by Thomas Juneau
War on the Rocks
May 17, 2017
Iranians are going to the polls to elect a president this Friday. To some extent, it does not matter who wins: The Iranian president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who has final say on all important matters of state. As such, we should not expect significant changes in Iran’s foreign and domestic policies whoever wins. Iranian presidential elections are in many ways typical of the complex hybrid structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are by no means fully free and fair, but there is an element of competition and they do follow certain patterns. The incumbent, Hassan Rohani, a moderate or pragmatic conservative, has long been viewed as the favorite to win re-election. But he is under serious challenge from what has emerged as a united conservative front behind his main rival, Ibrahim Raeesi, who has the support of the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Here are four important things to know about the election.
1. It doesn’t really matter who wins
The most powerful man in Iran is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. The president is an important player in the complex system of checks and balances of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But the president does not have final say on key policy and personnel decisions.
The Supreme Leader, on the other hand, controls the armed forces as well as the security and intelligence services and holds a veto on major decisions. He heads a parallel administration overseeing the conventional government departments that the president mostly runs on a day-to-day basis.
As such, the identity of the president has a perceptible but limited impact on policy. A new president can modify the rhetoric accompanying foreign policy and he can change some of its details. A more moderate president, such as Rohani – like Mohammed Khatami, his reformist predecessor who held office between 1997 and 2005 – presents a more polite and conciliatory face to the world and can smooth the rougher edges of Iran’s confrontational policies regionally and its conservative policies domestically.
But not much more than that: All factions inside the regime broadly agree on Iran’s key foreign policy priorities, such as the need to support the Assad regime in Syria and to continue the country’s rejectionist stance opposing Israel and U.S. regional policies. There are disagreements between moderates and hard-liners on these issues, but they mostly concern tactics, not strategy. Significantly, all the candidates, including Raeesi, have vowed to respect the nuclear deal. Even though many conservatives initially criticized the agreement, by now there is a loose consensus inside the regime that if the deal is to collapse eventually, it is better for Iran if the United States is seen as being responsible for that outcome.
Whoever wins, we should not expect the country’s foreign and domestic policies to change significantly.
2. Presidential elections in Iran follow certain rules
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s overarching priority is the stability of the Iranian political system. That is partly why he insists on having a relatively competitive electoral process and why he works hard to ensure high voter turnouts: It is only with buy-in from all regime factions and a strong majority of the public that, in his view, regime legitimacy can be strengthened. He learned this the hard way. The massive street protests and the paralyzing factional infighting that followed the obviously rigged election of 2009, which led to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term as president, threatened the very survival of the Islamic Republic more than any other event since the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Electoral campaigns in the Islamic Republic are not free and fair: Only candidates deemed acceptable by the Guardian Council, a body controlled by the Leader, are allowed to run. But once the list of candidates is released – there were initially six this year, with five still remaining in the race – and the campaign starts, the process can be competitive (with the significant exception of the 2009 election). Televised debates produce real confrontations on substance and personality. The candidates aggressively use traditional and social media to make their case to a well-educated and relatively politicized public.
In this context, a candidate cannot win if he (only men can be approved) is not a solid campaigner with the ability to mobilize voters. In past elections, candidates who had been seen as potential favorites, especially because of their closeness to the Leader, but who proved uncharismatic, fell flat.
As noted, presidents are subordinate to the Leader, but two patterns have emerged since Khamenei became Leader in 1989. The first three presidents under Khamenei(Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) won re-election to a second term, and they ended up clashing with the Leader on grounds of both ideology and personal ambition. Even though relations between Khamenei and Rohani have been civil, Khamenei has worked hard to check Rohani’s modernizing ambitions. These tensions will increase should Rohani win a second mandate.
These elections are also highly unpredictable. In 1997, the landslide victory of the reformist Khatami was a complete surprise (though his re-election in 2001 was not). In 2005, very few analysts had foreseen the victory of Ahmadinejad, then the little known populist mayor of Tehran. Events in 2009 also surprised observers, from the groundswell of support for the reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Mussavi, to the engineering of Ahmadinejad’s victory by regime hard-liners, to the emergence of the opposition Green Movement. Finally, in 2013, few had foreseen the emergence of Rohani, until then a regime insider who had long played key roles behind the scenes.
3. Rohani is likely to win re-election
Rohani faces one main challenger, Ibrahim Raeesi. The remaining three candidates are non-entities, and some are likely to drop out soon.
Raeesi, a cleric, is an intriguing candidate. Virtually unknown until last year, he shot to prominence when Khamenei named him as head of the country’s wealthiest religious foundation, a prestigious position in the Islamic Republic. This has led to persistent rumours that he could be a frontrunner to succeed Khamenei, who is in his late 70s and has suffered bouts of ill health. His march to the presidency faces many obstacles, however, given that he is little known to most Iranians and has shown to be a poor campaigner.
That said, the withdrawal on Monday of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the conservative mayor of Tehran running for the presidency for the third time, has consolidated Raeesi’s status as Rohani’s main challenger. Before Qalibaf’s withdrawal, Rohani could plausibly hope that a split in the conservative vote in the first round could allow him to slip through, as he did in 2013.
Yet even though Rohani now faces a unified conservative opposition, he still remains the favorite to win on Friday. He can count on the vote of reformist and moderate sympathizers, who arguably represent a majority. He is also seen by many as a competent manager. He has even gained the backing of some conservatives, such as the powerful Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani. Indeed, some of those who would have voted for Qalibaf may shift their vote to Rohani, not to Raeesi.
But it is a tight race. Rohani has to fight against a candidate who has more support inside the regime, as some of the most powerful hard-line elements of the state apparatus are openly campaigning in favor of Raeesi. Rohani faces an uphill struggle in mobilizing reformist-leaning voters, many of whom feel let down by his lack of progress on social and political reform. He is also exposed to criticism that the economic benefits that he promised would flow from the nuclear deal have not materialized.
4. What’s up with Raeesi?
Finally, it is worth raising the puzzling nature of Ibrahim Raeesi’s candidacy. If he is indeed a frontrunner for the Supreme Leadership, why set him up for a possible defeat against Rohani? Wouldn’t that damage his status?
It could be a test: If Raeesi wins against the odds, he will demonstrate to power-brokers that he is a force to reckon with. An unexpected, come-from-behind win could provide him with momentum for the succession process.
Alternatively, he may lose, which would undermine, though probably not fatally, his chances of reaching the Supreme Leadership. Or, he could win outright, as some recent polls have shown that he may be beginning a surge. There are also growing indications that Khamenei and his allies, especially in the Revolutionary Guards, actively favor his candidacy. Whatever the case, one of the longer-lasting implications of this campaign will have been to significantly increase the importance of the race to succeed Khamenei as a key variable in Iranian politics, and to introduce to Iranians and the world one of the prominent players in that race.
Thomas Juneau is assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. From 2003 to 2014, he was an analyst with Canada’s Department of National Defence. He is the author of Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical realism and Iranian foreign policy (Stanford University Press, 2015).