Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}

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Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: IRGC participation in the election grows

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

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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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Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Reformists show signs of fracturing

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

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Key takeaway. Reformists are struggling to unify behind a single candidate before Iran’s presidential election in June 2021, presenting them with the same challenge their hardline rivals face. The Iranian Reformist Front formed on February 14 to consolidate the reformist vote, but some reformist leaders have criticized the coalition and suggested that their parties will not support it. These criticisms likely reflect intra-reformist negotiations as the faction chooses a candidate. The faction has enough time in the electoral process to coalesce, but several prominent reformists have expressed interest in running in recent days, which will hinder that process. Political infighting further erodes their chances of winning the election, especially because hardliners in the Guardian Council and Judiciary will likely interfere to advantage hardline politicians.

Reformists are struggling to unify behind a single candidate. Prominent reformist leaders established the Iranian Reformist Front, a political coalition meant to unite their supporters, on February 14. Mohammad Sadegh Kharrazi, secretary general of the reformist Voice of Iranians Party, *criticized the coalition on February 17. He described the body as undemocratic and suggested his party may not support it, indicating fracturing within the reformist camp. Kharrazi did not say whether he would run for president when asked by a journalist.

Several other prominent reformists have announced or are considering presidential bids as well. Reformist leader Mohammad Reza Aref *stated that he is considering running on February 18. The reformist Democracy Party *selected its secretary general, Mostafa Kavakebiyan, as its presidential nominee on February 20. It is unclear whether the Guardian Council will approve any of these individuals.

Moderates have also not yet offered a candidate whom the Guardian Council will likely approve but could unite with reformists as they did in previous elections. Former moderate parliamentarian Ali Motahari *announced his candidacy on February 25. Motahari was the Parliament’s second deputy speaker in the previous legislature and was disqualified by the Guardian Council during the 2020 legislative elections. The council could again bar Motahari from running. Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, another moderate, *reiterated that he would not run for president on February 17. Moderates’ and reformists’ ability to unify behind a single candidate while hardliners split their vote helped President Hassan Rouhani win his first election in 2013. Moderates and reformists will likely need to again consolidate their vote to win and must select individuals the Guardian Council will tolerate.

Hardliners within the Guardian Council and Judiciary will likely interfere in the election to advantage their preferred candidates. Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati *stated that the council should put more emphasis on “piety” when vetting presidential candidates on February 20. The Guardian Council disqualified an unprecedentedly high number of moderates and reformists during the 2020 legislative elections ostensibly due to corruption—which is endemic in Parliament and, indeed, throughout the Iranian system[1]—and a lack of commitment to the Islamic Republic. These criteria were subjective and unequally enforced. The council will again apply these criteria to prevent certain candidates from running.

Judiciary Chief Hojjat ol Eslam Ebrahim Raisi also has outsized influence over the election. Raisi is another potential presidential contender and has used a purported anti-corruption campaign to politically damage his domestic opponents since 2019. Raisi may be similarly using purposefully timed legal charges to discredit possible candidates in the runup to the election. The Judiciary *indicted Information and Communications Technology Minister, and potential moderate candidate, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi for refusing to ban Instagram and impose other restrictions on Iran’s information space on January 20. The Judiciary also *sentenced Mehdi Jahangiri—the brother of a possible reformist contender, First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri—to a four-year prison term for corruption on January 26. Jannati has praised Raisi’s anti-corruption efforts and could exploit these more recent legal controversies to disqualify reformists and moderates, whom Jannati ideologically opposes.


[1] Transparency International ranked Iran 149 out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2020.  Iran shares that rank with Lebanon, Guatemala, Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, Tajikistan, and Madagascar.  See Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2020”, January 2021, https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/CPI2020_Report_EN_0802-WEB-1_2021-02-08-103053.pdf.

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Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Hardliners face electoral challenges in crowded field

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

To receive the Iran File via email, please subscribe here.

Key Takeaway: Far-right principlists (often called hardliners in the West) are favored to win Iran’s upcoming presidential election in June 2021 but risk splitting their supporters’ votes among several candidates. Moderates are increasingly discredited in Iran’s domestic space, and the regime will likely interfere to advantage ultraconservative factions. But, numerous prominent hardliners have indicated interest in running in recent weeks, whereas the list of potential moderate and reformist candidates is relatively short. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has conveyed that voter participation is a higher priority than who wins, indicating that the regime may allow a limited number of acceptable moderates to run to facilitate electoral participation. Hardliners have historically struggled (and usually failed) to rally around a single candidate, a phenomenon that helped the outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, win his first election. Additional hardliners indicating interest in the presidency in the coming months could further split the principlist faction offering space to a moderate candidate.

Several far-right principlists are readying for Iran’s upcoming presidential election on June 18. Potential candidates include Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters President Saeed Mohammad, and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. None of these individuals have yet confirmed their intention to run. Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Hossein Dehghan *confirmed his candidacy in November 2020.

Ghalibaf and Raisi have both conducted high-profile visits abroad in recent weeks. Ghalibaf *traveled to Moscow to present Russian leadership a message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on strategic bilateral relations on February 7. Raisi *visited Baghdad to meet with senior Iraqi officials and boasted himself as a champion of Qassem Soleimani’s cause on February 8. Raisi and Ghalibaf likely sought to present themselves as political leaders and envoys abroad to bolster their credibility as potential presidents.

Ghalibaf is also *recruiting new advisers to develop his public relations team and unite principlist factions behind him. He has particularly *increased his outreach to Ahmadinejad’s previous faction, the Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front.

Rumors have circulated in recent weeks claiming that some hardliners have held meetings with regime powerbrokers. British and *Kuwaiti media reported that Ahmadinejad discussed a potential presidential bid with Mojtaba Khamenei in January. Former Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel hosted the rumored meeting. Mojtaba is the supreme leader’s son (and married to Haddad Adel’s daughter) and was a staunch Ahmadinejad supporter during the 2009 elections. He reportedly interfered in the 2009 elections in favor of Ahmadinejad and took control of the Basij militia to crack down on the ensuing Green Movement.

Ahmadinejad and Saeed Mohammad have also both reportedly *met with Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Modarresi Yazdi and Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, respectively. Both clerics are members of the Guardian Council—the state entity constitutionally responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates. Ahmadinejad and Mohammad may be lobbying the Guardian Council to approve their coming registrations for the elections. The Guardian Council is unlikely to approve Ahmadinejad as a candidate given his historically contentious relationship with Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Moderates and reformists seek to consolidate their support behind a smaller group of presidential candidates. Prominent reformist parties *established the Iranian Reformist Front on February 14 to unite their supporters under a single candidate for the elections. First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri is a prominent reformist and potential candidate. He *visited Mahshahr, Khuzestan province, on January 30 to inaugurate economic projects. Jahangiri discussed how discrimination and poverty are affecting the citizens there. Mahshahr was among the bloodiest locations during the November 2019 gasoline protests. Security forces killed around 148 protesters there. Rumors have circulated on social media that former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani plans to run for president and would retain Mohammad Javad Zarif (who is also a potential candidate) as foreign affairs minister. Larijani is a center-right conservative.

It is unlikely that the Guardian Council will approve a candidate supporting serious reform but may approve an individual more moderate than most hardliners like Larijani to facilitate voter participation. Khamenei *has emphasized that widespread voter turnout is a higher priority than who wins the election, according to President Hassan Rouhani on February 10.

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Mar '21