Landscape of Iran’s Election: Likelihoods, strategies of Factions and Key Candidates

EPC | 18 May 2021

The upcoming Iranian presidential elections on June 18, 2021 are arguably one of the key political milestones since the revolution of 1979 for several considerations. After taking control of parliament and their success in weakening and dismantling the moderate camp, conservatives are making extra efforts to control the government in this round of competition with moderates who are trying to stay in power and preserve their control over the executive branch.

The upcoming presidential elections happen at a time when Iran is at a critical juncture in terms of its relations with the international community in the wake of efforts to revive the nuclear deal and the signing of the strategic cooperation agreement with China. The elections also take place at a time when the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might die during the next presidential term. Whichever faction secures the presidency in June will therefore have the opportunity to greatly shape the next four years that will determine both Iran’s relations with the outside world and the post-Khamenei era.

This explains the unprecedented move by the deep-state’s institutions to directly interfere in elections and secure presidency. It also explains the overt interference by Khamenei to exclude potential candidates, including the fate of the grandson of the founder of the revolution, Hassan Khomeini. Sources said that Khamenei has excluded Hassan Khomeini from elections after the latter has been touted for some time as the possible consensus candidate for the broad reform camp. Many said that leaking the audio of the controversial interview by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was intentional to kill any chance that Zarif had to run as a presidential candidate.

It seems that the deep-state’s institutions and Khamenei realize the impact of the victory by any faction in the presidency on the fortunes of this faction in competing for succeeding Khamenei. Khamenei and his deep-state do not want any one individual, like Hassan Khomeini or Zarif, to enter the race and make the June elections into a more exciting affair which makes it hard for the regime to control. Therefore, they are doing whatever they can to prevent anyone from mobilizing the reformist bloc and to make sure a conservative candidate replaces Hassan Rouhani.

Voter turnout and its impact on factions’ fortunes

The upcoming presidential elections are held under economic conditions resulting from about 3 years of sanctions that hit key sectors in Iran’s economy and caused an led to an economic crisis that are likely to have a direct impact on reshaping Iran’s political landscape on the eve of the upcoming elections and on slogans raised by candidates to win votes of Iranians.

The most important question in the upcoming elections is the voter turnout. The voter turnout was lower than 45% in the recent parliamentary elections (Feb. 2020). Opinion polls carried out by official institutions one month before elections show that 39% of voters are likely to cast their votes. The low or high voter turnout will have a direct impact on enhancing the chances of a certain political faction at the expense of another. The two major camps in Iran differ on the percentage of voter turnout based on affiliations of segments that will vote for each camp. The reformist camp depends on a high voter turnout and affirms that this would lead to their victory. Conservatives, especially recently, prefer that voter turnout remain less than 50% to secure their victory.

Over the past decades, elections have shown that both conservatives and reformists enjoy a majority in certain geographic areas. Conservatives enjoy a majority in small cities and the countryside (due to their influence among traditional segments, the high rate of religiosity, and the role of Sharia Law, the marji' taqlid and religious political organizations in these regions). Reformists enjoy popularity in big and industrial cities inhabited by the middle-class who naturally favor reformists. This has been evident in Iranian elections over the past two decades and should be taken into consideration in any analysis of Iranian elections.

Strategies of political factions and prominent candidates

1. The reformist and moderate camp

The reformist camp, as one of the fundamental factions in Iran, will be one of the pillars of the election process in June. Besides pro-government factions, reformists will form a key bloc in face of the conservative camp.

Strategies of the government and reformists

In light of the bad economic conditions and after reformists and pro-government factions lost their share of parliament seats, the two factions’ approach follows general strategies, some of which can be pointed out as follows:

