Iran is less than two months away from its next presidential election, but no one knows who the leading candidates will be.
There are, however, strong indications that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has asked the heads of judiciary and the legislative branches, Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf respectively, not to run but to focus on their own institutions. This would make way for former Majles speaker Ali Larijani to be the leading conservative candidate.
Another conservative figure who will nominate himself is former leading parliamentarian Ali Motahary, though he has lost a lot of popularity. Former minister of defence Mohammad Dehghan has also announced his intention to run but may be forced to withdraw in favour of a stronger candidate such as Larijani.
Another conservative figure, Ezatollah Zarghami, former head of the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIC), also has presidential ambitions, but it is difficult to see someone so uncharismatic becoming a serious contender.
Khamenei has also apparently asked Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, to stay out of the race. This news emerged when Yasser Khomeini, Hassan’s younger brother, remarked in an interview that Hassan had planned to nominate himself for the presidency and had sought the advice of Khamenei.
Khamenei may have wanted to prevent the Khomeini name from being dragged into the political arena, but his request can also be seen as a strategy to head off a reformist victory. It should also be noted that if he had won the presidency, Hassan Khomeini would have become a leading candidate to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. The reformist faction is therefore in dire need of a prominent candidate. From among possible contenders, two will definitely sign up: former deputy speaker of the Majles Massoud Pezeshkian and Mohsen Rohami.
And following Khamenei’s stated desire to see a younger president in office, three names have been mentioned:
- Saeed Mohammad, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and the former head of Khatam-ol Anbia
- Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, current minister of telecommunications and information technology
- Sorena Sattri, vice president of technology affairs.
All three may run for president, but it is unclear how far the elites would support them. A lot of other names are also being floated. Former IRGC chief commander Mohsen Rezaei has unsuccessfully run for president many times before and may run again but, if so, he would be a marginal figure. It is also being rumoured that a woman will be allowed to run in order to encourage debate and mobilise voter participation, but that possibility is uncertain.
Another interesting phenomenon is how virtual space — especially the new Clubhouse app — is being used to promote intense and unrestricted exchanges between figures inside and outside the country.
Amid all the uncertainty, Table 1 summarises the electoral timelines. Notably, local council elections are also being held on 18 June. They are among the most democratic political processes in Iran, because the conservative Guardian Council has no role.
For that reason, although voter participation may be low it is likely to be comparable to international benchmarks.
What do Iranians think?
A recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Toronto-based IranPoll has produced interesting insights into the pre-election mood in Iran. Although surveys based on phone interviews from abroad are not as accurate as field research inside the country, they show some interesting trends.
For example, analysts agree with the finding that the US maximum pressure campaign and consequent economic hardship has hardened the Iranian political mood against the US. The poll revealed that some 62% of respondents views the policies of President Hassan Rohani negatively. The figure was 14% in 2014 when he was working towards improving economic conditions and negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Public approval of Rohani collapsed in 2018 after Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of poll respondents stated that they would like to see a critic of Rohani as the next president. Only 17% favoured Rohani himself.
Asked who they would vote for: 35% stated were undecided; 27% favoured head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi; 13% sided with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and 8% with Majles speaker Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf.