As Iran's presidential campaigns kick off, some headlines in Tehran and abroad have increasingly zeroed in on a recurring theme: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has a preferred candidate. However, while Khamenei's conservative political proclivities are well-known, they do not always mean him tipping the electoral scales in favor of hard-line contenders. In fact, a different trend is emerging during this election cycle, much like it did in 2013: Underdogs trying to use the idea of being Khamenei's preferred candidate to their benefit while vying for victory at the ballot box.
In the run-up to Iran’s 2013 election, there was much talk in Western media regarding the supreme leader's supposed preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili. Some pundits called him "the anointed one." Numerous US government officials asked me about Jalili's "frontrunner status" as a result of "Khamenei’s support." This year, a similar dynamic is emerging around the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi. This begs the question: How do relatively unknown bureaucrats with no national profile and no executive experience inside Iran manage to cultivate this reputation outside the country during the short campaign season?