AEI’s Critical Threats Project has been tracking Iranian presidential election developments closely. This page will be continually revised as the election progresses. It was last updated on January 5, 2017. For daily updates on Iranian politics and military activity, subscribe to the Iran News Round Up.
The nuclear agreement and the state of the economy will likely be the central issues of the Iranian presidential elections on May 19, 2017. President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate incumbent, was first elected in 2013 on a platform that included achieving sanctions relief through a nuclear deal. The presidential election is unlikely to disrupt Iranian foreign policy in a fundamental way, given that the supreme leader is the ultimate decision maker. Rouhani is likely to be re-elected, moreover, since all previous incumbent presidents have served two terms. Rouhani’s defeat by a hardline opponent would indicate a reversal in public support for his policies. It would likely also indicate the strengthening of the regime’s hardline conservatives, who oppose liberalization within Iran and reaching out to the West.
Rouhani is likely to be reelected despite doubts surrounding the nuclear deal for three reasons beyond the electoral success of all previous incumbents. A change in any of these conditions will transform the race.
1. The reformist-moderate alliance has not yet fractured. Reformist support helped Rouhani, a moderate, win his first term in the 2013 elections. Rouhani’s reelection bid will be much more difficult if he loses reformist voters.
2. Rouhani’s moderate and reformist support base has not shown signs of supporting a boycott in 2017. High voter turnout has historically benefited reformist or reformist-endorsed candidates the most. Conversely, conservatives have benefited when reformists have boycotted elections.
3. Conservatives have suffered from disunity in the past several elections, including the 2013 presidential elections and the 2016 parliamentary elections. Their electoral chances will improve if they are able to unite around a single candidate, but they are still struggling to do so.
The survival of the nuclear agreement does not necessarily depend upon Rouhani’s reelection, however. Pragmatic conservatives have also been key supporters of the deal. Conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf – who has run for the presidency before and whom Iranian media is touting as a likely candidate once again – has generally supported the accord, for example. Most importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would not have permitted Iran to implement the nuclear agreement if he did not personally approve of it.
The election will still be a valuable opportunity to measure the Iranian public and regime’s satisfaction with the nuclear deal. Rouhani’s handling of the economy and, by extension, the nuclear agreement will likely be the most important topics in the presidential debates and campaigns. Opinion polls conducted in June 2016 show that a majority of Iranians still support the nuclear deal despite widespread disappointment over its limited economic impact. Public perception could change by May 2017, however.
Assessments of the election’s significance must account for Iran’s complex political system, in which the president is a powerful figure subordinated to the supreme leader and in which factions compete within boundaries set by the country’s ruling elite.
The president faces important limitations before and after his election. The conservative-dominated Guardian Council must vet every candidate who registers. This disqualification process ensures that every candidate on the ballot is acceptable to the supreme leader and the conservative establishment. Khamenei has the final say on policy decisions and is the commander-in-chief. The commander of the IRGC Quds Force, which conducts Iran’s military operations abroad, reports directly to Khamenei rather than to the president, for example.
The president is an influential player in the Iranian regime despite the limits on his power, however. The president sits on the Supreme National Security Council, which sets Iran’s security and defense policy, including managing the country’s nuclear portfolio and coordinating Iran’s intervention in Syria. The president – whether reformist, moderate like Rouhani, conservative, or hardline – has enough legal authority to help shape Iranian policy across the board. Economic, cultural, security, and foreign policies have therefore varied under each presidential administration, although the Guardian Council and Iran’s security services have successfully curbed major attempts at reform.
See below for the latest updates and analysis on the presidential election from the Critical Threats Project.
Judiciary head targets Rouhani with corruption claims
January 5, 2017
Renewed tensions between President Hassan Rouhani and hardline Judiciary Head Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani could harm Rouhani's reelection chances. Larijani claimed on January 2 that Babak Zanjani, a businessman recently sentenced to death in one of Iran’s largest corruption trials, may have donated to Rouhani’s 2013 election campaign. Rouhani responded to Larijani on January 3 by stating that his administration expects transparency with the Judiciary’s accounts, likely referring to an ongoing controversy over Larijani’s alleged misuse of public funds in private bank accounts. Larijani’s claim risks undermining Rouhani’s effort to portray himself as an anti-corruption candidate ahead of the presidential election. (Mashregh News) (Entekhab) (Mehr News Agency)
Reformist and principlist groups move to unify ahead of elections
December 28, 2016
Influential cleric Mehdi Karroubi announced his resignation as secretary-general of the reformist National Trust Party on December 26 in a bid to strengthen the reformist camp. Karroubi stated that he does not know how long he will remain under house arrest and resigned “for the sake of interests more important than the party.” Karroubi has been under house arrest since 2011 for his role in protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election. Karroubi also called upon National Trust Party to cooperate with other reformist groups ahead of the May 2017 presidential election. His letter comes as reports indicate quarreling between members of the National Trust Party over the party’s cooperation with the Reformist Policymaking Committee, which is led by prominent parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Aref.
