SIM REPORT: Presidential election in Iran; ultraconservative cleric expected to win

Iran’s presidential election will take place on Friday (18 June). A run-off vote will be held on either 25 or 26 June if no single candidate is able to garner 50 per cent + 1 of the votes.

Ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who currently serves as Iran’s chief justice, is expected to win after the disqualification of his more significant challengers. The 60-year-old is a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 election against current president Hassan Rohani. He will be challenged by six other contenders who are widely considered unappealing, prompting local media to refer to Raisi as the ‘unrivalled’ candidate. This perception was further solidified following the first televised debate on Saturday (5 June), in which the only candidates to criticise Raisi were the moderates and reformers – former central bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati and former Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh. The other four conservative and hardline candidates – senior security official Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaei; and lawmakers Alireza Zakani and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi – focused on attacking their reformist opponents, prompting criticism that they are really supporting candidates to help Raisi's bid.

The perception that the election with neither be free nor fair is not new in Iran; the Supreme Leader, who has the final say on Iran’s affairs, always plays a role, often by limiting participation to candidates who meet his approval. Meanwhile, the hardline body known as the Guardian Council, which supervises the electoral process, is widely accused of arbitrarily disqualifying candidates, particularly reform-minded ones. Indeed, this year the Guardian Council approved only seven of 590 presidential hopefuls, disqualifying a number of high profile figures including former speak of parliament Ali Larijani, reformist vice-president Ishaq Jahangiri, and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad criticised the process following his disqualification, indicating the move was an insult to the people and breached the constitution. Despite endorsing the watchdog’s rejection of candidates, Khamenei himself acknowledged that some of the disqualified candidates had been treated unfairly.

However, the high level of filtering in the 2021 poll, particularly of reformist candidates, has led to domestic criticism of the Guardian Council’s vetting process and calls to boycott the elections, with reformists saying they have no one to support. The idea of a boycott appears to be gaining more and more traction among the public who view the poll as more of a referendum than an election. Opinion polls suggest the turnout will be the lowest in Iranian history. The government-aligned Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) shows an expected turnout of just 36 per cent, a drop of 7 per cent since the list of candidates was announced on 25 May. A turnout of below 50 per cent would be unprecedented in a presidential vote. Meanwhile, the hashtag #nowayivote is trending on Persian social media.

A low turnout would pose a challenge for the Iranian leadership, who relies on voter turnout to prove the legitimacy of their electoral process and, by extension, the Supreme Leader. The regime may turn to measures such as ballot stuffing to counteract this; however, any perception by the public that such activity is taking place would almost certainly spark protests. There is precedent for such activity; in 2009 millions took to the streets accusing  the Supreme Leader of rigging the vote to ensure a second term for Ahmadinejad. The political climate is also ripe for protests given the severe economic crisis, with inflation reaching 50 per cent amid the impact of both US sanctions and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Anti-government protests in 2019 took place in more than 100 cities after the government arbitrarily increased the price of petrol, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Iran's ruling elite and the government. Security forces harshly cracked down on the unrest, and more than 300 people were killed. Any protest activity in the run-up to or following the June poll would likely be similarly met with a harsh security response, in addition to measures such as the temporary disruption of communication networks such as mobile and internet connectivity.

A Raisi victory may have implications for relations with the West. Raisi is known to be hostile to the West and will probably be defiant toward the US in particular, complicating efforts by President Joe Biden to revive talks over Iran’s nuclear programme and restore the  2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, nuclear deal). Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington are ongoing in Vienna which have raised hope for the deal’s revival. While Raisi may not be directly opposed to the deal, he is known to have criticised it in the past, particularly the terms of the deal which was struck by incumbent Rouhani, and is likely to take a more hardline approach to negotiations. This will particularly be the case should Biden seek to expand the deal to cover Iran’s support for regional proxies. Furthermore, Raisi is thought to have the backing of a number of conservatives and hardliners who want to widen Iran's nuclear programme. While it is unlikely that a deal will be approved before Iran’s elections, the need to achieve economic relief through the lifting of US sanctions will probably remain a focal point that will incentivise the negotiation process even in the event of a Raisi presidency. Indeed, should a deal be reached under Raisi hardliners will probably to take credit for the economic benefits of the lifting of sanctions.

In the longer term, a Raisi presidential victory could set the path for his eventual placement as Iran’s supreme leader. Khamenei is 82-years-old and dogged by questions about his health; he had previously been president of Iran which he took over as supreme leader in 1989 following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Raisi’s has a high level of experience in the various Iranian institutions, including his role in the judiciary and experience as custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest charity in the Muslim world and the organisation in charge of Iran’s holiest shrine. A presidential win would give him experience in the executive branch and at least the ostensible popular legitimacy for such a role in its eventuality.


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