Short Briefing Paper on Iran’s Upcoming Presidential Elections

Ebrahim Raisi

by The Iran Project 

Do Iran’s Presidential Elections Matter?
  • Iranian presidents are sandwiched between the Supreme Leader (the ultimate decider),parliament, and the Guardian Council (the arbiter of law’s conformity with Islam). Together,these institutions have a direct say and exercise veto powers on presidential policies and key appointments.
  • Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) makes all the strategic decisions in foreign policy. Headed by the president, it is composed of a group of senior officials, representing the major centers of power in Iran’s complex governing structure. Iran’sRevolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is represented in the SNSC.
  • The president has a limited mandate but plays an important role. His preferences, style and tone matter as demonstrated by the sharp contrast between Ahmadinejad’s confrontational foreign policy and Rouhani’s strategy of engagement with the West—both serving the sameSupreme Leader.
  • Iranian elections fall short of internationally recognized standards of free and fair elections. The political establishment controls the input—by excluding undesirable candidates—but accepts the outcome, as elections reinforce the system’s populist roots and allow it to manage intra-elite competition. The triumph of Rouhani in 2013 helped rehabilitate the electoral system’s legitimacy after the near-fatal hit it suffered in 2009 after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.
Who are the Candidates?
  • Iran lacks a traditional political party system. Its fluid factional landscape can be divided into two broad categories:
  • Pragmatists: Also known as “moderates” or “reformists,” emphasize elected institutions and the constitution more than divine authority; support economic privatization; advocate for relative socio-cultural freedom within Islamic norms; and espouse integration into the global economy, engagement with the West, and regional interdependence.
  • Principlists: Also known as “conservatives,” they seek to protect the ideological principles of the revolution, espouse conservative Islamic socio-cultural norms, and see an unavoidable clash of interest between the West and an independent Iran. They dominate the system’s unelected and powerful theocratic institutions.
  • Only six candidates (out of 1,636 hopefuls) were approved by the Guardian Council to run in this election.
  • Hassan Rouhani, 68, the incumbent president, holds a PhD in law from Glasgow CaledonianUniversity, was elected in 2013 on the promise of resolving the nuclear standoff and lifting the sanctions.
  • Eshagh Jahangiri, 60, the incumbent vice president.
  • Mostafa Hashemitaba, 71, is the former head of Iran’s national Olympic committee.
  • Ebrahim Raisi, 57, the current custodian of Iran’s holiest religious shrine, holds a PhD in Islamic law. A high-ranking judiciary official, he was a prosecutor on the so-called “death commission” that executed thousands of dissidents in 1988.
  • Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, 56, the current mayor of Tehran, is a former commander ofRevolutionary Guards’ air force.
  • Mostafa Mirsalim, 70, a former minister of culture.
What Is the Process?
  • Presidential campaign started on April 20, 2017 and ends 24 hours before Election Day on May 19, 2017. Each candidate is granted 1470 minutes of airtime on state radio and television.There will be three live debates among the candidates.
  • The election is based on a majority (50% +1) runoff system. If no candidate passes the threshold, a runoff election will be held on May 26, 2017. Except for 2005, all presidential elections have been determined in the first round.
  • Turnout for presidential election has varied between 50 and 85% since 1980. Around 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote in this election. Since elections for nearly 200,000 local council seats are held the same day, a relatively high turnout is expected.
What Is at Stake?
  • Balance of Power: pragmatists currently control the executive branch and dominate the legislature. Losing the presidency would significantly tilt the balance in favor of the principlists, who already control the system’s unelected bodies. Iranian presidents have regularly been re-elected for a second term.
  • The Leader’s Succession: The eventual transition from Supreme Leader Khamenei, 78, to his successor will shape Iran’s political future. The defeat of candidate Raisi, rumored to be a successor to Khamenei, could constitute a popular setback, but the Supreme Leader is not a publicly elected office.
  • The Nuclear Accord: None of the candidates is expected to oppose the nuclear agreement, which was approved by SNSC and remains popular despite discontent over its limited economic dividends. Rouhani will be criticized by the opposition as weak and naïve in expecting the keep its end of the bargain.
  • The Economy: Even though the IMF expects Iran’s economy to grow at over 5% through 2018the dividends to the Iranian people have been limited. Unemployment is over 12%, with youth unemployment around 30%. The failure to find employment for one million new entrants into the economy every year undermines Iran’s political stability. How to relieve this mounting threat is a central issue in this election. Rouhani promotes an open economy that would benefit from foreign capital and technology, while his rivals emphasize a policy of self-reliance and an economy that is resistant to outside pressure.

Photo of Ebrahim Raisi registering for the 2017 presidential election (Wikimedia Commons).

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  1. The history of Iran’s elections proves that with the rigged win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 that led to widespread protests and massive crackdowns. This election will be no different since the Guardian Council have rendered the ordinary Iranian citizen’s vote moot with a slate designed to ensure only the most devout and devoted will be elected. For most Iranians, already severely disillusioned by the unfilled promises of Rouhani, the best and most obvious choice on the ballot might be “none of the above.”

  2. Rigged or not rigged, Iranians will participate in this presidential election in high numbers, like the ones before, as compared with international standards (eighty million people cannot be wrong) . More than being in love with the candidates, Iranians love their country and having experienced and witnessed the revolution, eight years war with Iraq, failed Arab Spring and all the slaughter and devastation going on in their region, they see the need to keep their heads cool and continue their painful push to change things within. Gradual changes are more likely to last than sudden and drastic ones. Rigid, formidable, and aggressive regimes thrive on external enemies and confrontations to stay in power. A wise man uses the zeal, resources and power of the factions within the same system against each other to create space for reform and breathing space for the nation. Unlike others, I do believe that at the present time the Rouhani camp is the best bet for Iran. He is deep enough within the system to be allowed to run as a candidate, yet more than adequately involved with the aspirations of the nation to affect gradual and lasting reform in the country.

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