Conservative Camp in the Ascendance in Iran’s Forthcoming Presidential Elections

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, The Middle East Policy Council


Iranians are due to go to the polls on June 18 to vote for the country’s next president. With the real power in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, many consider the presidential race an attempt to conceal the country’s democratic deficit. However, with the rejection of reformist candidates, including former speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani and first vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, and the side-stepping of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, overwhelming numbers of Iranians are considering staying away from the voting booths.

Officials have been keen to underscore the government’s impartiality in the upcoming elections as well as the importance of voter turn-out, shown in recent statements by President Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, as reported by the daily Tehran Times: “If some want to attribute a candidate to the government and say that the government backs one candidate [it] is not true’. Vaezi said the government neither has a candidate, nor does it back a candidate. The government also does not oppose any candidate, he added…. The presidential chief of staff said the government is tasked to hold the election and ‘it does not want to elect somebody as a replacement and tell people vote for this person’. What is important for the government is an enthusiastic election, Vaezi pointed out. The future of the Islamic Republic is important for the government, he said, adding, [that] whoever is elected president, the government is ready to share its eight years of experiences with him.”

According to Iran’s official press service IRNA news, President Rouhani went a bit further than his chief of staff, not only distancing the government from any of the official candidates, but gently chiding the Guardian Council for having excluded a number of candidates, thus possibly undermining the legitimacy of the election outcome: “Speaking in a cabinet meeting, President Rouhani referred to the upcoming presidential election in Iran and said that the election is not only aimed at choosing a president to lead the administration, but it is also the event that guarantees the legitimacy of the political system by allowing public participation in the polls. Naming the duties of a president in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Rouhani said all of the decisions taken by the president would be illegitimate if they lack the support of the people. Pointing to the process of vetting presidential election nominees which is carried out by the Guardian Council, he said that he wished there would be more nominees vetted to secure the competitive essence of the election.”

Others have been less diplomatic about their objections to the Council’s decision to exclude veteran politicians like Ali Larijani and Eshaq Jahangiri from the candidate list. Some of the criticism has come from unexpected sources, including Zahra Khomeini and Hassan Khomeini (daughter and grandson, respectively, of Ayatollah Khomeini), who, according to an Asharq Alawsat report, “strongly criticized the electoral process following the rejection of dozens of requests to run in the upcoming electoral race. ‘The people’s vote is a condition for the legitimacy of the system’, Khomeini told a crowd of Iranians on Monday, adding that a government that does not enjoy general acceptance ‘has no legitimacy’. ‘We cannot choose some [candidates] and ask people to vote for them’, he underlined.”

Unlike other high-profile politicians who were ruled out by the Guardian Council, current Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, considered an early frontrunner, chose to stay on the sidelines. Al Ahram’s Lamis El-Sharqawy argues that, given Zarif’s popularity, “hardliners were keen to deter Zarif from having any opportunities in June’s elections as a part of the bigger political rift ongoing in Iran between the hardliners and the reformists…. Zarif’s efforts in keeping the landmark nuclear deal for Iran alive and handling Iran’s foreign policy crises for eight years while he was in office didn’t resonate with hardliners, who don’t approve of his approach generally with the US as he pushes to revive the deal.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, the Gulf News editorial board recently declared that the conservative camp’s victory may prove to be a Pyrrhic one: “The seven approved candidates are conservative and close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei…. Iran has always tried to project a sort of democratic image; however, this time and due to the emerging developments, the Supreme Leader seems to have decided it was not the time for even an appearance of a fair and transparent election. The expected low turnout will show that Iranians aspire to a better system, to a ‘normal’ state. Unfortunately for them, those who wield the power don’t subscribe to that idea.”

Others, like Arab News’ Hassan Al-Mustafa, believe that the further entrenchment of the conservative camp is intended to muzzle the voices of the reformists and is likely to lead to a heightening of tensions with “Arab and Gulf states…. Khamenei will be the ‘maestro’ governing foreign policy, which is essentially under his authority according to the Iranian constitution. This gives him broad powers, especially since he has pointed out on numerous occasions that Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is only a policy enforcer…. Khamenei will remain in control of the game and the government; parliament and the IRGC will just be obedient tools for the implementation of his will.”

And yet, writing for the Turkish Daily Sabah, Hamoon Khelghat-Doost hints at the possibility that, despite the ascendance of the conservatives, a more pragmatic foreign policy may be coming out of Tehran,: “The new 2021 rounds of constructive negotiations between Iran and the world community have proven how a maximum-pressure policy by the U.S. was effective in forcing Tehran to give up its ideological foreign policy in favor of pragmatist approaches. Based on the above argument, with time, it is expected that Iran will adopt the same approach toward other challenges in its foreign policy, including its ballistic missile program and the support of militant organizations throughout the Middle East, which at the moment are considered the state’s ideological redlines and therefore ‘[non]-negotiable’.”

Iran’s next president will also inherit a polarized society, a weakened economy, and a struggle against COVID-19, not to mention a number of foreign-policy challenges for which Jubin Katiraie, in a recent article for Iran Focus, blames the country’s religious rulers: “Iran’s governments, due to … wrong policies and the existence of the supreme-leader phenomenon, never had a bright prospect. And the next president, regardless of who it will be, will face the same fate and will inherit, then add to, the country’s ‘super challenges,’ as many of the state-run media are reporting. Challenges like the coronavirus outbreak, the economic crises, the country’s budget deficit and the instability in the Middle East, [with the government in] Iran playing the role of the main source of all the wars in the that region.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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