EbrahimRaisi, the chief of the judiciary and a hardliner, who was widely presumed to be the frontrunner, has won the 13th presidential election in Iran. According to Iran’s interior ministry responsible for conducting the elections, around28.6 a million out of the total electorate of 59 million turned out to vote. Raisi won over 17.9 million votes, passing the minimum bar of fifty percent of all votes including blank or void votes, while his conservative rival, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei came a distant second with 3.3 million votes and the reformist backed AbdolnasserHemmati, until recently the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, trailed with 2.4 million votes.[i] What is noteworthy is that 3.7 million blank ballots, seen as ‘protest votes’ against the choice of candidates, are second only to votes polled by Raisi and the official announcement of these votes was delayed over fears of protests from a section of the population insisting that number was higher and invalidated Raisi’s win.[ii]
The Outsized Influence of the Guardian Council
In Iran, popular elections are supervised by a constitutional body- the Guardian Council. The 12-member council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists approved by parliament from a list nominated by the Chief Justice, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. The registered candidates are audited and scrutinised by a number of government agencies who present their reports to the Council. From early on, as scores of people with Revolutionary Guardsbackgrounds showed inclination to contest, the Guardian Council clarified that while those with a military background are allowed to run, however, military personnel are banned from supporting a political faction or party in elections.[iii] Later, the Council deemed only 7 out of 592 candidates fit to contest.[iv] As expected, hardliners dominated the approved list, while only two non-conservatives made the cut. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reformist MostafaTajzadeh, President Rouhani’s Vice President EshaqJahangiri, and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani were disqualified.
While reformist leaders, former president Mohammad Khatami and Mahdi Karroubicriticised the disqualifications as bringing into danger the republican aspect of the system, they were not the only critics calling for a change in the structure of the Guardian Council and elections. The disqualification of Larijani and Jahangiri was met with surprise and protests by their influential backers. Sadeq Larijani, Ali Larijani’s younger brother and the Chief Justice before Raisi, complained about the meddling of ‘security agencies’ with the Council’s decision.[v]Rouhani, who had earlier asked the interior ministry to overlook the Council’s narrowing of the eligible criteria by barring anyone younger than 40 from contesting, complained of ‘lack of competition’ to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the power to intervene and review the disqualifications. Further, the revelation by former intelligence minister HeydarMoslehithat he was behind the controversial disqualification of the former president Hashemi-Rafsanjni in the 2013 elections gave added weight to those decrying the links between the Guardian Council and security apparatus.[vi]
Analysts argue that the Council’s overzealous vetting, leaving not even an illusion of competition between Raisi and others, is really about controlling the succession process.[vii] Iran’s presidential cycle is eight years long, and it is likely that during the term of the next president, a successor would have to be found to Iran’s 82-year-old Khamenei. The council’s heavy vetting exacerbated voter apathy resulting from popular frustration with the failure of the moderate Rouhani administration’s agenda of ending Iran’s economic isolation by reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue with major world powers. A lower turnout was seen as important in Raisi’s march to victory, given higher turnouts, such as during the Khatami and Rouhani’s elections, have been a vote against the establishment and resulted in reformist and moderate victories.
The Presidential Debates
The three rounds of presidential debates underscored that as a result of sanctions and internal mismanagement, Iranian political discourse has moved from quixotic revolutionary debates to mundane concerns of economy, corruption and inflation. The salience of economic issues was epitomised by the fact that AbdolnasserHemmati, professor of economics and Central Bank governor was the only non-conservative challenger of Raisi. Though political activity around the election was not comparable to the popular excitement that had surrounded the 2017 elections, candidates and political groups sought to directly connect with the electorates through rallies and social media, especially Clubhouse, a popular audio application which is immensely popular in Iran.
Hemmati may have performed poorly in terms of votes, but during the debates, he took hardliners to task on their economic policy and broke new ground when in an interview to the Associated Press, he argued that the US needed to give stronger signals to Iran by returning to the nuclear agreement, and if elected, he could meet with the US president.[viii] He criticized Rezaei, the secretary of the Expediency Council for delaying the decision to approve the legislations associated with Iran’s accession to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and credited himself with preventing the ‘Venezuelisation of the economy’.[ix]
Rezaei and Raisi were on the defensive on the FATF. Raisi has earlier called it as ‘the enemies’ convention given that it does not accept Iran’s position that it was wrong to list certain groups such as Hezbollah as ‘terrorist’.[x] The conservative worldview is loath to compromise and see Iran’s participation in international organisations through the ideological prism of sovereignty and leverage rather than in pragmatic economic terms. Raisi’s campaign emphasized the importance of domestic policies, such as liberalizing permits for industry and reducing taxes as the key to expand production and deal with the problem of unemployment, essentially reinforcing the Supreme Leader’s vision of the 'resistance economy'.[xi]Raisi, therefore, is likely to fashion himself as a populist and nationalist, even as the emphasis on deepening economic partnership with the neighbouring countries and the Eastern powers- China, Russia and India- will continue.
