdolnasser Hemmati.

Ebrahim Raisi was elected Iran's new president with more than 61.95 percent of the vote, Interior Minister Aboldreza Rahmani Fazli announced on 19 June 2021. Voter turnout was estimated at 48.8%, the lowest ever recorded for a presidential election after reformists called for a boycott. Raisi unsuccessfully challenged moderate reformist President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 elections but proved victorious this time, with Rouhani ineligible to run for a third term. Raisi would take over from Rouhani in August.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2022 17:50:55 ZULU