What We Learned From the 2021 Presidential Election in Iran

As predicted, Ebrahim Raisi is the incoming president of the Islamic Republic. There are a few things we learned from the election that particularly stand out.

Projecting the outcome of the election – or better yet, selection – was not a difficult task because the centers of power had paved the path for Raisi. The Guardian Council, which ultimately answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and vets candidates running for the race, disqualified the overwhelming majority of presidential hopefuls. In addition, Reformists faced a crisis of public confidence because they have been unwilling or incapable of delivering on previous campaign promises. Dissatisfaction about poor governance, two bloody mass protests in the past five years, drought, plague, inflation, and unemployment contributed to widespread feelings of exhaustion, apathy, and anger among Iranians.

Immediately after the election, one of Khamenei’s top aides, Vahid Haghanian, published a rare editorial calling the presence of three candidates Abdolnaser Hemmati, Mohsen Rezai, and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh a “divine help” for Raisi, else their withdrawals would have created a “big crisis for the sacred Islamic Republic system” in light of the Guardian Council’s disqualifications. He added that the trio “knowingly or unknowingly” helped the “revolution.” Haghanian blamed the Rouhani administration, and the “enemy’s” psychological operations for leading to a pervasive feeling about boycotting the elections, adding that the final official results exceeded “predictions.” Haghanian also criticized reformists for failing to fully throw their weights behind Hemmati, which he said helped reduce participation in elections. Finally, Haghanian called for addressing issues so that the elections in four years would witness “maximum participation of the people.”

The controversial public letter further raised questions about electoral interference and political infighting at the top. Tasnim News, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), criticized Haghanian, saying that his editorial gave fodder to criticism that the election was engineered. Then, Haghanian’s son Amir-Ali wrote a post on Instagram – which he later deleted - defending his father, saying that the editorial delivered the “message” that the Guardian Council had acted “with injustice and outside republican bounds,” and that the Supreme Leader did not support a candidate in the election. Of course, the members of the Guardian Council are selected directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader. The Haghanians want to disassociate the negative repercussions of some of the council’s disqualifications, including that of Ali Larijani, former Parliament Speaker and one of Khamenei’s confidants for decades, from their doyen, Khamenei. Haghanian’s letter also raises the question if he is trying to publicly remind Raisi of the debt he is in, specifically to Haghanian himself. Furthermore, Haghanian fed into the criticism that Reformists ultimately help the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader. In the process, Haghanian is accepting responsibility for publishing the editorial and being the target of some criticism. Tasnim’s criticism of Haghanian, himself a former senior officer in the Guard Corps, should also be viewed as infighting among loyalists to the Supreme Leader.

With regards to the future of elections, a remark from Khamenei earlier this month stands out. During a speech, he said that “today, religious democracy and the people of the presence through elections are possible; there may come a time in the future in which elections become meaningless, and other forms for the presence of the people and for people to express their views to arise.” That statement has raised suspicions if the Islamic Republic plans to scrap the presidency and install an office of prime minister selected by a tightly controlled Parliament as the head of an executive branch (the Islamic Republic previously had an office of prime minister alongside the president until abolishing the title in 1989).  

The official election participation rate in this election at 48.8% was the lowest it’s been. This election faced a widespread boycott campaign. When factoring in the approximately 13% of invalid votes, about 35% voted for a candidate. That trend extended down the ballot to city council elections; in some cities, “invalid” was first place. Setting aside the caveat about the possibility of tampered votes, “invalid” ranked second after Raisi.

These voting behaviors are direct rebukes of the Supreme Leader and senior clergy, who had called it a religious duty to participate in the elections. Khamenei earlier this month had specifically called invalid votes haram, or forbidden. As the Guardian Jurisconsult, Khamenei is supposed to be the highest-ranking religious figure in the country. These reflect a trend of declining influence of the clergy in society, attributed in significant part to decades of corruption, authoritarianism, and poor governance.

At the national and city council levels, Reformists completely collapsed. Some prominent leading Reformist figures like former President Mohammad Khatami backed Hemmati, but others didn’t. Regardless, it was a poor showing, as Hemmati finished with only about 4% of votes and behind invalidated votes. The result has led pundits and laymen alike to announce the death of the reform movement. As scholar Misagh Parsa astutely observed in “Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed” in 2016, if Reformists want to increase their popularity, they have to make their positions more radical to be in line with the public mood, but that would put them in more direct opposition to the Islamic Republic, a line they have been unwilling to cross (as it happens, that’s Khamenei’s leverage upon Reformists). They have been thus far proven unable to resolve this dilemma.

Regardless of the result, Raisi’s base and Islamists loyalists to the Supreme Leader are energized. With caveats applied, the Islamic Republic can count on about 23 million voters (adding in the face-value Raisi, Rezai, and Ghazizadeh votes), or about a quarter of the population. Khamenei has bet that as long as he keeps a core support who remain united and fill military and security services against a disunited opposition field, the Islamic Republic can remain in power, and whether protests. But for now, Khamenei has a “yes man” as president.