Conservative politicians also took steps to unify. A new principlist organization called the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces formed on December 26. The group reportedly aims to propose a single conservative candidate to challenge President Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming election in addition to focusing on economic issues and anti-corruption efforts. (ILNA) (Kaleme) (Etemad)
Reformist parliamentarian: Rouhani is currently reformists’ first choice
November 21, 2016
Mohammad Reza Tabesh, a reformist parliamentarian, stated that members of several top reformist committees have selected President Hassan Rouhani as their current choice for the May 2017 presidential elections. Tabesh did not rule out the possibility of reformists considering other candidates in the future, however.
Meanwhile, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former hardline parliamentarian and current member of the Expediency Discernment Council, claimed that principlists have not yet decided upon a candidate for the presidential elections but noted that there is “still time” for them to do so. Principlists have acknowledged that unifying around a single candidate will be critical in defeating Rouhani in the election. Haddad Adel did not rule out the possibility of some principlists supporting Rouhani in the elections but added that principlists’ “efforts are focused toward establishing principlist unity.” (Alef)
Interior Minister confirms Rouhani candidacy
October 25, 2016
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli announced that President Hassan Rouhani will “certainly” run in the upcoming elections. It has been widely assumed that Rouhani will seek another term in office, but this is the first time that a member of his inner circle has publicly confirmed his candidacy. Fazli also announced that the Interior Ministry will officially begin preparations for the presidential elections in the Persian month of Dey [December-January]. (Fars News Agency)
Rouhani reshuffles cabinet ahead of elections
October 19, 2016
Three ministers resigned in a reshuffle intended to strengthen President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet ahead of the 2017 presidential elections. Iranian media confirmed the resignations of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati, Education Minister Ali Asghar Fani, and Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Mahmoud Goudarzi on October 19. Rouhani also appointed interim ministers to oversee each of the ministries until his administration proposes permanent replacements to Parliament.
Jannati and Fani have both been controversial figures in Rouhani’s administration. Fani was undergoing impeachment proceedings until his resignation. Hardliners have heavily criticized Jannati over permits his ministry gave for controversial concerts in the city of Qom.
Members of the reformist-moderate parliamentary faction praised the resignations. Mohammad Reza Aref, the faction’s head, said the cabinet changes were “in line with the faction’s demands” but “should have happened two or three months ago.” Senior reformists have complained about several ministers in Rouhani’s cabinet before. Rouhani may have reshuffled his cabinet in part to strengthen his support from the reformist-moderate base. He will require strong reformist support and the continuation of the moderate-reformist alliance to win a second term. (Fars News Agency) (Tasnim News Agency) (Mehr News Agency) (Alef) (YJC)
Khamenei calls for transparency, forbids IRGC involvement in new election guidelines
October 18, 2016
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released 18 general guidelines for Iran’s electoral process on October 15. The guidelines focus partially on financing by prohibiting electoral candidates from receiving “support and resources from foreigners” and by calling for financial transparency in campaigns. The Guardian Council has previously warned of small-scale “vote-buying” problems in the spring 2016 elections.
Khamenei also reiterated Iranian law’s prohibition on political activity by the IRGC. The guidelines bar the armed forces from interfering in the electoral process. Soon after the guidelines’ release, IRGC Political Deputy Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanaei Rad issued a statement confirming that the IRGC’s role in the elections will be limited to “explanation and clarification” and will not “enter or interfere with political divisions."
Khamenei called for the “accurate vetting of candidates” by the Guardian Council, which has controversially disqualified large numbers of candidates in the past. Khamenei also reiterated the Guardian Council’s “final say in approving candidates,” “investigating complaints,” and “confirming or annulling” election results. The guidelines also require the Guardian Council to provide written explanations for its decisions when responding to candidates’ inquiries. Politicians dissatisfied with elements of Iran’s heavily managed electoral process have called for greater transparency in the Guardian Council’s decisions. (Tasnim News Agency)
Ahmadinejad confirms he will not run in elections
September 29, 2016
Former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deferred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by confirming that he has “no plans” to run in the 2017 presidential elections. Khamenei publicly stated on September 26 that he had advised Ahmadinejad not to seek a third term to avoid “polarizing” the country. Khamenei likely disqualified Ahmadinejad primarily due to his history of open challenges to the supreme leader, however.
Ahmadinejad’s absence as a candidate is not a game-changer for the elections. On one hand, conservatives may have a more difficult time finding another candidate with as much of a populist support base or name recognition. On the other hand, conservatives may find it easier to unite when a figure as polarizing as Ahmadinejad cannot be a candidate. Despite his disqualification, Ahmadinejad can still rally hardline support against Rouhani by endorsing other candidates and continuing his political rallies. (Fars News Agency) (Aftab News)
Khamenei confirms he advised Ahmadinejad against running for third term
September 26, 2016
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly confirmed rumors that he has barred former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from seeking a third term in the upcoming 2017 presidential elections. Khamenei stated on September 26 that “a man came to me, and I told him that it would currently be in his interests and the interests of the country for him not to participate in a certain issue. I did not tell him not to participate. I said I do not consider it to be expedient.” Khamenei justified his remarks by asserting that Ahmadinejad’s candidacy “would intensify the polarization in the country.”