  • Reformist factions have affirmed that they have no desire to take part in Iran’s presidential elections. This position by the reformist camp has to do with policies by conservatives and the Guardian Council to disqualify prominent reformist figures to run in elections. This will lead to an unfair race (this is a good reason in itself due to the policies of the Guardian Council in disqualifying candidates). The reformist camp is also concerned that they might lose elections due to voters’ reluctance to embrace their candidates who are seen as an essential partner in the failure of Rouhani’s government. The parliamentary elections have proved that this fear is justified. In light of the possibility that the deteriorating economic situation might continue until the upcoming elections, it is likely that lackluster inclination of voters to participate in the June elections will continue. Therefore, there is a deep rift within the ranks of the reformist camp between those who want to take part in elections and those who don’t want to. Those, who want to run in elections, affirm that self-exclusion by reformists will eliminate this political movement in the medium term. However, a large number of field activists in the reformist camp can be considered as unwilling to take part in elections.
  • There is an evident disagreement on how to take part in elections among reformist factions. There are key factions (including blocs supporting Mohammad Reza Aref, the former leader of the reformist faction in parliament) that reject the strategy of forming an alliance with the government faction in the upcoming elections and nominating a joint candidate or supporting the government’s candidate as we have seen when the reformist camp supported Rouhani and the withdrawal of their reformist candidate (Aref in the first term and Eshaq Jahangiri in the second term) in favor of Rouhani. They affirm that forming alliance with the government faction has not brought them any benefits and the time has come to nominate an independent candidate (this approach is growing if we take into consideration recent movements by former reformist President Mohammad Khatami). Some have described Khatami’s activities as clear movements to push reformists to take part in elections. There are influential factions within the reformist camp including the Executives of Construction Party that see the continuation of the alliance with moderates as the right strategy to face conservatives who are trying to control the government after they took control of the parliament. They think that the policies of the Guardian Council to disqualify reformist candidates are the essential reason for reconsidering the idea of forming an alliance with moderates.
  • The victory of President Joe Biden in American elections has changed calculations within the reformist camp regarding taking part in Iranian presidential elections. It has provided a strong momentum to forces that support participation inside the reformist camp after the Trump administration’s policies have deepened the reformists reluctance to run in elections and tipped the balance - until the end the Fall of 2020 - in favor of those who are against participation in elections. Recent moves by former President Khatami (his meeting with President Rouhani and with a number of activists from the reformist camp), as well as, moves by some reformist figures after they remained silent in the previous period, can be interpreted in the context that the rise of Democrats in the US could have a positive impact on the popularity of the Iranian government and its ally, the reformist camp, if the new American administration opts to ease sanctions imposed on Tehran. This could improve the economic situation in Iran and boost public satisfaction.

Key organizations and candidates

The reform camp consists of several political organizations including Executives of Construction, a grouping linked to the network established by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Assembly of Militant Clerics (MRM) as the religious stream that oversees the majority of reform groups. One of the key figures in this institution is Mohammad Khatami who is a leading member of MRM. There are other organizations that fall under the reform camp such as Union of Islamic Iran People Party which includes a number of key ideologues and field leaders of the reform stream; Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization led by Behzad Nabavi; Reformist Front Coordination Council which was established in 2012 and led by former vice President, Mohammad Reza Aref. As far as the reformist front is concerned, Moderation and Development Party led by President Hasan Rouhani is considered to be the most important reformist organization. It seems that the reformist camp is still far away from a agreeing on a common candidate to inter the presidential race particularly after Hassan Khomeini, who is popular and respectful among the majority of the reformist organizations, was taken out of the presidential race. At the moment, there are a number of names mentioned as possible reform candidates, notably:

  • Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani (son of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Chairman of Tehran City Council).
  • Eshaq Jahangiri (Vice President in the Rouhani government).
  • Masoud Pezeshkian (Former Deputy Speaker of Majlis).
  • Mohsen Mehralizadeh (Vice President in Khatami government).
  • Mostafa Kavakabian (Former Majlis member).

The Guardian Council might disqualify all candidates of the reformist and moderate camp. Therefore, there are rumors that Ali Larijani (Former Speaker of Majlis) as a conservative figure has been mentioned as a candidate who can, to a great extent, preserve the share of the reform camp in power if he wins. However, this idea is refused by some reformist leaders.

2. The Conservative camp

The conservative camp is one of the key political factions in Iran as it dominates decision-making circles in the state, including some constitutional sovereign bodies such as the Guardian Council; Assembly of Experts; Expediency Discernment Council and Iran’s Majlis. This faction enjoys the support of the deep state in Iran (IRGC and Khamenei).

