This June, against a background of crisis and domestic uncertainty, Iran will hold a pivotal presidential election. On the domestic front, Iran’s economy is shattered and broken. Inflation is soaring, the value of the rial has plummeted and industries are flagging. On foreign policy, there has been little movement over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, and the regime’s material support for Bashar Assad’s dictatorship in Syria is helping fuel the call for further western intervention, diplomatically and militarily. The next Iranian president will have to address these challenges, and he will have the opportunity to significantly change the trajectory of the country.
Iranian politicians generally come from three broad groups. First, there are hardline conservatives aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Second, there are populists aligned with current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Third, there are reformists, two of whose leaders (Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi) remain under house arrest for their leadership of the opposition Green Movement after the disputed 2009 election.
One thing each presidential candidate has in common, however, is their religion. Article 115 of Iran’s constitution states the only those who follow the country’s “official religion” can become president. The “official religion” of Iran is Shiite – approximately 90 percent of the Iranian population is Shiite, roughly 10 percent are Sunni, and the remainder are non-Muslims.
The 12-man Council of Guardians, the committee of clerics and juries that rules on the qualifications of candidates, is overwhelmingly conservative. Not surprisingly, therefore, conservatives dominate the Iranian political arena and control the key levers of power. They have the means to mobilize vast numbers of voters who rely on the regime for employment, and effectively squeeze out the populists and reformers.
As the election approaches, the Council of Guardians recently approved eight presidential candidates out of more than 680 applicants (which included 30 women but no ethnic minorities) that had been vying to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Admadinejad, who is term-limited and cannot run for a third-straight term.
Of these eight approved candidates, six are considered conservative and two are considered reformers. It is virtually certain, however, that the next Iranian president will be one of the six conservatives. Each conservative candidate competing for the presidency is closely allied to Ayatollah Khamenei and have shown little independence in the past. The Supreme Leader, however, has yet to formally endorse a candidate.
Here is a snapshot of the six conservative candidates:
- Ali Akbar Velayati. Mr. Velayati, a qualified medical doctor, was born in 1945 in Tehran. He is sometimes referred to by the public as “Mr. may I” for his tendency to seek permission from the Supreme Leader at all times, and has served as Khamenei’s principal foreign policy adviser since 1997.
- Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Mr. Qalibaf is the current mayor of Tehran. He previously served as head of the air force wing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and as the national chief of police. Mr. Qalibaf is loyal to the Supreme Leader, but he is seen as a technocrat within Iran’s conservative faction, initiating popular reforms in which women were allowed to serve for the first time. He came in fourth in the 2005 elections.
- Mohsen Rezai. Mr. Rezai is a close ally of the Supreme Leader and former commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. Mr. Rezai finished fourth in the 2009 elections. He has been accused by Argentina of involvement in a 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires which resulted in the death of 85 people.
- Saeed Jalili. According to the New York Times, Mr. Jalili has emerged as a frontrunner heading into the June elections. He is extremely close to the Supreme Leader, and is the current head of the National Security Council and principal nuclear negotiator with the world’s six major powers. If elected, Mr. Jalili is expected to pursue an aggressive policy abroad, raising fears that he could further escalate Iran’s standoff with the West. His election slogan: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.”
- Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. Mr. Adel is a 68-year old former parliament speaker whose daughter is the wife of Ayatollah Khamenei’s son Mojtaba. He belongs to the same conservative coaltion as Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
- Mohammad Gharazi. Mr. Gharazi is relatively unknown and is running for president for the first time. He is the former Post and Oil Minister, and was jailed in 1971 because he was politically active during the Shah’s rule. Born in the central city of Isfahan in 1951, Mr. Gharazi studied engineering in Iran and France. His campaign slogan is “government of no inflation.”
And now the two reformers:
- Mohammad Reza Aref. Mr. Aref is the former Tehran University chancellor and has been described as “liberal leaning.” He is a member of the Expediency Council, a top advisory body for the Supreme Leader, and has held various executive posts in post-revolutionary Iran. Mr. Aref studied electrical engineering at Stanford University, and has vowed to withdraw his candidacy if former reformist President Mohammad Khatami joined the 2013 election as a candidate.
- Hassan Rowhani. Mr. Rowhani has served as Deputy Speaker and Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative at the Supreme National Security Council. He has been the chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the EU, and harshly criticized the Admadinejad government for its violent crackdown on protests following the disputed 2009 election. Of the two reformers, Mr. Rowhani is better known.
Two things are of note. First, the slate of candidates does not include a candidate from the Admadinejad/populist camp. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Admadinejad’s top advisor, was long considered the only viable candidate from this political camp. But Mashaei has drawn the ire of Iran’s conservative clerics and is considered too liberal by many religious leaders in the country. It remains to be seen how the president will react. Second, political veteran Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also disqualified. The 78-year-old cleric is one of Iran’s most influential and powerful political figures, and his disqualification came as a surprise to many.
The structure of Iran’s political system often leads people to suggest that the choice of president means little. In Iran, the president’s power is limited by the authority of the Supreme Leader, who controls Iran’s armed forces and makes decisions on security, defense, and key foreign-policy issues (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program). But the president of Iran does have significant authority on the domestic front. He sets the country’s economic policies, social and education programs, and represents Iran in many high-profile international forums. It is also true, however, that he can be overruled at any time by the clerical establishment via the judiciary or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran has a population of approximately 79 million, roughly 50 million of whom are eligible to vote in the election on June 14. Iran’s electoral system is centered on Islamic order by “popular will.” Therefore, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to claim victory. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff will be held a week later between the two candidates who received the most votes in the first round.
President Admadinejad’s successor will inherit a host of domestic and foreign challenges. Iran is becoming increasingly isolated, and the ruling elite is deeply divided. The June 14 election will not, by any stretch of the imagination, bear any resemblance to a democratic enterprise. But to dismiss it as mere window-dressing is a mistake. As the Brookings Institute recently noted, “If the past eight years of Admadinejad’s antics have taught us nothing else, they have demonstrated over and over again that Iran’s presidency matters. Despite its electoral illegitimacy, its institutional constraints, and the assiduous efforts of a system built around a divine mandate, the office of the presidency has emerged as one with real power to shape the context for domestic and foreign policy.”