June 24, 2024

IntelBrief: Iranian Leaders Hope for Validation in Upcoming Election

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran’s regime hopes that allowing a reform-minded candidate to run for president will encourage a high turnout and validate the regime’s legitimacy.
  • Iran’s presidents are subordinate to the Supreme Leader but play a key role in setting policy on crucial economic issues such as subsidies.
  • Iranian voters are largely dismissing the reformist candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, as unlikely to bring change even if he prevails.
  • If parliament speaker and regime insider Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf is elected, as expected, most regime policies will continue with only modest adjustments in tone and substance.

Iranians will go to the polls on Friday, June 28, in a special election to replace President Ibrahim Raisi, who, along with Iran’s foreign minister, was killed in an accidental helicopter crash in northern Iran on May 19. Conventional wisdom among experts holds that Iran’s president has little freedom of action to deviate from core domestic and foreign policy positions determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his close circle of hardline aides and associates. Elected presidents in the Islamic Republic have historically had little latitude to adjust Iran’s national security strategy, conventional weapons and nuclear program development, and foreign policy. However, presidents can make a difference at the margins of Islamic Republic policies.

The president appoints, in consultation with but not necessarily at the behest of the Leader, Iran’s council of ministers and the heads of key government institutions such as those responsible for pensions, health care, infrastructure, and other investments. One of the more controversial issues recent Iranian presidents have wrestled with has been how to rein in the system of generous subsidies, including cash payments to low-income citizens and reduced prices charged for gasoline, other commodities, and utilities. Decisions on subsidies have not generally required or involved intervention by the Supreme Leader and have always attracted widescale debate among the population.

Even though the outcome of the election might affect the economic outlook for a majority of the Iranian people, a perception has taken hold in the country that the June 28 election will not produce meaningful change and should be dismissed as a farce. In the 2021 presidential election, the regime used its vetting mechanism - candidate screening by the 12-member Council of Guardians - to eliminate any significant threats to the election of Khamenei protégé Raisi. The 2021 election, coupled with past elections in which popular reform-minded presidential and parliamentary candidates were denied the opportunity to run, contributed to a historic low turnout of about 40 percent.

The Supreme Leader and his aides often weigh turnout even more heavily than the election results as barometers of public attitudes toward the regime. More than 500 teachers, union activists, and prominent cultural figures in Iran have publicly announced their decision to abstain from voting in the upcoming presidential elections through a joint statement. A widescale boycott would set back efforts to demonstrate that the regime and system of government has broad support, despite fissures in the society. Attempting to counter the broad disillusionment with the electoral process in the Islamic Republic, regime leaders approved a six-man candidate field – out of 80, including seven women, who filed to run – representing at least some diversity of viewpoints.

In keeping with the regime’s interpretation of the constitution, no woman has ever been approved to run for president of the republic. And, the Council of Guardians denied the candidacy of two senior figures – former Majles (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, and former two-time president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both had run afoul of the Supreme Leader earlier in their careers. Contrary to the expectations of many experts, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, a pro-reform Majles member, was approved to run. Another more well-known reformist, former First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, was excluded.

Pezeshkian joins five avowed “principalists” (hardliners) on the ballot, most notably Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, the current Majles Speaker who, earlier in his career, rose through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ranks to become IRGC Air Force commander. Differing from its name, that force largely abandoned operating combat aircraft and instead became the vicar of Iran’s expanding ballistic and cruise missile and armed drone arsenal. Based on the publicity his statements and campaign appearances receive in state-run media, Qalibaf appears to be favored by the Supreme Leader and other regime insiders. Khamenei has not publicly endorsed Qalibaf, preferring instead to urge high turnout as an endorsement of the Islamic system of government. The candidacy of another well-known hardliner, former chief nuclear negotiator Seyed Jalili, does not appear to have traction with any key pro-regime constituencies. Both Qalibaf and Jalili had lost in previous presidential contests.

At the same time, there is potential for an unexpected result. To win outright, a candidate must receive a 50 percent +1 majority on election day. If no candidate achieves that result, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held three weeks later. Because five hardliners are running, it is conceivable that Qalibaf, despite having the apparent support of the Leader, could be forced into a runoff against the one reformist candidate, Pezeshkian. On the other hand, it is not certain that Pezeshkian will have the same success rallying reformist voters that other pro-reform candidates had in the past.

In the two televised debates and his campaign appearances, Pezeshkian has appealed to the core reformist constituencies that had powered previous candidates to victories in presidential and parliamentary elections by calling for easing enforcement of the public dress code for women and engagement with the West. He has sought to build reformist enthusiasm by enlisting former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as his top national security adviser. That recruitment signals to voters that, as president, Pezeshkian would seek to reach out to the West to obtain an easing of the sanctions that are holding back Iran’s economy. But, he has also claimed he intends to follow “the general policies of the exalted supreme leader.” That formulation has fed skepticism among reformist voters that Pezeshkian’s election would not produce significant change, but rather his candidacy represents only a regime effort to encourage high turnout.

Pezeshkian has also had difficulty distinguishing himself from the hardline candidates who, while pledging unconditional fealty to the Leader and regime principles, have said they would attack government corruption. The hardliners have furthermore criticized the government’s economic performance. Still, a win by a little-known reformist against a prominent hardliner such as Qalibaf would signal a far greater degree of resentment and dissatisfaction than regime leaders perceive. And, a Pezeshkian victory would be sure to revive past conflicts between the president's office and that of the Supreme Leader over authorities, policies, and appointments.

Despite the unexpected emergence of a significant contest, U.S. and other Western experts are watching the election with an expectation that Qalibaf is likely to prevail. They are analyzing the implications of his presidency for regime domestic, regional, and global policies. Significantly, Qalibaf is not a Shia cleric and cannot become a contender to succeed the 85-year-old Khamenei after he leaves the scene. And, his long and extensive ties to the IRGC suggest that there will be little friction between him and the key national security institutions that implement such policies as providing support to the multiple “Axis of Resistance” partners that are challenging Israel and the United States for preponderant influence in the region. He has supported earlier security force crackdowns, which included the extensive use of repressive force, to suppress episodes of unrest.

At the same time, Qalibaf’s earlier service as Tehran mayor has instilled a measure of pragmatism in his policy recommendations, suggesting he would likely seek ways to minimize the effect of U.S.-led sanctions on the Iranian economy and perhaps at least modestly ease the enforcement of the public dress code for women. Although not an advocate of any new Iranian concessions that might pave the way for a restoration of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), he also will likely continue the periodic indirect discussions with U.S. officials, brokered by the Sultanate of Oman, aimed at preventing a U.S.-Iran conflict.