Marginalisation of the Moderates and Reformists
Over the last three years, as a result of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, the centrist Rouhani administration lost ground, while the security agencies including the revolutionary guards strengthened their economic and political profile, crediting themselves for the Islamic Republic’s survival against Washington’s ‘economic war’ and with battlefield victories in Syria and against the ISIS. As the controversy around JavadZarif’s leaked interview in April[xii]went on to underline, unelected theocratic institutions routinely referred by commentators as the ‘deep’ state – the office of the Supreme Leader, the IRGC and the Guardian Council – are seen as making all the strategic decisions at the expense of elected government which merely implements them. Further, the massive failure of the Rouhani administration’s agenda of normalising Iran’s international relations and the economy – the key goals of the nuclear deal with world powers – with the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, led to many Iranians, especially the youth developing an indifference to their country’s politics. Zarif, who chose not to run despite his popularity, calling on Iranians to vote, argued that a ‘breakup’ with ballot boxes will not contribute to resolution of the country’s economic woes and that a higher turnout will frustrate ‘hardliners at home and abroad’.[xiii]
The consolidation of power by hardliner-conservatives has resulted in the narrowing of Iran’s political spectrum, with reformists and moderates finding themselves increasingly sidelined. Reformist leaders, the former president Mohammad Khatami and Mahdi Karroubi were reluctant to extend support to either of the two non-hardliner candidates-Hemmati or Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who was vice president under Khatami- because of their disappointment with Rouhani, whom they had supported in the 2013 and 2017 elections. However, days before the vote, both Khatami and Karroubi urged people to vote and support Hemmatiafter Mehralizadeh withdrew leaving one moderate candidate against four conservatives. While Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the other leader of the Green Movement, insisted that the most important issue was that of the Guardian Council’s management of the 'stage-managed' polls and thus the people should boycott the polls or cast blank votes. The election, therefore, has laid bare the deep divisions and confusion within the reformist camp.[xiv]
The Succession Battles
Ebrahim Raisi is widely seen as handpicked by Khamenei. After finishing his studies in the Qom seminary under Khamenei, he was appointed as state prosecutor after the Iran-Iraq war and was on the committee that ordered execution of dissidents associated with the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, and later helped purge those who took part in the Green Movement following the controversial election victory of Ahmadinejad in 2009. In 2016, he was appointed by Khamenei as the custodian of AstanQodsRazavi, the wealthiest foundation which manages the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and its various institutions and industries. After he lost to Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections, he was appointed by Khamenei in March, 2019 as the head of the judiciary. The last appointment raised his public profile significantly, which he used further to boost his image by leading a publicized anti-corruption campaign in the judiciary. Further, Raisi is a member of the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council and the parliament andis also on the board of directors of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member body of Islamic jurists, which is elected for an 8-year term and is responsible for appointing and supervising the Supreme Leader. Many argue that the systematic rise of Raisi, a cleric and Seyed – title denoting those tracing lineages to the Prophet Mohammad –suggests that he is being groomed to be the next Supreme Leader. His current win will further add to his credentials for the top job.
Seyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini and is widely seen as a future contender for the post of the Supreme Leader was personally asked by Khamenei not to run. In the wake of the unprecedented disqualifications by the Guardian Council, Khomeini argued that “If I were in the place of the candidates approved, I would withdraw” and castigated the decision as resulting from ‘closed and ineffective thinking.’[xv] The young Khomeini became the target of hardliners attack when he did not come out to support the controversial re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.[xvi]In 2016, then 46-years old, Khomeini was disqualified from running in elections for the Assembly of Experts. Khomeini, who is the custodian of the Mausoleum of Imam Khomeini and a Hojjatoleslam that is a mid-level cleric, has invoked his grandfather’s ideological legacy to criticise the increasing ‘military involvement’ in politics.[xvii] He is said to be trusted by reformist factions, moderates and centrist conservatives and is, therefore, may be a crucial player in Iran’s intensifying power struggle over the succession.[xviii] .
