Iran’s presidential contest is a selection, not an election

It matters as a window into the opaque thinking of the supreme leader


Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to cast his ballot during the parliamentary runoff elections in Tehran on May 10, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

June 07, 2024 16:33

Calling Iran’s presidential contest on 28 June an “election” warps the reality in the Islamic Republic. Instead of an “election,” it is best described as a heavily censored “selection” by the Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies throughout the Islamic Republic. It is a competition among kleptocratic factions vying for power. Nevertheless, who becomes president matters as it offers a window into the opaque thinking of the supreme leader and the direction he wants to take the system over the next few years.

With candidate registration having closed on 3 June, attention will now turn to the Guardian Council, which vets the presidential hopefuls. In the end, it will likely disqualify all but a handful of registrants. However, this presidential contest is unlike all other presidential contests since Khamenei ascended to power in 1989. This is because it is likely the next president— who will be serving a full four-year term — will be the supreme leader’s last as he is 85 years old.

The assumption underlying President Ebrahim Raisi’s swift rise through the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy — particularly his anointment as president — was that Khamenei was grooming him as his successor. But after his death last month, the logic that the path to the supreme leadership ran through Iran’s presidency, as it did for Khamenei, no longer holds.

This is because the majority of the leading presidential candidates this month are ineligible to succeed Khamenei as they are not clerics. That means Khamenei will be focused on ensuring the presidency is occupied by a safe pair of hands to preserve his legacy and interests upon his incapacitation or death. After all, constitutionally, the president holds membership on an interim leadership council should the need arise.

One such leading contender is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Ghalibaf is an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer who served in a series of posts across the Iranian state, from head of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters and commander of the IRGC’s Air Force to head of Iran’s police. He later became mayor of Tehran and speaker of the parliament. Ghalibaf has combined a deep experience in the IRGC with attempts to market himself as a technocratic leader. Yet corruption allegations have followed his career — with the Office of the Supreme Leader always protecting him from any fallout. That is not to mention his history of brutality against Iranian protesters. If Ghalibaf wins the presidency, it will ensure IRGC equities are protected during a supreme leader succession process.

Another prominent candidate is Saeed Jalili, whom is Khamenei’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the body tasked with deliberating over sensitive state files. Jalili is known to Western interlocutors as a stubborn and obtuse negotiator. He is also alleged to have advocated in a letter to Iran’s supreme leader in 2022 for weapons grade nuclear enrichment at 90 per cent to give it an upward hand in negotiations with Western powers. But Jalili is too radical for some parts of the Iranian system — so much so that IRGC commanders, including Ghalibaf supporters, have been trying to persuade the supreme leader to avoid installing him in the presidency. Despite this more pragmatic streak from Ghalibaf, he has been an advocate for looking East in Iran, in favour of deepening ties with Russia.

Others include Ali Larijani, himself the longest-serving speaker of parliament in the Islamic Republic’s history who has held a series of other posts as head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), culture minister, and secretary of the SNSC. Larijani was known during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani for running interference in the parliament in support of the nuclear deal. In announcing his candidacy, Larijani has already sought to brand himself as a successor to Rouhani, telling journalists that “solving the issue of sanctions for an economic opening will be among the priorities of diplomacy” in a Larijani administration. However, after being disqualified from running for president in 2021 and witnessing his own family’s declining fortunes in Iran, his chances are uncertain.

One dark horse candidate is Vahid Haghanian, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government. He has been known as Khamenei’s “right hand” as an executive deputy to the supreme leader, accompanying him to various events. Haghanian is a member of the IRGC, with various accounts alleging experience with naval intelligence, Quds Force operations, and the Sarallah Corps responsible for security in Tehran.

A former driver for Khamenei, Haghanian has been a messenger and enforcer for the Office of the Supreme Leader. During the disputed 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign aide recounted how, when he delivered a letter by Mousavi to the supreme leader’s office about election irregularities, it was Haghanian who left him with the impression that “the election was over” two hours after the voting concluded. Haghanian also reportedly threatened Fatemeh Hashemi, the daughter of the late president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who went to Khamenei’s office to complain about how her father was treated during a presidential debate in 2009. Haghanian also opined about the 2021 presidential election, praising the presence of certain candidates as a “divine help” for Raisi.

There have been rumours about Haghanian’s standing in the Iranian system in recent years, with some observers noting a decline in his appearances at Khamenei’s side. This coincided with photos that emerged of Haghanian and Mohsen Saravani, a 24-year-old law student who the regime executed on charges of spying for Israel. Thus, Haghanian’s presence in the race raises much political intrigue. Is he there to bolster other candidates? Or is he the preferred successor to Raisi for the supreme leader to ensure the presidency remains in a trusted pair of hands, to smooth the way for Mojtaba Khamenei, with whom Vahid Haghanian has worked, to succeed his father as supreme leader? Historically, aides to Khamenei have not fared well in presidential campaigns. His longtime foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati ran unsuccessfully in 2013.

Apart from these figures which have the greatest chance of winning, scores of current and former cabinet ministers, members of parliament, the president of Tehran University, and other members of Tehran’s political elite also registered. These are second-tier entrants. Most are corrupt, incompetent, unknown, and/or sanctioned. Among the more formidable names in this category are Eshaq Jahangiri, a former first vice president in the Rouhani administration, Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor, and Roads Minister Mehrdad Bazrpash, who is thought by some observers to have the potential to lead a “young and Hezbollah” government, for which Khamenei has called in the past.

In the end, the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic’s policies will not change, irrespective of who is president. Each of these candidates has different experiences, personal styles, and political outlooks. But the next president will be an implementer, not the decision-maker. As Khamenei ages, he will seek someone who can provide dependability and stability in this role.

Jason M. Brodsky is policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program @JasonMBrodsky

June 07, 2024 16:33

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