Iran’s Hardliners Poised to Entrench Control through Rigged Contest

On June 18, 2021, Iran will hold a presidential election that will be anything but free and fair. This has been the case in all prior elections, as the Islamic Republic is a republic in name only. Iranian elections exist to benefit the ruling regime, which vests final decision making powers on all affairs of state in the hands of an authoritarian Supreme Leader, by creating an approved channel for the citizenry to experience the trappings of democratic participation and choice that does not threaten its grip on authority. In the current election cycle, the illusory nature of the “choice” on offer to Iranians has been laid bare like never before, as no prominent moderate or reformist candidates were approved for the final ballot. Instead, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hardline allies have taken pains to stack the deck in favor of their preferred candidate, Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who has been an active participant in the regime’s human rights abuses during his decades long career in Iran’s legal system.

The Illusion of Choice

The choice on offer to Iranians in presidential elections is always narrow and circumscribed; all candidates who make the final ballot pass opaque vetting to ensure their loyalty to Iran’s revolutionary ideology and commitment to preserving the repressive Islamic Republican regime. In every election, Iran’s Guardian Council, a twelve-member deliberative body that approves all candidates for elected office, whittles down a field of hundreds of registrants to a handful who are determined to possess sufficient loyalty to the revolutionary, Khomeinist ethos of the Islamic Republic. The council is comprised of six clerics appointed directly by Khamenei and six jurists appointed by the judiciary chief, who is himself appointed directly by Khamenei. This ensures that the council acts as a rubber stamp for Khamenei’s wishes, and provides a mechanism to engineer the electoral field in a suitable fashion.

The differences between candidates permitted to stand for election are skin deep and primarily tactical. Candidates fall into two buckets; those in the “moderate” or “reformist” camps believe it is necessary to materially improve conditions for the citizenry to mitigate dissent and ensure the long-term survival of the regime and therefore favor limited social reforms and economic engagement with the West. “Hardline” or “principlist” candidates believe the best course is for Iran to strictly adhere to the religiously austere, strongly anti-Western principles underpinning the establishment of the Islamic Republic and abhor compromise and negotiations.

The Subordinate Role of the President

Not only are Iranians given a limited menu of establishment-approved options to choose from, but they are also electing an executive who is constitutionally disempowered from having significant influence over the trajectory of foreign and domestic policy. Under Iran’s revolutionary system, a clerical Supreme Leader controls all organs of state and religious power. The Iranian constitution sought to create a hybrid governing system with theocratic authoritarian, and republican elements. However, the system is designed such that the republican elements are always subservient to the will of the Supreme Leader.

At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the founding father of the Islamic Republic and first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini insisted that a clerical Supreme Leader was not inconsistent with democracy, claiming, “Since the people love the clergy, have faith in the clergy, want to be guided by the clergy, it is right that the supreme religious authority should oversee the work of the Prime Minister or of the President of the republic, to make sure that they don't make mistakes or go against the law: that is, against the Koran.” Due in part both to design and circumstance, over the years, the Supreme Leader’s power has grown relative to the republican elements of Iran’s revolutionary system. Rather than simply providing oversight and ensuring that all functions of statecraft are compliant with sharia, in practice, final decision-making powers over Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, are fully vested with the Supreme Leader.  

The president has the ability to appoint several key cabinet officials and is entrusted with the administration of the day-to-day affairs of the state, but he operates completely under Supreme Leader Khamenei’s oversight. Khamenei supervises the president’s performance to ensure that all decisions are in line with Khomeinist principles and the Islamic Revolution, and ultimately, the president’s main role is to execute Khamenei’s agenda. The president can sometimes influence Khamenei’s agenda, as happened most notably when he reluctantly backed incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with the P5+1 out of a pragmatic desire for sanctions relief. From the inception of the JCPOA through its demise, Khamenei was fully in the driver’s seat and was able to undermine the deal when he lost faith.

The Supreme Leader has numerous other roles which serve to highlight his absolute authority within Iran. He appoints and is able to dismiss the heads of numerous institutions within Iran vital to the functioning of its statecraft, ensuring he controls the most important nodes of power, including the judiciary, military, domestic law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and media. He is commander in chief of all armed forces and appoints their leadership brass, including the conventional military and the regime’s praetorian guard, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is tasked with preserving and spreading the Islamic Revolution at home and abroad. He is similarly the overseer and chief customer of Iran’s intelligence agencies, ensuring they serve his foreign and domestic policy imperatives.

Ongoing Power Struggle

At his core, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s primary objective is to ensure his personal continued political survival and that of Iran’s revolutionary regime. While he is ostensibly a deputy of the Divine and there are no effective constitutional checks on his absolute authority, he is ultimately beholden to two primary earthly constituencies: the Iranian public and the IRGC. Iran’s elected leadership nominally represents the will of the citizenry, although the President, the officials he has the power to appoint, and the bureaucracy he sits atop above all answer to the Supreme Leader and serve the interests of the regime.

During his tenure, Khamenei has skillfully balanced tensions between the public and the republican institutions that reflect their will and the IRGC. The main sources of tension in Iran’s trajectory have centered on whether the country would head in a more democratic or theocratic authoritarian direction domestically, and whether it would adopt a confrontational or conciliatory approach toward the West in its foreign policy. Influenced by his desires to hold on to power at any cost, Khamenei has at times flirted with political and economic liberalization and engagement with the West, but ultimately, he has consistently hewed toward the anti-democratic, confrontational path.  

