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Iran’s Presidential Elections: A Strategic Paradox

Iran’s Presidential Elections: A Strategic Paradox
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its next presidential elections on June 18. Most observers, though, consider it actually took place several weeks early, on May 25.

On that day, the Guardian Council - the body responsible for deciding which candidates are authorized to run in Iran’s presidential elections - announced its selection. There is no known representative of the moderate camp on the list of candidates selected by the Guardian Council. As such, the main conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, currently chief justice, appears to be running without a serious rival.

A regime in motion

Notable among the eliminated candidates was Eshaq Jahangiri, vice-president of the current Rouhani administration. He already ran in 2017 and demonstrated serious debating skills on that occasion. He then withdrew in favor of current president Hassan Rouhani before the election took place. The only reformist candidate in the upcoming elections will therefore be Abdolnaser Hemmati, former governor of the Central Bank, a technocrat without political experience. It is worth adding that he has not enjoyed strong support by the reformist camp during the campaign.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign affairs minister who is popular in certain circles, was eliminated by other means, before May 25: deliberate leaks of a recording on which he makes remarks against the Revolutionary Guard cut short any hope of a candidacy on his part.

One of the Guardian Council’s choices has come as a surprise: the exclusion of Ali Larijani, a conservative politician, former president of the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) and close advisor to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei. It is hard to imagine that Larijani would have presented his candidacy without first getting a green light from the Supreme Leader or at least from the latter’s cabinet. The refusal of the Guardian Council to let Larijani run implies either that Khamenei does not necessarily have the last word in the internal quarrels of the conservative camp, or else that he or his entourage have changed their minds.

Of course, many interpretations have been making the rounds in Iranian political circles as to why the Guardian Council disqualified a man seen as a pillar of the Islamic Republic. Some argue, for instance, that his accession to the presidency would have given an advantage to his brother Sadeq, himself a member of the Guardian Council, who for his part has ambitions to replace the Supreme Leader some day. Sadeq Larijani has formally protested the Council’s decision regarding his brother.

Another explanation put forward is that Ali Larijani has gradually moved toward less conservative beliefs. In any case, while Khamenei has publicly expressed his wish that the people whose exclusion by the Council of Guardians was based on false information be compensated, he has not questioned the Council’s decisions, as some had hoped he would.

Putting aside the rumors, there are several takeaways from these recent events. First, it is clear that the conservatives did not want to take any risks in order to ensure the victory of their champion, Raisi, who had already run but was defeated in 2017. It is likely that the prospect of a possible succession of the Supreme Leader - who will be 82 years old in a few weeks - was an important factor. For some time now, Ebrahim Raisi has emerged as the conservatives’ favored candidate for the succession of Ayatollah Khamenei.

For the first time since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, the election of the President will take place without any real competition.

In the eyes of the regime’s "hardliners", Raisi’s background offers solid guarantees. For one, he has extensive experience in repression and good relations with the Revolutionary Guard. He has also been at the head of one of the country’s main religious foundations, the Islamic Republic’s economic arm of sorts, and he has proved more than satisfactory in his role as chief justice. It is generally considered that the presidency would be a launching pad to Supreme Leadership for him, just as it was for Ayatollah Khamenei, who had been president for two terms, from 1981 to 1989.

The last and most important lesson of this episode is that for the first time since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, the election of the President will take place without any real competition, except if there is an unexpected breakthrough by one of Raisi’s competitors, for which there are zero indications. Even among conservatives, the current situation has been criticized. Thus far, the "filtering" of candidates had allowed voters to choose between people who were all committed to the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic, but who represented different leanings or interests nonetheless.

We may deduce that a shift is taking place in the regime, as it inches away from the form of pluralism that had hitherto characterized the Islamic Republic and toward classic authoritarianism. If this is so, the regime’s legitimacy, already in decline, can only suffer further.

There is little doubt that voter turnout will be particularly low on June 18. By prioritizing the victory of its candidate, the military-religious caste that governs the country seems to have chosen to accept the regime’s legitimacy deficit. It seems to consider that the time has passed when consideration for a diversity of opinions was advantageous. This supports the hypothesis of a shift, or even a mutation, in the Islamic Republic rule.

What impact will the elections have on foreign policy?

This brings us to the paradox. It is not certain that an administration led by Raisi would change Iran’s foreign policy line much - after all, foreign policy is mostly defined by the Supreme Leader.

Insofar as can be judged, it seems that the conservatives share the reformist camp’s observation that the economy and social situation in the country are dire. GDP is said to have contracted by 12% over the past two years, with Covid-19 adding its effects to the maximum pressure applied by the US under Donald Trump - and to government mismanagement.

A lifting or at least an easing of US sanctions appears to be a vital issue for all Iranian officials, regardless of their affiliations.

This is why the (admittedly difficult) Vienna negotiations on the nuclear deal resumed fairly quickly after the new administration in Washington was in place, and without the multiple preconditions that Iranian spokespersons had threatened with prior to the US presidential elections. Some diplomats even believe that discussions with a conservative Iranian administration could technically be easier, since, unlike in recent years, the different centers of power would be aligned this time: the Supreme Leader’s office, administration, military and even foundations.

It seems that the conservatives share the reformist camp’s observation that the economy and social situation in the country are dire.

This could also result in greater consistency in the implementation of decisions. Other observers go so far as to say that if he succeeds in becoming president, Raisi would have a personal interest - due to his lack of popularity - in bringing about real improvements in his country, and therefore in a normalization of relations with the West. 

We had better resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. In the Iranian tradition, a change in administration also means a change in administrative personnel, including in the diplomatic corps; this can be a complicating factor. Moreover, the regional context continues to be a minefield. Be that as it may, the Europeans are currently playing a discreet but major role in Vienna as honest brokers between the US and Iran. It is very important that they get ready to intensify and broaden their relations and begin to imagine how to take advantage of the strategic paradox laid out above.



Copyright: ATTA KENARE / AFP

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