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: 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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