Iran's presidential race: A choiceless choice

Iran's presidential race: A choiceless choice

The field has narrowed in Iran's highly-anticipated presidential elections set for next month. The powerful Guardian Council has given a handful of candidates the go-ahead to compete for the presidency. But critics of the regime say it's barely a competition at all. What's happened so far, and what does this tell us about the state of Iran's domestic politics?


The process. Iran's electoral process is tightly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989 and calls all the shots in Iran. (Though Iran's president is head of the executive branch, he still answers directly to the supreme leader, who has the final say on foreign and domestic policy.)

The Guardian Council — made up of 12 appointees, half of whom are clerics handpicked by Khamenei himself, while the other six are judges or lawyers tapped by the head of Iran's judiciary — ultimately decides who can run for president. Of the 592 Iranians who put their hats in the ring this cycle, the Guardian Council narrowed the list down to just seven.

Analysts say this list is the least ideologically diverse in history. Most of those on the ballot are deemed "hardliners" — a faction that asserts Islamic law over personal freedom inside Iran and opposes engagement with the West.

"Raisi vs Raisi." Since former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani — a candidate with significant name recognition — didn't make the cut, it's all but certain that Ebraim Raisi, a conservative cleric and the country's top judge, will secure the presidency. (Since 2019, Raisi has led the judiciary that selects Guardian Council members who… select presidential candidates.)

For months, the supreme leader and relevant government institutions have been tacitly pushing Raisi's candidacy, leading observers to muse that the race can be summed up as "Raisi vs Raisi." The other candidates are no-hopers, they say, several of whom have run for the presidency in previous years and barely made an electoral dent.

There are several discernible takeaways from the Iranian leadership's brazen attempt to fix the outcome of the race.

Risk vs reward. It's clear that Khamenei wants to remove any hurdles that could stand in the way of Raisi clinching the job. Many say that's because Raisi — an uncompromising hardliner who, as Deputy Tehran prosecutor in the 1980s, signed off on the execution of thousands of political prisoners after the Iran-Iraq War — is being groomed to replace the all-powerful supreme leader.

Raisi already lost one presidential race in 2017, and losing a second time would undermine Khamenei's attempt to market him as a successor with popular appeal. With the stakes this high (after all, Khamenei is 82) that's not a risk the supreme leader seems willing to take.

But the strategy could backfire. Disillusionment with a perceived rigged election is likely to depress voter turnout. Low participation would be extremely embarrassing for Khamenei, whose regime's domestic credibility has suffered significantly in recent years amid a spiraling economic downturn imposed by crippling US sanctions. Popular boycott of the election would give hardliners full control of government but little mandate to govern.

And from the regime's perspective, the only thing worse than voter apathy is voter anger. Iranians have a tradition of mass mobilizations to express discontent with economic stagnation and lack of political representation. (After a disputed election in 2009, for example, the Green Movement took the streets in massive numbers, posing the biggest threat to the regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.) This sort of upheaval would be disastrous for Khamenei and his cronies — and even Raisi has called for more candidates to be allowed to run, saying he hoped this year's race would be more "competitive and participatory."

Nuclear deal in limbo. Less clear, however, is how this all might affect the recently-resumed talks in Vienna with six world powers. It surely doesn't make them any easier. The Biden administration, for its part, says that it will only lift economic sanctions if Iran stops enriching uranium in compliance with the accord, but hardliners say that after former president Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, Washington can't be trusted. Indeed, reviving the deal will be harder if Iran's current President Hassan Rouhani is replaced with an ideologically intransigent hardliner who campaigns actively against compromise.

What can we expect now? A Raisi triumph. But as Ahmad Zeidabadi, an Iranian journalist and former political prisoner told the Financial Times:"A victory of Raisi after the elimination of his rivals would be nothing but winning a running race with turtles."

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Iranians head to the polls on Friday to vote for president, and it appears a foregone conclusion that hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, the nation's top judge, will win.

Outsiders, and many Iranians, roll their eyes at the predictability of this vote. Iran's Guardian Council, a dozen clerics and judges who answer only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has cleared the field for Raisi by ruling all of his credible challengers ineligible. The fix is in, and Iranians are now preparing for a moment when anti-reform conservatives, those who oppose social change inside Iran and deeper engagement with the West, will for the first time ever control the country's presidency, parliament, courts, and much of the media.

But simmering beneath the cynicism and predictability of this event is a deepening anxiety over Iran's future as it enters a potentially momentous period in the Islamic Republic's 42-year history. The Supreme Leader, in power for 32 years, is now 82 years old. Very few people know the true state of his health. Even if he outlives Raisi's presidency, which could last four or eight years, preparations for a historic, uncertain, and potentially dangerous leadership transition will intensify soon.

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