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Understanding Today’s Elections in Iran

Ebrahim Raisi’s all-but-certain victory will take the fight over post-Khamenei Iran to a new level.
June 18, 2021
Understanding Today’s Elections in Iran
TEHRAN, IRAN - JUNE 18: Iranian ultraconservative cleric and presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi casts his ballot for presidential election on June 18, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. The country's incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, is ineligible to run again after serving two terms in office. (Photo by Meghdad Madadi ATPImages / Getty Images)

Iranians go to the polls today to vote for the country’s next president, the successor to Hassan Rouhani, who has served two four-year terms. Even though the outcome of the rigged election is a foregone conclusion—Ebrahim Raisi will come out triumphant—we can still learn things from it about the Iranian regime.

For starters, this election will likely mark the lowest turnout in any vote since the Islamic Republic was founded forty-two years ago. The regime’s polls—yes, there is public opinion polling in Iran, although it is less scientific than propagandistic—suggest a turnout in the low 40s (the reality will probably be much lower). The low turnout is a hint that the regime has lost legitimacy among Iranians, who have given up on incremental reform. Nevertheless, the election might have effects that will be felt for years to come.

Raisi is a hardliner cleric, belonging to the Combatant Clerics Association party. His political positions make Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s lunatic former president, sound like James Madison. At the age of 27, Raisi was one of the architects and enforcers of the 1988 massacres of political prisoners that resulted in the execution of thousands—the exact number is unknown, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 30,000. After that, Raisi kept a low profile. For ten years, he was Iran’s inspector-general, from which position he might have collected dirt on powerful Iranians for future blackmail.

By 2017, everybody had forgotten that Raisi existed—until, that is, he emerged as the hardline faction’s preferred candidate in the presidential election, immediately sparking speculation that he was being groomed to succeed Ali Khamenei as the country’s leader (“supreme leader” in English-language media) once the old and ill Khamenei dies. Informed speculation suggests that Raisi has a close relationship with the leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, who is a one of the most powerful men in Iran and a candidate to succeed his father.

Raisi lost that 2017 election, receiving from Khamenei the consolation prize of being appointed Iran’s chief justice. While the election did raise Raisi’s profile, the loss raised questions about his viability as a candidate for leadership races. Some observers argued that Raisi’s loss revealed a lack of popular legitimacy—again, you have to take it at face value, given Iran’s rigged and unfree elections system—while his defenders responded that the leader’s legitimacy is divine, no matter what the people think. Raisi’s ascension to presidency might be an attempt to resolve this debate, especially since he will be the first person that the regime will have allowed to become president after losing an election once.

Twelve men form Iran’s guardian council. Six are clerics appointed by the leader, and six are lawyers appointed by the chief justice (three by Raisi), himself appointed by the leader. The council evaluates the qualifications of every candidate for national office. For the first time since the beginning of the reform era in the 1990s, all major reformist candidates were disqualified (two benchwarmer reformists with no name recognition were qualified). Effectively, the era of reform kabuki theater is over; the regime is no longer even pretending that reform is an option. A driver of this decision by the regime might be the failures of the reformist Rouhani administration. The struggles of the past eight years, despite the flow of cash following the Iran nuclear deal, exposed the regime’s foundational problems and delegitimized both the regime and the reform movement. Whatever the case, one of the very few areas of agreement between the people and the regime is that there is no patience for the reform movement.

There are now two powerful political institutions in Iran, both owing their powers to financial independence and the leader’s support. On one hand is the hardline clergy, which also owes support to the regime’s Islamic mandate. On the other is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That paramilitary organization began its rise in politics in the 2000s, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Under the banner of privatization, the corps used its government-allocated budget and government-issued loans to purchase governmental corporations.

But the IRGC’s rise has come at the cost of the clergy’s power, including Khamenei’s supreme rule. Initially a supporter of the hardline clergy against the reformists, upon suppressing the Green Movement in 2009, they replaced the reformists as the main competitor to the clerical class. Today, estimates suggest that the IRGC controls somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of Iran’s economy and is no less rich in political capital. Both the hardline clergy and the IRGC support Raisi, much like how the reformists and the hardliners compromised on the middle-of-the-road, seemingly impotent Khamenei in 1989 to become the leader, which reformists came to regret. Raisi, himself a cleric, has support in both camps, but the time might come that he has to choose, be it during his likely presidential tenure or upon his possible ascent to leadership. His actions are worth keeping an eye on to see which side will be the winner of Raisi’s loyalty.

An indication of Khamenei’s waning power is his statement from a week ago. Even though he appoints all members of the guardian council either directly or indirectly, he complained that there were “injustices” in disqualifying some of them. There were three plausible reasons for this rather unprecedented statement: (1) He was signaling his lack of influence over his handpicked council; (2) he was encouraging people to vote in a highly anticipated lowest-ever turnout election; or (3) he wanted to get the council to reconsider the disqualification of Ali Larijani, a favorite of his and a confidant who has fallen out of favor with many powerful powerbrokers. The second argument is the least plausible as Khamenei has no standing among the boycott faction who reject the regime altogether. Regarding the third scenario, Larijani did not get a reconsideration. That the council would disqualify a confidant of Khamenei’s without his permission is itself an evidence of his diminishing influence; that he could not get the guy a second look makes it even worse.

Khamenei is in his eighties and reportedly struggling with cancer. The process to appoint a successor after his death will be the regime’s most vulnerable point. The reformists will try to make one last attempt at returning to politics, while the dissident faction will pour into the streets to exploit the vulnerability for change and resist the newcomer, and the clergy and the guards will try to get a loyalist to the top position. There are even worries that the IRGC might altogether end the clerical rule and turn the country into a military dictatorship. We will see soon enough whether Raisi, as president, will try to empower one of the factions and betray the other or to stay in the middle of the road.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.