The five-day registration period at the Iranian Ministry of Interior ended on Saturday, May 15, 2021. The last day of registration was strangely overcrowded: of the 592, 288 signed up on Saturday.
In the conservatist (Principalist or in Farsi, اصولگرا) camp, almost all political parties have nominated one or more candidates. The Revolutionary Guard has put forth several apparent and not-so-apparent candidates for the upcoming presidential election. On the other side, the reformists are competing with faces that may stand a chance against the Guardian Council’s rejection so that they will stay alive in the Islamic Republic’s political landscape.
It may seem strange that in the most challenging and turbulent economic and political period of the Islamic Republic, there is so much competition for the presidency of Iran.
The desire for this role is so great that even the head of the judiciary has registered as a candidate. If not for a fear of exposing corruption during the campaign process, we might even see the name of the speaker of the Iranian parliament appear in the race.
The Revolutionary Guard: Which head wears the crown?
The most powerful actor in the scene (IRGC) over the last three decades is now preparing for the time when the supreme leader dies.
Over the last three decades, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could not have relied on any entity more than the obedient Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to maintain his dominance over politics, economy, and culture in Iran.
In the first decade of his rule, the IRGC helped to eliminate his rivals during the war over his legitimacy as supreme leader.
In the second decade, Khamenei used the IRGC for political realignment and to change the executive and economic power balance. During this time, the Revolutionary Guard also removed the ominous shadow of Hashemi Rafsanjani, which was weighing heavily on Khamenei, and successfully marginalized the reformists.
In the third decade, the IRGC served Khamenei as a significant, unofficial organization parallel to the executive branch. With this structure in place, Khamenei has had no need for subordinate presidents or the use of formal governance mechanisms.
The IRGC is now the 82-year-old supreme leader’s arm for nearly everything – with wide-ranging capabilities. In addition to its independent security apparatus, the IRGC also has a giant construction conglomerate whichis the largest contractor in industrial and development projects in Iran.
When it comes to international affairs, the IRGC’s Quds Force is the final decision-maker. In terms of oil and petrochemical contracts, the Khatam al-Anbiya base plays the role of the Ministry of Petroleum.
In the sphere of culture and propaganda, the IRGC owns Owj Arts and Media Organization, which produces films, TV series, and documentaries. The Revolutionary Guard’s Baghiatallah Cultural and Social Base controls news media as well as social media.
The IRGC also runs a wide range of media, including the newspapers Javan and Vatan-e-Amrooz and two news agencies, Fars and Tasnim.
Economic charitable foundations in Iran, known as “Bonyads”, controls more than 60% of the country’s economy. Most of these Bonyads have been entrusted to loyal IRGC commanders. These foundations play a broader role than the operating ministries such as the Ministry of Industries and Mines, as they even provide services similar to those of the Ministry of Health. Bonyads also control a wide variety of economic activities, from importing essential goods and medicines to manufacturing and producing meat and poultry.
With this organizational arrangement in place, the Revolutionary Guard has been preparing for the post-Khamenei era for years. This force is currently the most influential actor in determining future leadership options. The IRGC has so much power and authority that when it realized that Sadegh Amoli Larijani was not worthy of the throne of the Supreme Leader, it blocked and marginalized him – all while he was still the head of the judiciary.
For the 2021 presidential election, the Revolutionary Guard came to the forefront. The force has put forward direct candidates under its name, and at the same time, has formed a front capable of sending a candidate to the office who, although not an IRGC commander, will obey the orders of the IRGC commanders.
Rostam Ghasemi (former commander of the IRGC), Saeed Mohammad (former head of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya), and Hossein Dehghan (former defense minister) are all IRGC commanders who have signed up as apparent candidates of the Revolutionary Guard. There are other candidates, such as Mohsen Rezaee (former IRGC commander and Expediency Council secretary) and Ezzatollah Zarghami (former deputy minister in the defense ministry), who are claiming independence, but IRGC has control over them.
As always, the conservative Principalist front will serve as a political tool for the IRGC. This front has nominated different candidates and considers itself the winner of the elections from now on.
The outcome of the 2021 Iranian presidential election is vital for the IRGC. Khamenei may die within the next 4- or 8-year term periods, and so the IRGC will want to be comfortable with the president. Indeed, the presidency does not really have real power in the Islamic Republic, but this figurehead, still relying on its symbolic role, can cause sudden turns in the nick of time.
Ebrahim Raisi: A big gamble for the supreme leader
Ebrahim Raisi, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2017 presidential election and the current head of the judiciary, was among those who registered on the last day. He is one of the main options for Khamenei’s successor, although his loss to the incumbent Rouhani in 2017 damaged his legitimacy.
In the last four years, the IRGC’s cyberspace propaganda facilities and affiliated news agencies have supported Raisi to give him the appearance of a holy figure.
