In recent months, Iran observers have been asserting that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander will be elected president in 2021. Several former commanders are lining up to run.

In addition to those who have run before — such as Ali Shamkhani, Mohsen Rezaei, and Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf — are new faces such as the Mostazafan Foundation head Parviz Fattah, and Hossein Dehgan who is a former minister of defence and current adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But is it a foregone conclusion that a former commander will assume the presidency? One argument is that the failure of the nuclear deal and deteriorating economic conditions have caused disillusionment with the moderate political faction, which encourage voters to either abstain or to vote for conservatives or hardliners. That trend would eventually produce a president closely affiliated with the IRGC. In February 2020, similar sentiments were key in the election of a hard-line Majles, with Qalibaf as the new speaker.

Drivers and dynamics

Continued US antagonism towards Iran can be interpreted as the main driver of political developments and, on this trajectory, one can project a hardening of positions that will lead to a hard-line victory in the next election.

A similar process led to the unexpected victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, when Iran feared that it would be the next target for a US military attack in post-9/11 developments. Two other dynamics should, however, be considered in the contemporary context.

  • First, the top priority for the Islamic Republic is to manage the economic fallout from decades of sanctions, mismanagement, and corruption. Most people want a president who can improve economic conditions and tackle corruption. Former IRGC commander, Mohsen Rafiqdoust, believes that such as task could be best tackled by a military figure rather than a conventional politician. Many disagree and wish to see a capable economist, such as the current Central Bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati, in the post. 
  • Second, Ayatollah Khamenei has expressed the wish to have a president who represents the younger generation. The IRGC network has a candidate with that characteristic as well: Saeed Mohammad, the commander of the IRGC engineering and industrial conglomerate Khatam-ol-Anbia.

The moderates also have a fitting candidate in that category: Sorena Sattari, vice president in charge of science and technology and the son of a military commander who was martyred during the Iran–Iraq war.

The philosophy of voting

Of course, candidates representing other factions and power networks will also enter the race in 2021. The outcome will ultimately depend in particular on economic conditions and the overall outlook for Iran’s international standing. Furthermore, the political establishment is inherently opposed to a president with a military background. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, asserted that military men should not interfere in politics and this statement has been used to keep military commanders focused on their actual mission.

Nonetheless, Iran has moved beyond the first post-revolutionary decade, when Khomeini’s thinking was more dominant, and meanwhile many political positions have been filled by former IRGC commanders. At the same time, Iranian elections have produced surprise winners in 1997, 2005, and 2013. Will a shift in popular perceptions lead to a higher-than-expected voter turnout and a surprise winner in 2021?

This excerpt is taken from Iran Strategic Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Iran. Click here to receive a free sample copy.