With Raisi’s win, conservative-hardliners have come to control all important levers of power and are set to play a determinative role in the on-going generational shift in the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the dynamics of Iran’s notoriously complex political ecosystem and volatile society can always throw up surprises.
*Dr.DeepikaSaraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]Iran’s Interior Minister Announces Final Results of the Election, MENAFN, 19 June, 2021, https://menafn.com/1102308541/Irans-Interior-Minister-announces-final-results-of-elections&source=28 (Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[ii]ParisaHefezi, Khamenei protégé wins Iran election amid low turnout, Reuters, 20 June, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-sole-moderate-presidential-candidate-congratulates-raisi-his-victory-state-2021-06-19/(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[iii]Guardian Council: Persons with military background can stand as candidates, Tehran Times, 13 March, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/459073/Guardian-Council-Persons-with-military-background-can-stand(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[iv]Disqualification of Iran’s Presidential Contenders Spark Debate, Andalou Agency, 27 May, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/disqualification-of-irans-presidential-contenders-sparks-debate/2255957 (Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[v] Iran’s Rouhani Complains to Supreme Leader over Disqualification of Presidential Candidates, Caspian News, 26 May, 2021, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/irans-rouhani-complains-to-supreme-leader-over-disqualification-of-presidential-candidates-2021-5-26-0/(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[vi] Ex-spy chief claims elimination of Rafsanjani from Iran’s 2013 elections, Amwai Media, 15 June, 2021,https://amwaj.media/media-monitor/the-controversial-revelation-about-the-disqialificaiton-of-rafsanjani-in-2013-rac(Accessed on 21 June, 2021)
[vii]Iran’s Presidential Elections and its Future Foreign and Domestic Policies, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 26 May, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8683zsEqko&ab_channel=QuincyInstituteforResponsibleStatecraft(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[viii]Mehdi Faatahi, Iran Candidate says he is willing to potentially meet Biden, Associate Press, 9 June, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/only-on-ap-donald-trump-middle-east-iran-election-2020-2178a146cea6c53b2101a40525e2612e(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[ix]Candidates Face Each other in first televised debate, Tehran Times, 6 June, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/461694/Candidates-face-each-other-in-first-televised-debate (Accessed on 19 June, 2021)
[x]Financial ‘noose’ of FATF Divides Iran Presidential Candidates, Iran International, 6 June, 2021, https://iranintl.com/en/world/financial-%E2%80%98noose%E2%80%99-fatf-divides-iran-presidential-candidates(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[xi]Judiciary chief fields presidential candidacy, says opposed to corruption, incompetence, Tehran Times, 15 June, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/460912/Judiciary-chief-fields-presidential-candidacy-says-opposed-to(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)
[xii]In Leaked recording, Iran’s Zarif criticized Guard’s influence in diplomacy, Reuters, 26 April, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/leaked-recording-irans-zarif-criticises-guards-influence-diplomacy-2021-04-26/(Accessed on 8 July, 2021)
[xiii]Zarif urges Iranians to vote: Breakup with ballot boxes no solution to Iran’s woes, PressTV, 14 June, 2021,https://www.presstv.com/election/Detail/2021/06/14/659041/Iran-presidential-election-2021-Zarif-turnout(Accessed on 19 June, 2021)
[xiv] Some Reformists Break Ranks, Endorse Hemmati for Presidential Vote, Iran International, 15 June, 2021, https://iranintl.com/en/iran/some-reformists-break-ranks-endorse-hemmati-iran-presidential-vote(Accessed on 19 June, 2021)
[xv] Khomeini’s Grand Son Slams Rejection of Key Presidential Candidates in Iran, Iran International, 26 May, 2021, https://iranintl.com/en/iran-in-brief/khomeinis-grandson-slams-rejection-key-presidential-candidates-iran(Accessed on 19 June, 2021)
[xvii] The Second Coming of Khomeini, Foreign Policy, 30 December, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/30/the-second-coming-of-khomeini/(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)[xviii]Iranian press review: Khomeini grandson eyed for presidential run, Middle East Eye, 25 March, 2021,
https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-elections-khomeini-grandson-presidential-run-press-review(Accessed on 20 June, 2021)