Strategies of conservatives

The conservative elements loyal to IRGC were able to win the majority in the last parliamentary elections after it sustained losses in three consecutive rounds of elections: presidential elections in 2013 and 2017 against Hasan Rouhani and parliamentary elections in 2016. Following its dominance of the Majlis, the conservative camp hopes to win next presidential elections if it can close its ranks. For this purpose, it has created the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces in the last presidential elections and then the Electoral Council of Revolution Forces in order to coordinate between hardline factions during last parliamentary elections. Some conservative figures like Mehdi Chamran (Mayor of Tehran for four years) and Haddad Addel (Former speaker of Majlis) played a pivotal role in these efforts. However, these coordination mechanisms seem to be fragile as they fade away when elections are over.

Unlike the reformist camp, which has some charismatic figures such as Mohammad Khatami, the conservative front lacks such figures. The last few years have witnessed the absence of some religious figures that used to enjoy big respect in the conservative camp such as Mohammad Yazdi, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, and Mahdavi Kani. Therefore, closing ranks in the conservative camp faces the challenge related to the absence of figures with cross-factional affiliations in favor of current religious figures with obvious factional affiliations such as Ahmad Khatami, Ahmad Alamolhoda, and Amli Larijani.

In its efforts to close ranks, the conservative camp faces two problems that are hard to solve which are centered around the character of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The first problem is represented in the organization known as the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability which was established when Ahmadinejad was in office and was related to some clerics such as Mesbah-Yazdi and Saeed Jalili. Experience has shown that closing ranks in the conservative camp before elections is a thorny issue and hard to overcome and will probably have the same effect in the upcoming elections. As for the second problem, it is represented in the faction that follows Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This faction is very influential in the street and can play a key role in the political game in the country in case Ahmadinejad is allowed to run for elections. If efforts in the conservative camp succeed in solving these two problems, then we can talk about the potential success of initiatives aimed at closing conservative ranks. However, if these efforts fail to solve these two problems, it will be hard to accomplish that mission.

During preparations for 2021 presidential elections that started two years ago, there have been some calls in Iran advocating a “military president” as a way out of the current crisis in the country. That proposal seems to reflect an IRGC desire which seeks to extend its influence to the political domain and control the executive branch after it has already dominated the Majlis. This can represent a milestone in the current efforts to close ranks in the conservative camp.

Major forces and candidates

Key conservative organizations include Combatant Clergy Association which was established by some Shia clerics including Iran’s current supreme leader and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to become the core of the conservative camp. There is also the Islamic Coalition Party that has a big influence inside the conservative camp for several reasons, notably the financial support it receives as the party of religious merchants. Moreover, there is the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran led by Mehdi Charman who plays a pivotal role in bringing conservatives together and the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability which is centered around the character of the late Shia cleric Mesbah Yazdi and Saeed Jalili and includes some key officials in Ahmadinejad’s government. There is also Ahmadinejad’s faction which is very influential in the street due to its leader’s popularity. Finally, there is the “Progress and Justice Population of Islamic Iran” as the faction of the speaker of the Majlis, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. There are other figures who are greatly involved in all efforts of the conservative camp who do not specifically belong to any of these parties or factions including Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Reza Bahner, Ali Larijani, Ali Motahhari, Mortadha Nabavi, and Mohsen Rezai.

Among candidates from the hardline camp, the list of names that emerge most prominently is both more diverse due to divisions in this camp and a sense of genuine competition that is not seen among the reform camp candidates. Still, this is not a case of unlimited competition.

The Committee for Unity of Principlists has named the following individuals as short-listed as possible candidates to represent the principlists in the June elections:

  • Ebrahim Raisi (Head of the Judiciary)
  • Hossein Dehghan (Former Defense Minister, and IRGC general).
  • Mohsen Rezai (Former head of the IRGC and IRGC general).
  • Saeed Mohammad (Former head of Khatam al-Anbiya company and IRGC general)
  • Saeed Jalili (Former top nuclear negotiator and IRGC general).
  • Rostam Qassemi (Former Minister in Ahmadinejad government and IRGC general).

There are other names mentioned such as Alireza Zakani, Mehrdad Bazarpash and Parviz Fattah.

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