Iran File

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

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

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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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