2021 Iran Presidential Elections

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

A holistic analysis of the upcoming Iranian Presidential elections, scheduled for June 2021- from examining potential Presidential candidates to exploring the election’s implications on domestic, regional and international politics. 

Every four years, the Islamic Republic of Iran hosts the elections for the second highest elected leader in Government – that of the President. Despite Iran facing their worst coronavirus wave yet, the Presidential elections in Iran have been scheduled for June 2021. The President of Iran is second only to the Supreme Leader of Iran and although many executive decisions are undertaken by the Supreme Leader, the President plays a prominent role in shaping domestic policy and international attitudes towards the nation. 

Those that are Iranian citizens by birth, are above 21 years of age, believe in God and Islam and have loyally abided by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic are eligible to stand for election. Once individuals nominate their candidacy, the responsibility of vetting the candidates falls on the Guardian Council – a 12 member committee consisting of six Islamic faqis (scholars of Islamic law) and six scholars in other areas of law. Six of the members of the Guardian Council are elected by the Supreme Leader while the other 6 are selected from a list of nominees provided by the head of Judiciary, who is in turn elected by the Supreme Leader. Thus quite often, the Guardian Council is seen as a broader representation of the views of a single individual, the Supreme Leader, who at the moment is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, having served as Supreme Leader since 1989. As such, the Guardian Council has a reputation of rejecting presidential candidacy applications for arbitrary and ambiguous reasons, and has a noticeable history of rejecting female applicants in particular. While the Guardian Council does not disclose the reason for rejection to the general public, it has been noted that they do provide a reason to the applicant themselves. 

Who are the candidates for the June 2021 elections? 

The constitution of Iran sets a two-term limit (eight years) for any President in office. Thus the current moderate- centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, is ineligible to stand for re-election, having already served for a period of eight years. Over the nomination period, a number of individuals declared their interest in nominating themselves. Because of the extensive oppression of freedom of press in Iran and the lack of transparency from the Guardian Council when approving candidates, it is a tedious task to confirm with absolute certainty the exact number and names of candidates that nominated themselves, and got approved by the Guardian Council, respectively. However, under my analytical paradigm of Iranian politics, I have attempted to compile a list of possible candidates standing for elections in June: 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 

Having served as the President of Iran from 2005 to 2013, Ahmadinejad is known for his hard, right wing, conservative and anti-Western policies. During his time as President, he was criticized for his economic policies as well as his disregard for human rights. Ahmadinejad supports the Iran nuclear deal, however is extremely hostile towards Western countries such as the USA and UK and its allies- Saudi Arabia and Israel. Despite the disapproval from Ayatollah Khameini, he attempted to run for a third term as President during the 2017 Iran Elections, but his candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council. Ahmadinejad has shown interest in running for the Presidency this June, however it is still unclear whether his candidacy has been approved by the council. 

Ebrahim Raisi 

Another famous conservative politician expected to run for the Presidency is Raisi, who currently serves as the Chief Justice of Iran. Often known as a “conservative hardliner”, Raisi is also a muslim cleric and ran for the Presidency in 2017 as the candidate of a conservative political party in Iran, however lost to the current moderate- centrist President. Raisi has a zero tolerance approach, which is clear in the active role he played in the mass execution of the 1988 political prisoners of Iran. His actions are seen as quite dangerous and thus due to the threat level he represents, both the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on him, targeting his financial assets. While Raisi declared that he would not be running for the 2021 Presidential elections, many Iranians are still hopeful. One potential reason for why he has decided against nominating himself is because scholars believe that post the demise of the current Supreme Leader, Raisi has a high chance of becoming the next Supreme Leader and thus would rather lay low till then. 

Mohammad Baghar Ghalibaf 

A final conservative politician who has the potential of serving as the next President of Iran is former military commander and current Speaker of the Iranian parliament – Ghalibaf. He began his career as a military air pilot during the Iran- Iraq war and soon rose to become chief of the Iranian Police force. Ghalibaf has a rather monotonous and dull history with the Presidential elections, having stood for and losing the elections thrice – in 2005, 2013 and 2017 respectively. However in 2021, because his top two competitors are Ahmadinejad and Raisi, the former who’s candidacy is still undeclared and the latter having more ambitious goals, Ghalibaf’s candidacy looks brighter than ever. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif 

Perhaps the only hope for the Iranian people of electing a moderate- centrist President, rather than a conservative one like the potential candidates described above, rests in the hands of Zarif. Zarif is a professor and academic at the University of Tehran who previously served as Foreign Minister. His tenure as Foreign Minister is often remembered for his tremendous work in leading the negotiations that led to the formulation and adaptation of the Iran Nuclear Deal. From 2002 to 2007, he was also the Permanent Representative of Iran to the UN and has constantly aspired to increase dialogue and reduce conflict between Iran and its Western foes. He was awarded the Chatham House prize in 2016 and was recorded as one of the Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014 and 2015. If elected, Zarif would definitely attempt to implement centrist policies, that some regard as a step towards progress and democracy while others regard them as the imposition of western values in Iran. Yet, recent news shows that Zarif has no intention of running for these elections which is a devastating blowback for the people of Iran.