Khamenei has provided political space for both hardline and moderate/pragmatic factions to survive and thrive, while retaining ultimate control.  Although he is an ideological hardliner who is deeply distrustful of his own population and the West, he has evinced a pragmatic streak on numerous occasions during his tenure in the face of duress, as evidenced by his initial support for the JCPOA and current backing of negotiations with the U.S. to restore compliance in the accord.

There are limits to Khamenei’s magnanimity, however. While he is sensitive to the rising tide of dissent, he has used heavy-handed tactics and repression to quell protest movements from the 1999 student protests to the 2009 Green Movement to the recurring mass demonstrations that have cropped up during the Rouhani administration since December 2017. Throughout his tenure, the notoriously thin-skinned Khamenei has increasingly constricted the boundaries of acceptable dissent, and responded with increasingly brutal suppression of political protestors, labor and environmental activists, and journalists. The regime has also become increasingly hostile to the rights of women, LGBTQ citizens, and religious and ethnic minorities.

The persistence of anti-regime protests has increased Khamenei’s reliance on the national security apparatus within Iran for his political survival. Khamenei has ingratiated himself with the leadership of the IRGC by making them the most powerful economic force within Iran to guarantee their powerful loyalty. After the highly irregular 2009 elections, which witnessed protestors brazenly flouting taboos on criticizing the Supreme Leader and revolutionary system, Khamenei came to rely even more on the IRGC and intelligence agencies to quell an uprising and stave off a crisis of legitimacy. While a power struggle has emerged between the IRGC and Iran’s democratically elected institutions for economic and political primacy, the IRGC has maintained the upper hand due to Khamenei’s backing.

The 2021 Election Cycle

The June 18, 2021 election is occurring against the backdrop of this ongoing, lopsided power struggle, which has seen the IRGC and allied hardline clerics and politicians consistently gain traction against those who seek to make Iran more democratic and less confrontational. The stakes are raised as the election has strong implications for the eventual succession of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who is 82 years old and has been dogged by rumors of failing health for years. Every president who has served under him has ended up serving two full terms, so the winner of the current cycle is likely to be the last president of Khamenei’s tenure.

Confidence in moderates and reformists among the public, meanwhile, is at a nadir due to the failure of the Rouhani administration to deliver material benefits to the Iranian people after raising hopes that the 2015 nuclear deal would bring economic stability. Although a moderate who campaigned in 2013 and 2017 in part on expanding political liberties, President Rouhani, as noted above, ultimately serves the Supreme Leader and also proved either unwilling or incapable of backing the growing protest movement in the face of the regime’s increasing repression. In fact, in November 2019, during particularly bloody crackdowns on protests over a gasoline price hike, Rouhani backed Khamenei's repression and even claimed the unrest was an organized subversive plot by the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Rouhani’s siding with Khamenei over the public may have been in part because, as a loyalist to the Islamic Republic regime, he shared Khamenei’s perception of growing protests as a threat that could lead to regime overthrow. Alternatively, Rouhani faced significant internal pressure from hardline politicians and the IRGC, including calls for his removal from office, arrest, and even execution, which may have led him to back the regime out of expediency.

Rouhani’s failure to deliver economic benefits or greater freedoms to Iran’s citizens is of course a function of the limitations of the Iranian system, in which the establishment-approved president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who is himself wedded to the IRGC for survival. In a leaked interview where he spoke with unguarded candor, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted that Iran’s republican institutions are unable to influence Iran’s trajectory, and that the IRGC is calling the shots. One telling instance was that Zarif reportedly pleaded to no avail for the IRGC to stop using Iran Air, the country’s flagship civilian airline, to resupply the Assad regime with personnel and armaments, as it imperiled his diplomatic efforts and prospects for trade and engagement with the West.

Recognizing the limitations of moderates and reformists to enact change and frustrated by their failures, Iranians who were inclined to support the most reform-oriented candidates are largely checking out of politics. Reading the tea leaves, Khamenei and his hardline allies saw an opportunity for a cynical power grab and have moved to sideline their moderate allies once and for all, stacking the deck in favor of Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, a Khamenei protégé believed to be his preferred heir apparent for the Supreme Leadership.

After a humiliating defeat in 2017 where Raisi failed to garner 40% of the vote despite Khamenei’s implicit backing, Khamenei did not abandon Raisi and in 2019 appointed him as Iran’s chief justice. Portraying himself as an anti-corruption crusader, Raisi has used this position to go after several potential powerful rivals and their inner circles, tarnishing their reputations and damaging their prospects to take over as Supreme Leader. Once it became clear Raisi would mount another bid for the presidency, other prominent candidates with actual popular constituencies were either dissuaded from running or had their candidacies rejected. No serious moderate or reformist candidates appear on the ballot, and all candidates put forth by the Reformist umbrella movement were rejected outright.

Khamenei and his hardline clerical and IRGC allies calculated that they can withstand popular pressure through increased repression if need be, and so felt emboldened to attempt a coronation of their preferred candidate. If the gambit succeeds, hardliners will control all the major power centers in Iran, paving the way for their retention of the Supreme Leadership and all but ensuring Iran will continue on its repressive, confrontational trajectory for years to come.

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).