Elections to choose the eighth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran will take place on Friday, June 18, and the winner will assume office on Aug. 3. The chief executive is the second-highest political rank and the most important directly elected position. The office has often contested the authority and directives of Iran’s appointed clerical supreme leader, or rahbar-e mo‘azzam. So during recent presidential elections, current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself a former two-term president (1981-1989), has attempted to steer election outcomes to support his absolute power. But Khamenei’s attempts have met with mixed success. Favorites once installed in office have sought, so far unsuccessfully, to wrest power from the aging potentate.
Each Iranian president is elected by voters aged 18 and above, serves a four-year term, can be re-elected for a second consecutive term, which the past five office holders have all done. Every candidate is vetted by the Guardian Council, or Shura-ye Negahban. The Council comprises six experts in Shiite law selected by the Supreme Leader, and six Shiite jurists selected jointly by the parliament, or Majlis, and the Chief Justice.
The Guardian Council is chaired by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a 94-year-old ultra-conservative cleric handpicked for that post by Khamenei. Iran’s constitution requires that every president possess “a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab [i.e., Jafari school of Ithna-Ashari or Twelver Shiite law] of the country.” Consequently, the Guardian Council has broad discretion on approving or disapproving candidates.
Approximately three hundred hopefuls registered for this June’s election. Only seven were deemed sufficiently “prudent and pious” to gain the Guardian Council’s consent. None of the approved candidates are women, who are routinely excluded from elected office. The seven candidates represent regime stalwarts and mavericks, the latter likely included to tamp down criticism of election-rigging. The supreme leader made sure that the Guardian Council disqualified anyone who could be a rival, including Ali Larijani a former speaker of parliament and member of a politically powerful clerical family.
Two days before the elections, three candidates dropped out of the race. Alireza Zakani, who heads the Majlis Research Center which provides data analysis for parliamentarians, threw his support behind the leading hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi. So did Saeed Jalili, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, nuclear negotiator, and deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs. Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former governor of the provinces of Khorasan and Isfahan, who served as vice president under reformist President Khatami, did not endorse another reform-seeking candidate.
Abdolnaser Hemmati, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tehran, has served as chief executive officer at Sina Bank and Bank Melli, two financial institutions under US and EU sanctions; as deputy head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation; and as governor of the Central Bank of Iran. He claims to be a reformist who champions access to social media for all Iranians and economic subsidies for low-income earners, and he enlists his spouse on the campaign trail. Hemmati says that if elected president he “will select 50 precent of his cabinet team from women and the youth, and will employ women in 30 percent of government positions.” If Hemmati were to rally Iran’s predominantly youthful and reform-seeking voters to cast their ballots for him, this election could produce another leader—like Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and current President Hassan Rouhani — who would attempt to push Khamenei and other fundamentalists into accepting greater social liberalization at home and more diplomatic engagement abroad.
Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a surgeon and ENT specialist, has been a member of parliament since 2008 for the northeastern districts of Mashhad and Kalat. Even though a technocrat, he represents the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, a right-wing political party. On the campaign trail he speaks of governance through “dialog between the administration and the people” in accordance with “the administration of Islam.” Similarities of administrative style, including disdain for clerical involvement in politics, between Ghazizadeh and Iran’s fifth President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) could produce public friction with Khamenei. The supreme leader probably figures that Ghazizadeh has limited national name recognition and is unlikely to emerge victorious on June 18.
Mohsen Rezaei is a former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and is the current secretary of the supreme leader’s advisory Expediency Discernment Council. During the current elections, he has focused on affordable housing. He has spoken in favor of calming relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while criticizing the latter for normalizing relations with Israel. He urges compelling the US “to make good on JCPOA commitments” and boosting Iran’s economy without counting on a lifting of sanctions. Rezaei has been connected by Argentinian officials to the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Bueno Aires. Although a proven loyalist of the Islamic regime, Rezaei has never succeeded in gaining the public’s support; he ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2000, and for the presidency in 2009 and 2013. The Guardian Council seems to have approved his candidacy again knowing full well that he will not prevail.
