Skip to main content

Presidential Race Begins in Iran

Analysts are already predicting Iran's likely presidential candidates from figures perceived as likely to cooperate rather than compete with Iran’s leader, writes Shahir Shahidsaless.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) is greeted by his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for a bilateral meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali November 9, 2012. Ahmadinejad said on Thursday the age of nuclear deterrence was long gone and any country still stockpiling nuclear weapons was "mentally retarded". He again denied Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons, a day after the re-election victory of U.S. President Barack Obama, for whom Tehran's disputed nuclear programme will be one of the thor

Although Iran’s presidential elections are still more than six months away, analysts are already predicting the likely candidates. Most believe that the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office, will bar anyone who appears to have any propensity to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority.

The competition will be among four main political factions:

  • Traditional conservatives who participated in the March 2012 parliamentary elections under the banner of the United Front of Principalists. This front is led by the Association of Militant Clergy and the Society of Qom Seminary Instructors and is relatively moderate on both domestic and international policies.

  • Ultra-conservatives known as the Islamic Constancy Front. This front’s ideological leader is Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, an anti-Western extremist. Its other leaders are politicians who once supported incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but have distanced themselves from him. Their hostility stems from the president’s religious-nationalistic discourse, his challenges to Khamenei and his dismissal of opposing factions in decision-making. 

  • Supporters of Ahmadinejad’s administration. This camp is labeled as “deviationists” by the first two groups, whose hostile position toward the "deviationist" camp stems from their ideas for propagating a religious-nationalistic discourse that is allegedly trying to undermine the clergy’s role.

  • Reformists. Former president Mohammad Khatami has said this group will not participate in the elections unless former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are freed from house arrest. But there is still likely to be a standard-bearer who did not play an active part in the 2009 Green Movement and who will try to attract middle and upper-middle-class urbanites and secular and religious liberals that shaped the backbone of the Green Movement.

Since Khatami’s upset victory in 1997 over the Supreme Leader’s anointed candidate, a former parliamentary speaker, Iran’s elections have become more and more controlled by the regime. Iranian Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary Basij are believed to have intervened heavily in 2005 to ensure Ahmadinejad’s victory against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was seeking a comeback. The plan was implicitly admitted by then-deputy commander of Sepah Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr. In a post-election interview, Zolghadr underscored “a complicated and multi-layer operation” that ultimately guaranteed Ahmadinejad’s victory.

The Basij — who number as many as 11 million and who are found in universities, other state and private institutions, factories and even among tribes — are expected to play a role again in the upcoming elections and could impact the outcome decisively.

The system will support a figure perceived as likely to cooperate with rather than compete with Iran’s leader. However, considering the massive protests that followed the disputed 2009 elections, the regime will not anoint a highly unpopular or controversial figure.

A large or at least respectable turnout is viewed as crucial given Iran’s growing economic and political isolation over its nuclear program. A recent analysis on the Ministry of Information’s website reads, “We must note that one of the most important, fundamental ways to insure the Islamic Republic of Iran against external threats, Zionist regimes’ threats and their hostile actions, is to considerably reduce internal differences and strengthen grassroots support [of the government].”

So far, only one person, former foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki, has announced his candidacy, but he is considered a long shot. Among those likely to run: 

  • Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. An ex-commander in the Revolutionary Guards and former chief of police, Ghalibaf is the current mayor of Tehran and has improved the city with ambitious projects. Known as a religious technocrat, he is popular in Tehran and other large cities and also has a good relationship with the Guards. Ghalibaf is supported by popular news outlets such as Fararu and the Tehran-e Emrooz newspaper as well as some factions of hardliners represented by Farda News and the website of Ammariyon, which reflects a faction of Basij viewpoints. Ghalibaf is also popular among religious liberals among Green Movement supporters. However, some traditional conservatives view the Tehran mayor as too modern and worry that due to his strong personality, he has the potential to become another Ahmadinejad and rebel against the Supreme Leader. This former revolutionary turns off a portion of hardliners with his stylish Ray-Bans and "Top Gun" swagger, as well as his past support for talks with the US.

  • Ali Akbar Velayati. A former foreign minister, Velayati remains a top advisor to the Supreme Leader. News and rumors that are denied by Iran have cited Velayati as conducting back-channel talks with US representatives as recently as October of this year. Velayati has the support of moderates including Rafsanjani and some ultra-conservatives, but lacks charisma. If Ghalibaf fails to gain Khamenei’s trust, then Velayati will have the best chance at the presidency. Most of the general public is comfortable with him, but he is not highly popular.

  • Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. A former speaker and a current member of parliament, he is highly trusted by Khamenei in part because his daughter is married to Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. Haddad Adel would also have the support of ultra-conservatives. However, he is not popular outside Tehran and not particularly popular in the capital. In the March parliamentary elections, he garnered the most votes in the city but was supported by barely 25% of eligible voters.

  • Ali Larijani: The current speaker of the parliament, Larijani is a veteran influential politician who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005. Some members of parliament who are close to Larijani have denied speculation about his candidacy. On Oct 28, Larijani personally denied this news

  • Saeed Jalili. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Jalili is a religious zealot who would have the full support of ultra-conservatives. The extremist website Serat News, which is close to Basij Commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi and reflects Mesbah Yazdi's views, heavily supports Jalili as does the newspaper Kayhan and its ultra-conservative managing editor, Hossein Shariarmadari. But Jalili also has an electability problem and will have no chance unless the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij unite behind him.

If reformists participate in the elections, their first choice would be former president Khatami followed by his younger brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, a physician and the first secretary-general of the now-banned Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest Iranian reformist party. Conservatives maintain that the only way leaders of the reform movement can return to political activities is to perform repentance and publicly express regret over having participated in the 2009 protests.

This hurdle is highly unlikely to be cleared. Therefore, in practical terms, approval by the Guardian Council seems out of the question, despite efforts by Mohammad Khatami to prove his loyalty to the regime. The former president voted in the March parliamentary elections, and on Nov. 4 was quoted as saying that a week after the 2009 election, he met “with Mousavi, and I told him that irregularities were possible but not to the extent to change your votes. [I told him] I am sure that you didn’t gain enough votes.” This statement, which Khatami has not denied, suggests that he is trying to clear his name with the regime.

Two other reformists who did not actively participate in the 2009 protests have a chance to pass the Guardian Council’s filter. Mohammad Reza Aref, a graduate of Stanford University, was a vice president under Khatami. Mohammad Ali Najafi, a mathematician, was minister of science and technology under Mousavi, minister of education in the cabinet of Rafsanjani and head of the Center for Planning and Budget under Khatami.

While Aref and Najafi may secure approval from the Guardian Council, they lack the personality and charisma to mobilize the middle and upper-middle classes. Thus it is questionable whether Khatami would risk his prestige and that of the reformist movement in backing them.

If Ahmadinejad had his way, he would be succeeded by his relation and long-time top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. However, Mashaei sits at the heart of the problem between Ahmadinejad and his conservative opponents. Mashaei is described by them as a key member of the so-called “deviant current.” Mashaei’s approval by the Guardian Council is unlikely.

Two more plausible candidates from this group are current official government spokesperson and former member of the Guardian Council Gholam Hossein Elham and the current Minister of Transportation and Housing Ali Nikzad. Nikzad stands a better chance because of a plan that provides housing for low-income Iranians. The problem for these candidates is that they are not well known and their association with Ahmadinejad would be detrimental in large cities — although in smaller cities and rural areas, that could be an advantage. The fact that the group will not be supported by the Leader — or the Revolutionary Guard and Basij — leaves them little chance for success.