This report sheds the light on the latest developments of Iran’s presidential election in the wake of announcing the victory of the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran. These developments include analysis of the latest political, institutional process and developments, developments in the hardline and moderate camps, and trends in traditional media and social media.
Political, institutional process and developments
Khamenei and what is expected of Raisi: Khamenei has now taken a big gamble by engineering Raisi’s so-called election victory. Not only did Khamenei force a majority of Iranians to boycott the elections entirely (only 48% voted and another 4.2 million who voted chose to vote blank), and therefore massively weakened the popular legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. But Khamenei has also deepened the schism within the regime. Many of those prominent figures barred from running – from Ali Larijani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hassan Khomeini and others – represented pockets of support for the regime. Now, these pockets feel alienated and might reconsider supporting the political order. This was predictable and begs the question: why did Khamenei, and other centers of power in Tehran that backed him, want from Raisi?
Many Iranian commentators believe that Khamenei has taken this gamble because he essentially wants to purge and consolidate the regime. The timing of this gamble at this election time has all to do with the succession process and what comes the day Khamenei dies. Raisi was simply chosen to become president to rubber-stamp the actions Khamenei will take in the months and years to come should he push ahead with a purge. If so, it would represent one of the riskiest steps Khamenei has taken as Supreme Leader since he took power in 1989.
Developments in the Hardline camp
Saeed Jalili’s influence in the Raisi government: Saeed Jalili is a right-wing ideologue who has supporters both in the bayt of Khamenei and in the Office of the Supreme Leader and in the ultra-conservative Paydari faction. But it seems he was never meant to be a genuine intended winner of the June presidential elections.
Instead, Jalili appears to have been in the presidential run with one function to perform: to pave the way for Ebrahim Raisi to win by acting as his “attack dog” (or what in Persian is called “Namzad Posheshi.” Put simply, Jalili’s job was to undermine the candidacies of Raisi’s two top moderate rivals: Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Abdolnasser Hemmati. Jalili did his job during the three-week campaign period and withdrew from the race before election day.
But it seems Jalili has more work to do for Raisi once he is in the Presidential Palace. Jalili has suggested that he will be in a “shadow government” monitoring the performance of the Raisi team. Jalili said the same thing when Rouhani became president but his “shadow government” had nothing but criticism of the performance of the Rouhani administration. For Raisi, Jalili will likely provide only praise and be part of a broader orchestrated effort spearheaded from Khamenei’s office to give a positive spin to anything President Raisi will do in terms of policies.
In that sense, what the case of Saeed Jalili shows is the extraordinary lengths Khamenei is already taking to protect Raisi from criticism before he has even commenced as president. Why give someone like Jalili such a sensitive mission? First, he is trusted. He is after all one of the two personal representatives of Khamenei in the Supreme National Security Council. Second, Khamenei is genuinely grooming and installing men in their 50s and 60s to top functions in the Islamic Republic so his preferred policies will continue after he dies. While Khamenei can take such measures to create political space for Raisi as president, the simple reality is that Raisi is essentially nothing but a facade for Khamenei wishes. Iranian public sees through such gimmickry.
Developments in the Reform/Moderate Camp
Why Hemmati failed to rally support: Abdolnasser Hemmati was an unlikely front-runner among reform-leaning candidates. In fact, his one main strength was that he was approved by the Guardian Council when most genuine reformers were disqualified. The reason why the council approved him to run for president was simply because Hemmati was seen as harmless.
He was to act as token presence in the presidential race. With no deep support base of his own – having spent the last 42 years in various technocratic positions and mostly away from the public eye – he was never going to produce public excitement. And the political circle he comes from, the old network of Ayatollah Rafsanjani or the Kargozaran, was never really behind him. If they were, they never openly expressed full support for him in this election.
But there was an even deeper basis for Hemmati’s poor performance in the election: the leaders of the reform movement were divided on whether to boycott the elections or not while the reformist supporters among the electorate largely boycotted the election. It was not just at the presidential level. Reformist candidates failed also miserably in the elections for the 21-seat Tehran City Council.
Candidates for these elections do not need to be approved by the Guardian Council but be approved by Ministry of Interior and the parliament (Majlis). Despite the disqualification of many reformist candidates by the latter institutions, the problem was not so much that issue but very low turnout among reformist voters. This reality speaks of what some observers have described as the “death of the reform” movement in Iran.
Not only have reform leaders, like Mohammad Khatami, personally become increasingly unpopular with the Iranian public but they have by this point squandered the political capital that the reform movement accumulated after Khatami’s landslide win in 1997. Whether the reform movement can at this point be resuscitated is an unlikely scenario. The generation that supported them in the 1990s and 2000s have been followed by a younger demographic that is far more radical in its demands and unconvinced that Khamenei will allow for political reform through the ballot box.
Here is the irony. The reformist leaders are irrelevant at this point in the Islamic Republic and Khamenei has been a major reason for it thanks to his predatory ways. But Khamenei might come to regret it. The pretense of the existence of a reform alternative has in the last 20 years channeled some popular anger away from the streets and to the election ballots every four years. With that pretense gone, the temperature on the street level will rise as a restless Iranian public has no outlet for its frustrations anymore.
Trends in traditional media and social media
Speculation about disorganization in Khamenei’s office: One of the most senior members of Khamenei’s office is Vahid Haghanian. He has been a closer aide for many years and his loyalty to Khamenei is beyond doubt. But thanks to this recent controversial election process, this loyalty is now under question. Or at least circles close to Revolutionary Guards have in the last week harshly questioned Haghanian’s stance during the election. In a nut shell, Haghanian wrote a commentary in which he criticized a long list of entities, including the Guardian Council for its mass disqualification of candidates. He also thanked people like Mohsen Rezai, Alireza Zakani and Saeed Jalili for entering the election in order to give it an air of competitiveness even as these men never intended to really challenge Ebrahim Raisi as the intended winner.
In other words, Haghanian admitted the election result had been engineered. One outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, Tasnim, was highly critical and openly asked Haghanian to stop damaging the “nezam” (regime) by making such statements. Such turf-battles are common in the Islamic Republic but rarely are they publicly exposed when it involves the Office of the Supreme Leader. In fact, the dispute between Haghanian and the Revolutionary Guards is mostly perceived by Iranian commentators not being about the election but part of a power-struggle inside Khamenei’s office.
Haghanian belongs to the so-called first-generation senior members of Khamenei’s office. A younger generation is waiting impatiently to take over and look for opportunities to undermine some of the established Khamenei advisors. And clearly the infighting in Khamenei’s office has links to interest groups outside such as the Revolutionary Guards. If this speculation is true, it suggests that Khamenei’s office is not the homogenous actor as many have believed it to be.
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