February 18, 2021
Decision 2021: The Iranian Presidential Election Tracker
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]
Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: The coronation of Ebrahim Raisi
Author: Nicholas Carl
Key Takeaway: Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi is increasingly likely to win Iran’s presidential election on June 18. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle have interfered to suppress moderates and reformists and strengthen their preferred hardline candidate, Raisi, throughout this election cycle. Khamenei and his allies are prioritizing engineering their desired election outcome over achieving high voter turnout, which would require a diverse slate of candidates. Raisi’s victory has implications for both his chances at becoming Iran’s next supreme leader and how Tehran will interact with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the years ahead.
Khamenei has interfered in the election process to help Raisi become president. 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, and used it to cultivate a field of candidates that feigns political diversity while benefiting Raisi. Most of the approved candidates are hardliners. The council disqualified leading moderates and reformists, including former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri. These disqualified politicians would have been Raisi’s greatest opponents. Raisi’s competition now comprises other hardliners, some of whom have supported him previously. Khamenei *defended the Guardian Council from domestic criticism on May 27.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely supported this intervention to help Raisi. The IRGC’s role in the Guardian Council’s vetting process is increasingly apparent. IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Nejat *informed former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his disqualification and asked him to “cooperate and keep silent” on May 24, according to Ahmadinejad’s website. Nejat oversees all internal security forces in Tehran and the capital region. Ali Larijani’s brother and Guardian Council member, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, criticized the disqualifications on May 25, describing them as “indefensible,” and blaming the “security apparatus” for providing false information to council members during the vetting process. He was likely referencing the IRGC or possibly the IRGC Intelligence Organization more specifically, as an Iranian journalist alleged. Both Nejat and IRGC intelligence leaders are close to Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s second son, who previously interfered in the 2009 presidential election to help Ahmadinejad. Mojtaba may have supported the IRGC’s electoral intervention this cycle as well.
Raisi is one of the most likely prospects to become Iran’s next supreme leader and winning the presidential election could bolster his chances of succeeding Khamenei. Raisi would likely leverage the presidency for his advancement as he has the Judiciary, which he has led since March 2019. He has co-opted his authority to bolster his leadership credentials, neutralized political rivals, and promoted his national image since becoming Judiciary chief. He could use the presidency to further consolidate his influence and support. Khamenei himself established the precedent for clerical presidents to become supreme leader in 1989.
Alternatively, the presidency could damage Raisi’s chances at succession. Management and policy disagreements between Raisi and other regime power centers, such as the clerical establishment or IRGC, could emerge during his administration and strain relationships. Raisi will require support from these groups to become supreme leader. Raisi’s decisions during his potential administration will determine whether the office is a boon or burden to his political ambitions.
Raisi’s electoral victory could also affect how the regime interacts with the JCPOA. Khamenei wants to restore the JCPOA but has likely accepted that the deal is not sustainable long-term. He has witnessed how US policy vis-à-vis Iran has fluctuated across the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. Regime leadership is likely concerned that a future American president will pursue a “maximum pressure” policy similar to the Trump administration. The regime will therefore try to prepare itself economically and militarily for the potential return of maximum pressure during or after the Biden administration to better resist future coercion.
The regime under Raisi may use the deal as leverage against the US to deter it from pursuing objectives against the Islamic Republic’s interests, such as negotiations on Iran’s missile program or regional activities. Iran’s rulers recognize that the Biden administration is prioritizing restoring the JCPOA. Raisi and other hardliners may threaten to curtail or reverse the implementation of the deal to pressure the United States. The decision is ultimately Khamenei’s, but the president influences Khamenei’s calculus. A hardline president who opposes the JCPOA will advise and push the supreme leader to use the deal as leverage. A pro-JCPOA president would oppose such measures. Raisi likely fits the former category, especially since he needs the political support of other hardline, anti-JCPOA groups, such as parts of the IRGC and clerical establishment, to secure supreme leadership.
- Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Ghalibaf and allies move to take presidency and parliament | Nicholas Carl | April 22, 2021
- Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: IRGC participation in the election grows | Nicholas Carl | March 22, 2021
- Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Reformists show signs of fracturing | Nicholas Carl | March 4, 2021
- Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Hardliners face electoral challenges in crowded field | Nicholas Carl | February 18, 2021