Other candidates: 

There are many other individuals that have declared their interest for the candidacy, one being the 5th President of Iran- Sayyid Mohammad Khatami. Khatami served as president from 1997 to 2005. As President, he promised the Iranian people liberalisation and reform but was soon blocked by many conservative clerics. While he has made no official statement regarding his candidacy for the upcoming elections, many speculate that he has nominated himself. When it comes to female candidates, the Guardian Council still hasn’t allowed any woman to run for elections. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani daughter of President Rafsanjani is one the most prominent women in Iranian politics today, who’s activism, no-nonsense and progressive attitude has received much criticism from hardline Iranian politicians. Due to her outspokenness and reformist approach, she would have made a terrific candidate this year, however it is for the same reason that her candidacy is extremely unlikely to be approved by the Guardian Council. 

Implications on domestic politics 

Based on my analysis above, it is clear that the upcoming President of Iran is most likely a hard right conservative, replacing the current more moderate President. This comes as a result of the current President’s failed economic policies, forcing many Iranians to vote for a more conservative President this time round, with the hopes of improving their economy. Thus, many speculate that Iranians would vote for conservative candidates who would not be afraid to take harsh steps to improve Iran’s economy. The candidate likely to receive the most votes would be an open critic of the current President, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has constantly commanded the current President to step down, stating that “the nation [Iran] doesn’t accept you”. Ebrahim Raisi and Galibaf, having lost the Presidential bid to President Rouhani in 2017 have also criticized the President on many occasions. Polls held in October 2020 predicted an easy win for Ahmadinejad, with an astonishing 37% of votes. However more recent polls held in February 2021 showed that Ahmadinejad’s polling fell to 15%, second to Raisi who took the lead with 28% of votes. 

Despite the worrying news that the next President of Iran would most probably be a hardliner, one interesting finding is that based on polling data collected in October 2020 and February 2021, a staggering 46% and 39% of Iranians respectively voted “None/ Don’t know/ Other candidate”. One reason why such alarming numbers of Iranians are still undecided on their votes is the high level of control that the regime has over its people, due to which many Iranians may fear political backlash. Another reason though could simply be because many Iranians actually do not know which candidate to vote for, which seems fair considering the gargantuan domestic, regional and international implications that these elections may have. 

Implications on regional politics: 

If a more hardline President is elected, the threat to Middle Eastern peace and security would rise tenfold. The proxy war in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia would only continue to grow, threatening the lives of many Sunni and Shia Muslims. Moreover, the divide between Iran and the Arab countries in the region will increase. On the one end, Arab countries would continue to sign peace deals with Israel, such as the ones signed by UAE and Bahrain, while on the other, we can expect the Iranian regime to continue to support Palestine and non-state actor groups in the region like Hamas and Hezbollah. The election of a conservative President thus threatens military security within the region. Simply put, it is likely that the region will become more unstable, peace will be disrupted and lives will be lost as tensions between Iran and its regional foes continue to rise. A hardline President would so much so as guarantee that Iran aspires to achieve regional hegemony– which would reduce overall security in the Middle East. 

Implications on international relations: 

The success of the Biden administration’s ability to reestablish the Iran Nuclear Deal is heavily dependent on the outcome of the June Presidential elections. Given the disastrous and dangerous step that US – Iran relations took under the Trump era, we have already witnessed the US’s attempts at mending their relations with Iran, with the Biden administration lifting rescinding sanctions that were imposed during Trump’s term. However, rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal seems like a much larger task, with Tehran having a new and more rigorous set of terms that they demand the Biden administration to agree to in order for them to rejoin. Further, given the upcoming elections and the high prospects of a hardliner president being elected, both governments are working towards a tight deadline. 

The current President has often been criticized for imposing western values in Iran and for his relative lack of anti-westernism. Thus, a new hardline Iranian president would undo this and take a more aggressive stance against the West, particularly the USA. If the Iran Nuclear Deal is not signed by June, which is quite a remarkable task to achieve, it would be highly unlikely for the new President to rejoin the agreement. Thus, if the current Government is not able to decide on the terms of the agreement and rejoin the deal before the next president takes office, the reestablishment of the Iran Nuclear Deal would merely be a facade of our imagination, at least for the next 4 years of the new Iranian President’s term. 

Clearly, the consequences of these elections could not be overstated.

By Vaania Kapoor Achuthan

Originally from India, Vaania studies Politics and International Relations at UCL. Vaania currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Public Policy Review. Dedicated to highlighting the stories of the most marginalised in society, Vaania aspires to work as a political journalist in the near future.

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