FILE PHOTO: Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

February 18, 2021

Decision 2021: The Iranian Presidential Election Tracker

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Previous Iranian Presidential Election Trackers

Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Khamenei faces difficult decisions in the presidential election

Author: Nicholas Carl

Key Takeaway: Two recent presidential debates in Iran may affect the outcome of the June 18 election even if they do not affect who wins. The first and second debates occurred on June 5 and 8. The apparent winner of the debates according to domestic polling is moderate candidate Abdol Nasser Hemmati. However, Hemmati will not win the presidency. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle support hardline Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi for president and have interfered on his behalf throughout the race, making Raisi the most likely victor. Nevertheless, Hemmati’s positive polling present Khamenei with difficult decisions over whether to interfere further and how to ensure Raisi wins. 

Khamenei could simply continue supporting Raisi indirectly as he has done throughout the election cycle. The Guardian Council—the state body constitutionally responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates—*announced the final list of presidential candidates on May 25. Khamenei largely controls the Guardian Council, whose members he directly and indirectly appoints. The Guardian Council’s vetting in this cycle has produced a field of candidates that feigns political diversity while benefiting Raisi. Most of the approved candidates are hardliners, and the council disqualified Raisi’s chief moderate and reformist competitors. Raisi’s competition now comprises mostly of other hardliners, some of whom have supported him previously. 

The supreme leader has also supported Raisi through the media apparatus he controls. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting—the state media outlet that Khamenei oversees—has biased its reporting against *Hemmati and reformist candidate *Mohsen Mehr Ali Zadeh, currently Raisi’s most serious opponents for the presidency. Other hardliner-controlled institutions—possibly with Khamenei’s consent—have influenced the media environment to support Raisi. Iranian journalists on Twitter have claimed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Judiciary threatened reporters who criticize Raisi. 

Khamenei could take more aggressive measures, such as removing Hemmati from the race, if needed to secure Raisi’s victory. Two Guardian Council members *have asserted in recent weeks that they could disqualify previously approved candidates if they seem unfit for the presidency during the debates. Their claims likely reflect the 12-person council’s willingness to interfere further to help Raisi, especially if Khamenei orders it. 

The supreme leader could alternatively rig the election outright, but such action could damage Raisi’s legitimacy and political ambitions. Raisi is one of the leading contenders to succeed Khamenei and likely believes that the presidency will bolster his chances of becoming supreme leader. An obviously rigged election that benefits Raisi and contradicts polling favoring Hemmati could discredit Raisi publicly and potentially among some in the regime. Becoming an illegitimate president could damage his succession prospects more than if he were to lose and remain Judiciary chief. Khamenei could flood the information space with skewed polling emphasizing Raisi’s popularity to artificially improve his legitimacy. 

Khamenei may incite popular backlash if he intervenes further in the presidential election. Increasingly obvious election interference risks triggering anti-regime protests. Demonstrations have fluctuated throughout Iran in recent years, condemning and stoking concerns of instability among regime officials. Protests also erupted after the fraud-plagued reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Khamenei’s aggressive intervention also risks opening fissures among regime elite and instigating infighting, a particularly serious outcome as Khamenei ages and jockeying to succeed him intensifies.  

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