As Iran enters a new century — the 15th century according to he Iranian calendar — the upcoming year is significant for multiple reasons. A presidential election will determine the hue of the post-Hassan Rohani political leadership, revealing whether the Islamic Republic really will endorse a military commander as the next president.
Regionally, the Abraham Accords – normalising relations between Israel and the UAE, and subsequently Israel and Bahrain — present Iran with new realities. And with Joe Biden as a pro-diplomacy US president, new opportunities could emerge for Iran–US relations.
So, what do the next 12 months have in store? The domestic picture continues to be coloured by competition between various power networks. The political pendulum has swung towards hard-line elements that not only control the military but also dominate the judiciary and the Majles. Evidently, their goal will be to use the June 2021 presidential election to take over the Presidency and greater control of key political decisions.
While it may seem appealing to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to have hardliners in all key positions, in fact what he looks for is conformity with the current distribution of power rather than factional orientation. In fact, one can argue that moderate Hassan Rohani has been a better president to Khamenei than the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is therefore not a foregone conclusion that the Supreme Leader would welcome a hardliner as the next head of the executive branch.
As far as the top leadership is concerned, the Iranian state is very capable and fully in charge, and there is no sense of internal insecurity. The population is dissatisfied and frustrated but is disinterested in revolutionary change or violent upheaval. Riots and social unrest will occur, but they can be contained. Therefore, the leadership does not consider major political reforms to be a necessity.
At the same time, the political culture of the Islamic Republic has always insisted on a high voter turnout because popular participation in elections is considered to provide political legitimacy. Khamenei will therefore be interested in a forming line-up of candidates who will attract a high turnout.
The only scenario in which society will be highly engaged with the election is if the choice of candidates would make a tangible difference, as it did in the 2013 election. Back then, Rohani emerged as the victor because he presented diplomacy as the solution to Iran’s international relations.
In 2021 — if the choice for president will offer either a chance for de-escalation between Tehran and Washington or the resumption of hostility — a moderate could win support. If the choice is between a couple of hard-line candidates, the electorate will have limited interest. Consequently, one can expect a diverse line-up of presidential candidates. And, although undemocratic tools such as the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council will remain in place, previous elections have sometimes produced surprised winners.
What can be said for certain at this stage is that the overall balance of power will change, no matter which faction emerges as the victor. Many smaller constituents of the fragmented power structure also have the ability to spoil positive developments. This occurred in early December when the judiciary decided to execute the dissident, Ruhollah Zam, specifically in order to disrupt the government’s attempt to improve relations with Europe. Such spoiling activities will continue after the election.