What is Different About This Presidential Election in Iran?
The Iranian people who will go to the polls on June 18 will vote in Iran’s thirteenth presidential elections. There have been many people serving as the highest elected official in Iran subsequent to Abolhasan Banisadr who was elected as the first president in 1980 following the Islamic Revolution. After Banisadr had to flee abroad, Mohammad Ali Rajaei served as the second president of the Islamic Republic for a brief period and following his assassination, Ali Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani were respectively elected as the president of Iran which is the second position in the Iranian political system after the Supreme Leader.
In fact, the definition of “Islamic Republic” had been controversial since day one. There had been a disagreement about how to describe the relation between the two concepts. In addition, there had been no consensus even among the top authorities on how to define the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), which is the pivotal concept of the new constitution. This was not only a case with the various political movements such as the Freedom Movement of Iran led by the first prime minister of Iran Mehdi Bazargan or the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran which was under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi and later turned into a “terrorist organization”, but also for Khomeini, the unquestionable leader and the theorist of the Revolution. Thus, after he returned to Iran, he intended to settle in Qom, leaving the governance to the politicians but those around him, knowing what this meant, persuaded him to stay in Tehran, citing his health problems.
The factors such as the disputes over the governance between Khomeini and Banisadr first and then Khamenei, to a lesser extent though, and the undeniable influence of his son Ahmad on Khomeini led to serious problems not only between the presidents and Khomeini but also in the case with Ayatollah Montazeri who was expected to be the successor of Khomeini. The hidden and open rivalry between many top officials such as the Supreme Leader Khomeini, his official successor Montazeri designated by the Assembly of Experts, President Khamenei, the Prime Minister Mousavi as well as the power elites gathered around them ended up in the final victory of the duo Khamenei and Rafsanjani after the death of Khomeini and then his son Ahmad. They tried to create a single voice in government by first removing the succession and then the prime ministry with the help of Ahmad Khomeini, however, the dynamics of politics led to serious controversies between the two.
It was thought that along with the election of much younger and non-clerical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran in the elections held in 2005, the problems that Khamenei had with the former two presidents would go away. After all, Ahmadinejad had neither the influence and experience like Rafsanjani nor the more liberal political views like Khatami. However, things did not go as planned and since his second term, in particular, Ahmadinejad had a serious disagreement with Khamenei and his inner circle triggered by the dismissal of the Minister of Intelligence and therefore, as soon as his tenure ended, the people around him were arrested and his candidacy for the following terms was rejected by the Guardian Council. Therefore, it was not surprising that Hassan Rouhani also suffered the same fate as the former presidents. As the former Secretary-General of the National Security High Council, Rouhani, who had a role both in the memorandum of IRGC Commanders and in the severely suppression of student protests during the Khatami era, began to give “moderate” messages following his presidential candidacy. The great support of the Iranian people for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Nuclear Deal) signed with the US raised Rouhani’s hopes considerably and he began to openly oppose Khamenei’s statements in public. Trump’s election and his withdrawal from the JCPOA not only challenged the Iranian foreign policy but also shot Rouhani’s fox in domestic policy. The worsening economy and the accusation that he trusted the US have brought discredit on Rouhani and he became “the most unsuccessful president in the history of Iran” along with the devastating effects of the global pandemic.
The new regime, which gained considerable legitimacy through the mass revolution in 1979 and the constitutional referendum held right after the Revolution, attached great importance to the elections held in the country, particularly the presidential elections, and presented it as an example of “Islamic democracy”. During the electoral processes, which does not take more than a few weeks, though, the relative freedom of expression is ensured and the figures who are undesirable normally are allowed to appear in the public realm. Once again, the religious dimension is not neglected and thus, both the ulama (clergies) and the government officials state that participation in the elections is a "wajib-fardh" (religious duty). As a matter of fact, it was not surprising in this context that the figures who called for a boycott were declared by some official ulama as unbelievers. In sum, ensuring a high voter turnout as much as possible is one of the primary goals of the Iranian government under the normal conditions and this rate is generally compared with the rates of other countries in the region or the Western countries and is interpreted as an indicator of the loyalty of Iranian people to their state and administrative system.
Within the scope of the process summarized above, the rejection of the candidacy of Ali Larijani, who has served at the head of the most critical institutions in Iran for the last forty years and the statements made by some officials such as “We are not worried about the voter turnout in the elections and it will not pose a problem even if it is below 30%,” were noteworthy at this point. Although the reformists have been wiped off the political stage long since, the elimination of Rafsanjani, Rouhani and Larijani from the Iranian political system has some different connotations and poses the question of what the difference between this election and the previous five elections is. In this regard, we need to speak of the debate of the Islamic Republic-Islamic State in Iran. According to those who argue that the republic has no place in Islamic tradition, that it is a temporary method adopted as a matter of course and that the choice of the majority of the people is criticized in the Quran, the elections which are held even if only for the show must be set aside and an Islamic State which is directly led by the ulama must be established. It should be kept in mind that even though this point of view has lost one of its significant defenders with the death of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, it still has supporters among conservative politicians. However, there are some indications that the disqualification of most of the presidential candidates and thus the expected low voter turnout are based on concrete reasons rather than theoretical and theological discussions. Foremost among these is the projection of the transition to the period defined as the “second phase of the Revolution”. It has been said for a long time in Iran that Ebrahim Raisi, who is the current favorite to win the elections, will not be just a president, on the contrary, he is preparing for the supreme leadership after Khamenei. Both the calls from the Assembly of Experts and the members of the Parliament for his nomination, as well as the statements by some conservative candidates that they will waive their candidacy if he is planning to be a candidate, are supporting these rumors. However, the fact that Raisi did not announce his candidacy until the very last moment led to the rumors that he could not receive the green light from Khamenei. According to another scenario, Khamenei does not want Raisi to get exhausted in the presidency even if he considers Raisi appropriate for the supreme leadership after himself. Thus, both the extremely difficult socio-economic conditions Iran is going through, and the weaknesses of Raisi as a politician and the many blunders he made in public even in a few days support this view.
Finally, although Khamenei’s statement on June 4 that some candidates were rejected cruelly and unfairly by the Guardian Council during the disqualification process caused a stir in some political circles in Iran, the Guardian Council fudged the issue by condemning the allegations spread over social media in a statement made on the same day. Contrary to the expectations, it was not probable that some candidates who were vetoed would be approved after Khamenei’s statement. First of all, it should be noted that the veto decision was not likely to be carried out without his knowledge. Second, obstructing the decline in voter turnout and the extensive electoral engineering at the cost of offending influential politicians in the nick of time could have had different consequences. Therefore, it seems that the elections will take place with a low turnout to little effect and will end up with the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi.
It is thought that if Raisi, who is criticized for his not being a charismatic leader and lack of an effective oratory which has a significant place in Iranian politics and again for his incompetence in the economy, which is currently the most important issue in the country is elected to the presidency, he will form a team with the already influential figures and make preparations for his next target. The election of Raisi, as expected, will not bring about significant changes in foreign policy. However, after 35 years, the issue of who will take the place of Mousavi Ardebili and Mir Hossein Mousavi, or Ayatollah Montazeri, who were pushed out of the scene after Khomeini’s death, will have a much more determining role than the political or ideological differences in many developments regarding Iranian domestic policy.
This article was first published in 7.6.2021 at Anadolu Agency.