Sayyed Ebrahim Raisi, the present chief justice of Iran, is the only clergyman among the candidates. Educated in Qom’s madrasa, or theological college system, he claims the lower rank of hojjat al-Islam, or clerical authority on Islam. Having served as a regional public prosecutor in Karaj and Hamadan, he became deputy prosecutor for Tehran and then special provincial prosecutor by appointment from Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to brutally implement the revolutionary government’s will. The late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, after falling out with the hardline clerics, denounced Raisi as a major perpetrator of political prisoner executions in 1988. Raisi’s authoritarian actions were rewarded when Khamenei ascended to supreme leader. Raisi would serve as prosecutor for Tehran, first deputy chief justice, attorney general, and special clerical prosecutor. Most relevant to the ongoing election, Raisi gained the second-highest number of votes during the 2017 presidential elections. Raisi does have electoral success, as well, having been voted into the Assembly of Experts, which will choose the next supreme leader, in 2006 and again in 2016. Raisi has declared his commitment to resuming implementation of the nuclear deal if it meets Supreme Leader Khamenei’s preconditions which he claims the current Rouhani presidential administration failed to follow. On the domestic front, he favors development of a maritime economy that would link Iran more closely to China. He blames Iran’s economic problems on “internal mismanagement” by liberal presidents and like other candidates pushes indigenous solutions “without relying on foreigners.”
MANAGING THE OUTCOME
Raisi is widely regarded not only as the leading candidate among voters, but also the handpicked favorite of Khamenei. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, only two presidents have not been Shiite clerics, and one of those, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, was assassinated by the Mojaheddin-e Khalq after less than one month in office in 1981. Khamenei supported the other, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an engineer and former mayor of Tehran, for reelection in 2009 by rigging ballot results, suppressing public protests, and placing dissenting candidates under house arrest. Yet once reinstalled as the chief executive, Ahmadinejad and his appointments openly challenged the supreme leader’s authority and attempted to marginalize politically-active Shiite clergymen. That president enhanced the IRGC’s role in Iran’s economy, which created another rival center of power. Khamenei survived the confrontation mainly due to Ahmadinejad’s second term of office expiring in early August 2013. Since then, the Guardian Council has rejected Ahmadinejad’s renewed candidacies in 2017 and 2021. So even though most of the presidential candidates are non-clerics, Khamenei and other high-placed religious officials will not allow the election of someone from outside their ranks to lead the executive branch of government.
However, fixing the pool of candidates or even manipulating the vote results has not guaranteed smooth relations between president and supreme leader in the past. Hojjat al-Islam Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) made power grabs that Khamenei thwarted by imprisoning the former president’s children and then sidelining Rafsanjani himself from chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts. Sayyed Khatami, perhaps the most populist post-revolution president, attempted social reforms that Khamenei had to regularly block until that president’s two terms in office ran out. Khamenei moved quickly though the parliament and judiciary to ensure the current President, Rouhani, could not enact domestic reforms. Essentially, Khamenei has not only retained the office of supreme leader but centralized power in it by outmaneuvering rivals.
In many ways, Raisi’s career mirrors that of Khamenei—including membership in the Assembly of Experts and service as Tehran Friday prayer leader. Both have led the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, a bonyad or charitable trust that manages the shrine of the much-venerated eighth imam Reza at Mashhad. Neither earned the rank of ayatollah or reflection/sign of God by publishing religious theses and gaining theological students, either. President Khamenei was a hojjat al-Islam when he emerged as acting supreme leader from a contentious conclave after Ayatollah Khomeini’s demise in June 1989; the Assembly of Experts had to modify Iran’s constitution to make Khamenei’s appointment permanent two months later.
Now, at the age of 82, Khamenei seems to regard Raisi as a potential eight president with whom a power struggle is less likely, or at least manageable until succession occurs either for the chief cleric or the chief executive. Widely touted as Khamenei’s possible successor, Raisi has every incentive to be patient, work cooperatively with the incumbent supreme leader, and line up support within the Assembly of Experts for his own elevation when Khamenei passes.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University and was a member of the United States National Council on the Humanities from 2008-2019. Carol E.B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. The views expressed are the authors' own.