Elections inside Iran have never met standards set by the world’s liberal democracies. Yet, the electoral process in Iran has often possessed a vibrancy that is rare in the Middle East. Despite limitations on eligibility and speech, candidates running against the Islamic Republic’s establishment have won consequential elections on several occasions. The upcoming presidential election on June 18 is shaping up to be an inflection point. Hardline political forces, greatly empowered after years of U.S. pressure, have disqualified en masse anyone who could seriously challenge their preferred candidate: judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the spectrum of acceptable politics has had periods of expansion and contraction. The main political divide since the 1990s has been between those who seek to reform the system and empower popularly-elected institutions, and conservatives who have a more narrowly-defined ideological worldview and seek to maintain the dominance of theocratic bodies. One such institution is the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of clerics and jurists which vets the credentials of candidates for elected office and all legislation. This council has been key to conservatives maintaining outsized influence over the years.
The political balance in Iran has been severely influenced by the actions of the United States. The outsized impact of U.S. economic, political, and military pressure against Iran has consistently shrunk political space inside the country for opposition voices and undercut moderate and reformist elements who have invested their limited political capital on improving ties with the West.
This was the case with former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s, when promises of reciprocation for his efforts to secure the release of hostages in Lebanon went unmet by the George H.W. Bush administration and later overtures to open Iranian oil fields to U.S. and Western companies were met with sanctions from President Clinton. Former President Mohammad Khatami’s post-9/11 assistance to the United States and talk of “dialogue among civilizations” was met with George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech. And perhaps, most fatefully, current President Hassan Rouhani in the past decade went all in on engaging the United States diplomatically and negotiating the nuclear deal, only to be met with Donald Trump and his “maximum pressure” campaign. The outcome of Trump’s policies is now bearing out in Iran’s current presidential race: Iranian moderates and reformists have been rendered powerless as hardliners are consolidating total power.
The conservative-dominated Guardian Council has now limited the candidates eligible to run in next month’s election to a degree it has never done so before. Only seven out of the 592 prospective candidates who registered to run have been approved. No prominent reformists or moderates are among them, and three of the approved candidates are hardliners to the right of Raisi who will likely withdraw in his favor. Most notably, former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, a loyal confidant of the system who has drifted from being a conservative to pro-nuclear deal moderate, has been disqualified.
This year’s presidential election was already set to be a limited, low turnout affair. Many Iranians who voted in record numbers for the moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and 2017 have grown disenchanted in his second term amid violent government crackdowns, economic decline, and Rouhani’s failure to deliver social and political reforms. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s decision to not run for president, after massive hardliner attacks against him and a rebuke from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, made it more unlikely that this largely middle-class constituency would turn out. Larijani’s decision to run represented the next best chance of defeating Raisi for many in the moderate camp. His disqualification now suggests that the main centers of power in Tehran simply do not care about having a competitive election or a high turnout.
If the Guardian Council’s list of approved candidates holds, the stage is set for a ceremonial election. Ayatollah Khamenei can still overturn the Guardian Council’s decisions through a decree, which he is under mounting pressure to do so from President Rouhani and others, but this has yet to materialize. Moreover, Larijani has accepted his disqualification, as have other prominent figures who were also barred, such as Rouhani’s reformist vice president Eshaq Jahangiri and former moderate parliamentarian Ali Motahari. The Guardian Council has effectively made clear that only the staunchly conservative wing of the Islamic Republic’s politics should be allowed to attain the presidency.
The lineup of approved candidates will make the election no contest for Raisi. The three hardliners to his right include Alireza Zakani, an MP and fiery opponent of the nuclear deal. Zakani has called the accord a “stinking corpse” and has pushed for the impeachment of Rouhani and all officials who seek to improve Iran’s relations with the West. Another is Saeed Jalili, who served as Iran’s intransigent chief nuclear negotiator during the presidency of the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and recently scolded Rouhani’s diplomats for squandering Iran’s power in diplomacy with the West. The third, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, has blasted those who “believe in Europe and defend the JCPOA” as “infiltrators” that should be “thrown out of the system.”
Of the three remaining approved candidates, two hail from the moderate camp but are widely viewed to lack the political pedigree to mount a serious challenge to Raisi. The third is perennial presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander who has mounted four unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the past. The two moderates are incumbent Central Bank Governor Abdonaser Hemmati, a technocrat closely affiliated with the now-deeply unpopular Rouhani and his dismal economic track record, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a reformist former mayor of Isfahan province who has been largely out of the political scene for years. Azar Mansoori, the spokesperson for the Reformist Front coalition, says all the candidates under consideration by the reformists were disqualified and that they support no candidates in the election.
The Guardian Council’s lineup is not only a blow to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy but may do more harm to Raisi’s reputation than good. Iranian presidential elections are typically competitive and feature grassroots mobilization and combative televised debates. Raisi will not be dealing with any of that. Instead, he will face a public perception of having overtly been handed the presidency by the establishment. This may severely damage prospects for Raisi to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader, a position for which many have speculated he is being groomed. It is perhaps for this reason that he has also criticized the Guardian Council’s mass disqualifications and said he is pushing to make the election “more competitive.”
Raisi will bring a hardline worldview to power that can exacerbate Iran’s isolation. His track record in Iran’s judicial system is rife with abuses and includes playing a major role in the mass executions of dissidents in 1988. By surrounding himself with figures like Jalili, Zakani, and Ghazizadeh, he will also be bringing Iran’s most anti-American and anti-diplomacy hardliners in Iran to the fore. With that said, Raisi himself called the nuclear deal a “national document that must be respected” in the 2017 election. While his election may not lead to the end of the current talks to revive the nuclear agreement, his presidency could ensure the deal will be the ceiling, not the floor, for diplomatic engagement with the West.