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

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

Previous Iranian Presidential Election Trackers

IRGC participation in the election grows

Author: Nicholas Carl

Key Takeaway: An influx of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders into the Iranian presidential race has raised the likelihood that a hardline candidate closely tied to the Guards will succeed President Hassan Rouhani. Saeed Mohammad and Mohsen Rezaei—two senior IRGC officers—are increasingly likely to run. They join other IRGC commanders interested in the presidency, including Hossein Dehghan and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. However, political infighting and a failure to unify behind a single candidate will harm hardliners’ chances, especially if their moderate and reformist rivals successfully coalesce around a single candidate. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi is also a strong contender given his widespread support throughout the hardline faction and could be the most significant challenger to IRGC candidates should he decide to run.

Rezaei and Saeed Mohammad are increasingly likely to run in Iran’s upcoming presidential election. Rezaei is a hardliner who commanded the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War and through the 1990s. He has been the secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council—a senior advisory body to the supreme leader—since leaving the post of IRGC commander in 1997. Rezaei has moderated his political rhetoric in recent weeks, likely to pander to more of the population, and may seek to portray himself as someone who can bridge political divides. He has historically opposed pending financial transparency legislation but *described arguments in the bills’ favor as “logical” on March 3. He later announced that the regime would negotiate with the US if sanctions were lifted incrementally during talks on March 5.

Saeed Mohammad left his position as president of the IRGC’s Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters—the Guards’ civil engineering and construction firm—on March 7. He tweeted his intention to run in the election and has promoted himself on the platform. Mohammad fits Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call for the next president to be young and hardline, possibly earning him Khamenei’s favor over other contenders.[1] Mohammad is from a younger generation of IRGC officers and is not as well-known as candidates Dehghan, Ghalibaf, and Rezaei. He may prove less controversial and appeal to broader demographics.

It is unclear, however, whether IRGC leadership will support Mohammad. A senior member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, Hamid Reza Targhi, *claimed that IRGC Commander Hossein Salami fired Mohammad from his post for unspecified violations. The IRGC’s most senior commanders are close to Dehghan, Ghalibaf, and Rezaei and may prefer one of them, or Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, over Mohammad. Raisi has not yet indicated whether he will run. Iranian media rumors *allege that Rezaei and Mohammad have formed a political alliance, indicating that one may endorse the other. Mohammad’s success or failure garnering political support from the Guards’ older generation will become crucial to his candidacy.

The moderate and reformist camps are cooperating ahead of the election. Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and moderate Hassan Rouhani *met on March 7, possibly to discuss political coordination between their factions. Moderates and reformists’ capacity to unify behind a single candidate is a key advantage against hardliners and partly why Rouhani won in 2013.

Stances on the Rouhani administration’s performance, however, may become a point of tension between the camps. Moderate candidate Ali Motahari *stated that Rouhani should have been removed from office for his management of the gasoline protests in November 2019 and described the administration’s overall performance as “average” on March 14. First Vice President and potential reformist candidate Eshagh Jahangiri gave an interview the same day *defending the administration’s economic work. Moderates and reformists will need to overcome potential fissures relating to candidates’ ties to the controversial Rouhani team as they decide who will represent them in the presidential race.


[1] For detailed analysis on Saeed Mohammad’s potential candidacy and policies, see Kasra Aarabi, “The IRGC’s Dark Horse for Iran’s 2021 Elections: Saeed Mohammad,” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, December 3, 2020, https://institute.global/policy/irgcs-dark-horse-irans-2021-elections-saeed-mohammad.

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