What’s at Stake in Iran’s Presidential Election

Iranians vote June 18 in a presidential election that’s expected to produce the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. The vast majority of moderate and reformist contenders for the position were disqualified from running, leaving the field dominated mostly by arch conservatives. The country’s powerful clerics have based their political legitimacy on a circumscribed electoral process they say reflects the will of the people. Now many officials, including outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, have expressed concern that a limited lineup of candidates will alienate voters to the point of undermining the voting system’s credibility. For the rest of the world, the election is likely to mean that Rouhani, a relative moderate who’s reached his limit of two terms in office, will be replaced by a president who is hostile to the West and highly critical of the 2015 international deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

1. Who are the candidates?

Of the 592 people who applied to run for president, seven men were approved by Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, a body of 12 legal experts appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that vets candidates for office and has veto power over all legislation passed by parliament. Three of them, including the only official reformist candidate, dropped out of the race, helping to consolidate support for the frontrunner, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative.

  • Raisi, a cleric who is the current head of the judiciary, Mohsen Rezaee, former commander of Iran’s premier military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and lawmaker and surgeon Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi are the remaining hardliners on the ballot. All three are very devout and have broadly populist ideas about how to run the economy and draw most of their support from pious, working class Iranians. They are passionate critics of the nuclear deal and hostile toward the U.S. Raisi, who once ran Iran’s wealthiest religious endowment, was sanctioned directly by the U.S. in 2019 as part of then President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran.
  • The only remaining moderate candidate is Abdolnaser Hemmati, who’s stepped aside from his role as Governor of Central Bank of Iran in order to contest. A career technocrat who’s run some of Iran’s largest commercial banks and insurers, he’s emerged as the only credible option for reformists and moderate voters. Hemmati’s been at the forefront of efforts to keep Iran’s economy afloat despite U.S. sanctions and the effects of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, the worst in the Middle East. He’s tried to promote himself as an ordinary, relatable family man with strong managerial credentials and a desire to support the aspirations of young people and women.

2. Who’s been barred?

They include First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, a pragmatic conservative whose disqualification brought the most surprise because of his closeness to Khamenei and strong position within the political establishment. Three high-ranking officers in the Revolutionary Guards, including a current adviser to Khamenei, were also deemed ineligible. Many of the conservatives who didn’t protest their disqualification pledged their support to Raisi, adding to speculation that the Guardian Council engineered the race to work in the cleric’s favor. The most prominent reformist excluded from the poll was Mostafa Tajzadeh, a minister under President Khatami. Jailed in the past for his political activities, he’s led calls for a boycott of the election since his disqualification.

3. Why is turnout expected to be low?

In a poll of about 6,500 people conducted by the semi-official Iranian Students Polling Agency from June 16 to June 17, 42% said they definitely would vote, compared with 33% who said they definitely would not. The election comes at a time of widespread discontent and economic malaise. Members of Iran’s middle class, most of whom traditionally vote for moderates or reformists, have suffered the most as a result of sanctions imposed on Iran by then-President Donald Trump after he pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal. Unemployment has surged, and a deep plunge in the value of the rial has greatly diminished people’s spending power. At the same time, Iranian authorities, led by the Revolutionary Guards, have cracked down severely on expressions of discontent; foreign rights groups have reported some of the worst protest violence since Iran’s revolution in 1979. Iranians commonly ridicule the election on social media, often using memes satirizing the lack of diversity on the ballot.

4. What are the implications for the nuclear deal?

The deal faltered after the U.S. withdrew from it and reinstated related sanctions in 2018, prompting Iran to take escalating steps breaching the accord’s limits on its nuclear program. After Trump was replaced as U.S. president by Joe Biden, officials representing Rouhani’s government began negotiating with world powers in an effort to revive the accord. Hopes it would be renewed before the election have been dashed as significant differences remain between the parties. Rouhani stays in office until August, giving his diplomats a few more weeks to try to secure an agreement. Resuscitating the deal later, or keeping a revitalized deal on track, if a hardliner is elected president is a much more challenging prospect.

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