Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, appears to be the front-runner among four candidates running for president in Iran. Although even carefully controlled Iranian elections can be unpredictable, it appears certain that the successor to two-term President Hassan Rouhani will be a regime loyalist with limited power.
What’s at stake?
For Iranians, the most pressing domestic issue is the economy, which has been battered by U.S. sanctions reimposed after Washington left the nuclear deal in 2018. The economy shrank by nearly 5 percent last year, and hasn’t grown since 2017. Lifting sanctions, especially on the oil and banking sectors, will be a priority for the next president. In addition, COVID-19 is still a serious problem for Iran—which has the highest death toll in the Middle East—and pandemic-related restrictions have increased Iranians’ economic hardships.
The incoming president can help relieve the economic burdens through nuclear diplomacy, since any revival of the deal will almost certainly involve U.S. sanctions relief. After the U.S. withdrawal, Iran started reneging on its commitments under the agreement. Now, the countries are negotiating their return to the deal in Vienna. Khamenei supports the negotiations and Iranian officials expect to finalize an agreement by August, before the new president takes over.
Who are the candidates?
This year, Iran’s Guardian Council, a panel of twelve unelected jurists and scholars, allowed only seven out of nearly six hundred registrants to become candidates. Three of the approved candidates—lawmaker Alireza Zakani, former Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and Supreme National Security Council member Saeed Jalili—then dropped out on June 16. The council disqualified officials including Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani. No women are on the ballot: they are not explicitly barred from running, but the council rejected all forty women who submitted their candidacy.
Here are the candidates:
- Ebrahim Raisi is a cleric who ran against Rouhani in 2017. He is known for his involvement on a 1988 panel that sentenced thousands of dissidents, militants, and others to death after the Iran-Iraq War. He has close ties to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), though he is not a member of the paramilitary group.
- Mohsen Rezaei is a former IRGC commander-in-chief who has run for president three other times.
- Abdolnaser Hemmati headed the Central Bank of Iran and was vice president of the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the country’s biggest media corporation.
- Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi is the deputy speaker of parliament.
Some experts say the Guardian Council is manipulating the election in Raisi’s favor, as the other approved candidates have far less public support and recognition. Raisi is also considered a potential successor to the eighty-two-year-old Khamenei, who is reportedly in poor health. Other analysts say it is not certain that Raisi will win or succeed Khamenei, since Iranian elections have proven to be unpredictable.
What power does the president have?
Iran has multiple power centers, with the supreme leader having the most sway. The president has limited constitutional powers as the head of government. Their duties include nominating cabinet members and proposing the budget, which must then be approved by legislators. Even these responsibilities can be limited by the supreme leader’s influence.
The government’s overall strategy is determined by the Supreme National Security Council, which the president presides over but does not control. Two of the security council’s twelve permanent members represent the supreme leader, who has the final say on decisions. “The prevailing policy orientation among the majority of the council members will be the policy of the Iranian state and not necessarily the policy preferences of the president,” Ali Alfoneh of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington writes.
President Rouhani has conducted diplomacy around major issues such as the nuclear deal. Yet, comments in February by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the IRGC’s outsize influence on foreign affairs cast further doubt on the extent of the president’s power. Experts say this could leave voters to believe that the presidency has little importance and contribute to lower turnout.
Is it a fair election?
Not by most standards. This year, the Guardian Council imposed new restrictions, including that candidates must be between forty and seventy-five years old, which disqualified many registrants. The field of candidates was already limited by an existing requirement that the president be a Shiite Muslim, which excludes minorities such as Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.
Last year’s parliamentary elections had the lowest turnout in Iran’s history, at 42 percent. Now, many disillusioned voters and politicians plan to boycott this election because of the limited candidate options, dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, and frustration with the repressive state, among other grievances.