These sources described him as “Ebrahim, the Idol Breaker” who came onto the scene to fight against corruption, aristocracy, and inefficiency. This attempt at crafting his image was largely unsuccessful, however, because he was the first deputy head of the judiciary during the era when corruption was most rampant there. Remember that his close political ally, Baqer Qalibaf, faces widespread accusations of corruption.
Perhaps with better and wiser political advisers, Ebrahim Raisi would not run for the office of the presidency again; attempting to win this position after previous defeat is a high-risk choice. If Raisi loses this election again, he will have difficulty sitting in the throne of the Supreme Leader. If he does become the next leader, he will have the minimum charisma and legitimacy and will, therefore, make the position of the leader of the Islamic Republic fragile.
Reformists: from Tajzadeh to Larijani
The Reform Front has both a symbolic candidate and a cover candidate in the upcoming elections. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician, registered on the first day possible to, as he puts it, keep the ballot box and reformist mechanisms alive. It seems certain that the Guardian Council will disqualify him. Even among the reformists themselves, no one considers him to be serious candidate.
Mohammad Shariatmadari, the economic-security figure in Rouhani’s cabinet, is the candidate of the “moderates.”
Eshaq Jahangiri is a candidate for the Executives of Construction of Iran Party (Kargozaran). He plays a balancing role in disputes between Kargozaran and other reformist groups.
Jahangiri could be the primary candidate of the reformists for this election, though the possibility of prominent reformist supporters boycotting the election has reduced his chances of victory.
The reformists also have a hired candidate, Ali Larijani. During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency in the 1990s, Larijani was the director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
He used to play the role of the artillery commander of propaganda against the reformists. But now and in this election, he could becomethe reformists’ Plan B.
Larijani and the reformists have merged from two different paths. When he was the speaker of the parliament and was trying to play a balancing role, he lost his charm with the Principalists close to the IRGC.
On the other hand, the fact that he is brothers with Sadegh, who was formerly one of the choices to become Supreme Leader, marginalized him and pushed him from the center of conservatism to the sideline.
Larijani has followed the same path as Hassan Rouhani in the months leading up to the 2013 elections, becoming a reformist candidate for hire. Although he is now relatively safe as an adviser to Khamenei , the political fate of him and his brothers will be unclear once Khamenei dies. Running for the presidency is a struggle for survival for the Larijani brothers.
Reformists are in the same position and fighting with more powerful forces. Although Larijani has not yet been announced as a reformist candidate, his similarities with them could lead to an alliance in the final days of the race.
Ahmadinejad, another run for office
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president (2005-2013) who was disqualified from running for presidency by the Guardian Council in 2017, is pushing his luck again.
Ahmadinejad’s chances of getting through the Guardian Council’s barrier are slight, but for him, even this flicker of hope is better than inaction. The days of him as the favorite president for Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard have gone. The second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency was accompanied by events that took him from being an ear for the Supreme Leader to the leader of the “deviant current”(Jaryan-Enherafy).
The former president’s membership in the Expediency Council (Majma”Taškhīs Maṣlaḥat Nezām) is his last connection to power. It is possible that if Khamenei and his son, Mojtaba, had not played a key role in bringing Ahmadinejad to the presidency, he would have long been among those removed from power. Membership in the Expediency Council, along with his disqualification from the 2017 elections, was a clear message from Khamenei that he would simply be tolerated and would no longer have a chance to have the executive power.
Over the years, Ahmadinejad has tried to break out from the circle of the “tolerated” and upgraded himself again to the exclusive circle of the “accepted.”
Ahmadinejad has presented himself to Khamenei as a figure who can defeat the reformists in moderate and quasi-competitive voter participation by bringing people to the polls. While he hopes that Khamenei will welcome this, this hopeis more like a mirage. Khamenei’s recent speeches and insistence on Hezbollah’s young government and the criteria for such a government show no similarity to what Ahmadinejad could do in Iran. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has shown no sign of fear of low turnout in the elections, and this situation does not seem as though it will change in the coming days.
Ahmadinejad and his entourage also perceive this election as a death sentence. It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad’s term in the Expediency Council will be extended for a second term. If Khamenei dies, there is no guarantee that he will be tolerated, and he might even face imprisonment. The 2021 election, therefore, is Ahmadinejad’s last chance to stay in the circle of power.
Competition without fans
The 2021 election is essential for all political players within the Islamic Republic since it will determine their fate – but political actors are not the only components that shape Iran’s future.
The current power struggle in the Islamic Republic bears a strong resemblance to sports competitions during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Rivals are on the ground, but no spectators are sitting in the stands.
The people are absent from the current power struggle, as the 2021 elections are irrelevant to a wide range of Iranians. Polls estimate the voter participation rate at around 30 percent.
The Islamic Republic and its internal mechanisms have lost their credibility for a large population of Iranians. Economic crises, sanctions, failed politicians, and fear tactics have brought people to the point at which they have lost hope of any change in the current power structure.
The gap between the people and the political system typically undergoes significant changes. Now, if this gap occurs when the established political system is also facing a crisis of succession, it will be the scene of great and astonishing events.