Khamenei did not mention Ahmadinejad by name, but Iranian media and conservative figures immediately interpreted his comments as referring to Ahmadinejad and barring him from the race. Ahmadinejad served as president from 2005-2013 and won his second term in the disputed 2009 presidential elections. He later fell out with the Supreme Leader after publicly challenging Khamenei’s authority. Past Iranian presidents have also ended their terms with tense relationships with the Supreme Leader, who holds ultimate authority in the Iranian political system. (Fars News Agency)
Khamenei reportedly forbids Ahmadinejad from 2017 election
September 20, 2016
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “explicitly prohibited” former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from entering the 2017 presidential election, according to former Fars News Agency Director Mehdi Fazaeli. Several media and political circles reported on the meeting between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, but no details were published. News outlets have speculated that Ahmadinejad has been planning a bid for a third presidential term in the elections, but he remains controversial even among Iranian conservatives. (Fars News Agency)
Senior reformist criticizes Rouhani administration
September 1, 2016
Mohammad Reza Aref, a parliamentarian representing Tehran and the head of the reformist-moderate “Hope” coalition, criticized President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in remarks on September 1. Aref stated, “It seems like many [government] institutions have not been penetrated by the slogan of change that the people voted for in 2013.” Aref noted that “50 to 60 percent of managers in [government] institutions are from a previous era and do not assist the administration...Why haven’t some directors who came to power due to the excuse of the [conservative-dominated previous] Ninth Parliament been changed? What has been done to change the security atmosphere in universities?...Students must be free to give their thoughts and opinions in universities.” He also criticized ministers in Rouhani’s cabinet and announced that some members of the Hope faction are considering impeaching “some ministers.” Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami reportedly complained about the behavior of Rouhani’s ministers during a meeting with Rouhani after the spring 2016 parliamentary elections. (Asr Iran)
News outlet implicates conservative mayor’s office in “illegal” housing discounts
August 30, 2016
Iranian news outlet Memari News published a report accusing Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s office of selling real estate to individuals including members of the Tehran City Council at “huge discounts.” Tehran City Council Head Mehdi Chamran called the reporting “completely questionable” and “smelling of a particular political party.” IRGC-affiliated news outlet Tasnim News Agency claimed that reformists brought the allegations against Qalibaf, a conservative, as part of a larger “strategy to destroy” him as a frontrunner in the 2017 presidential elections. Qalibaf came in second place to President Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections and was also a candidate in the 2005 elections. (Memari News) (Memari News) (Fars News Agency) (Tasnim News Agency)
Khatami to Rouhani: Rouhani’s supporters have “not kept their promises” to reformists
August 24, 2016
Hassan Rasouli, a member of the Supreme Reformist Policymaking Council, announced the details of a meeting between moderate President Hassan Rouhani and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami after the spring parliamentary elections. Khatami complained that Rouhani’s supporters had not “kept their promises” to reformists after forming a coalition with them during the parliamentary elections. Khatami also criticized the behavior of several of Rouhani’s ministers, although Rasouli did not specify which ones. Rasouli stated that Rouhani “accepted” Khatami’s complaint and “thus warned these ministers and asked them to have greater cooperation with reformists.” Rasouli noted that reformists may introduce a candidate “alongside” Rouhani in the May 2017 presidential elections, although he added that doing so “does not mean that [some] reformists will not support Rouhani” as well. Rasouli acknowledged that dividing reformist support for Rouhani would benefit their conservative rivals in the elections. Reformists united to vote for Rouhani -- who is not a reformist himself -- in the 2013 presidential elections. A decrease in reformist support will threaten his chances of reelection in 2017, although he is likely to win a second term due to popularity and precedent. Rouhani would be the only Iranian president in the history of the Islamic Republic to fail to win reelection. (Fars News Agency)
Conservative clerical associations plan organizations for presidential elections
August 24, 2016
Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghaddam, the spokesman for the Combatant Clergy Association (CCA), announced the formation of a “joint session” between the CCA and the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers (SQST) to discuss the 2017 presidential elections. Both the CCA and SQST are influential conservative associations and are viewed as critical to restoring unity among Iranian conservatives, who have been divided for several election cycles. Mesbahi Moghaddam stated that CCA Head Ayatollah Mohammad Movahedi Kermani will meet with senior conservative cleric and former Assembly of Experts Chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi to “make decisions” about the elections. He also noted that the CCA will hold additional sessions with conservative political parties to facilitate unity. (Tasnim News Agency)