The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
Since the Iranian presidential election of 1997, when the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami won a surprise victory, elections in the Islamic Republic have remained relatively competitive. That seems set to change, however. In the upcoming presidential election, slated for June 18, Iran’s current chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, is all but certain to cruise to victory and become Iran’s eighth president. His win will largely result from preelection engineering on the part of the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of jurists and clerics that is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and that vets candidates for office. Of the 592 candidates who threw their hats, turbans, and headscarfs into this month’s race, the Guardian Council approved only seven men, of whom Raisi is the most prominent.
The Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify many established political heavyweights shocked Tehran’s political elite. The council rejected the candidacy of Ali Larijani, who served the longest term of any Speaker of the parliament, currently advises the supreme leader, and led the negotiations that produced Iran’s recent strategic partnership deal with China. Also barred from running were Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who has been a heartbeat away from the presidency for the past eight years, and the two-term past president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Criticism of the council’s decision laid bare the Iranian political elite’s hypocrisy. Larijani’s brother, Sadeq, a member of the Guardian Council, lambasted the “indefensible” disqualifications and derided the “security apparatus” for meddling in the vetting process. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, condemned the council’s undermining of the system’s republican institutions as “counterrevolutionary” and advised the approved candidates to drop out of the race. Ahmadinejad joined millions of Iranians who say they are planning to boycott the elections.
Khamenei initially defended the Guardian Council’s choices. Although he later claimed that some injustices were committed during the vetting process, he stopped short of demanding a reversal. That is likely because the supreme leader may be considering structural changes: namely, converting the country’s presidential system into a parliamentary one or replacing the role of supreme leader with a multiperson council. A parliamentary system would limit the conflicts between the offices of the supreme leader and the president under Iran’s existing system, and abolishing the position of supreme leader would help his son maintain backroom influence after Khamenei’s death. Having a pliant president such as Raisi by his side would mean that Khamenei would face little internal resistance to what would amount to an unprecedented transformation of the Iranian political system.
When the council published its final list of approved candidates on May 25, Iranians flooded social media with clips from The Dictator, a movie in which Sacha Baron Cohen plays a Middle Eastern tyrant. In one scene, the dictator participates in a race, which he begins by firing his pistol into the air—and then shooting the other runners. To Iranian observers, it served as an allusion to Raisi, who is notorious for his involvement as a prosecutor in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s.
None of Raisi’s vetted rivals pose a serious threat. One, the hard-line former national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, supported Raisi in the 2017 presidential election. Polls suggest that the gap between him and Raisi is insurmountable. The same applies to another perennial contender, Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In his previous three failed bids, Rezaei never gained more than four million votes (compared with Raisi’s nearly 16 million in 2017, which was in turn dwarfed by the 23.5 million votes for the winning candidate, Hassan Rouhani). Two other hard-line opponents, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh and Alireza Zakani, are current members of parliament with little national recognition. But they present no challenge since Zakani withdrew on June 16, and Ghazizadeh is likely to do the same before voting day. The fig leaf reformist candidate, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, former governor of the province of Isfahan, was not backed even by reformist coalitions and also dropped out on June 16, further narrowing the field.
The only person who could potentially mobilize some popular support is Abdolnaser Hemmati, the technocratic former head of Iran’s central bank. Many centrists and reformists are starting to consider him the least bad option owing to his relatively progressive platform and to his wife’s active participation in his campaign, which signals a relatively progressive approach to gender issues by the standards of Iran’s highly patriarchal polity. Nevertheless, he is unlikely to dislodge Raisi as the front-runner.
The government of the Islamic Republic has often pointed to high rates of voter turnout to buttress its claims to legitimacy, even if the electorate always has to choose from a limited spectrum of preselected candidates. In reality, however, turnout rates have varied widely. And in recent years, the Guardian Council’s increasingly aggressive disqualification practices and the hard-liners’ dogged obstruction of meaningful reforms have culminated in widespread political apathy. Recent surveys anticipate a historically low turnout of around 40 percent. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further reduce participation.
This causes very little alarm for Iran’s hard-line faction, which is not primarily concerned with shoring up the government’s popular legitimacy through competitive elections. Instead, Khamenei has decided to further shrink the circle of insiders and anoint a subservient ally to the presidency to complete the hard-liners’ control over all levers of power at a critical moment. Most observers believe rigging the election in favor of Raisi is a ploy to groom him to become the supreme leader himself, in the same way that Khamenei succeeded Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, after serving as president. According to this view, if Raisi became supreme leader, his lack of revolutionary and religious credentials would force him to rely on Khamenei’s office—a shadow government of sorts in which Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is a key player.
Others argue the opposite: that the supreme leader sees Raisi as a threat and that by elevating him to the presidency, Khamenei is setting him up to fail. After all, the thinking goes, as head of the judiciary, Raisi faces a narrow set of challenges and is accountable only to Khamenei, but as president, he would confront numerous socioeconomic crises amid a standoff with the West over Iran’s nuclear and regional policies. With Raisi’s credibility eroded by the burdens of the presidency, Khamenei could elevate his preferred heir apparent.
Neither hypothesis is particularly convincing. Once in office as supreme leader, Raisi would not necessarily remain dependent on Khamenei’s office or family and could sideline them in much the same way Khamenei himself sidelined the Khomeini and Rafsanjani families that had helped boost him to the pinnacle of political power. It is hard to believe that Khamenei, his family, and his supporters would overlook Machiavelli’s warning: “He who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined.”
Khamenei has decided to anoint a subservient ally to complete the hard-liners’ control over all levers of power.
The second hypothesis is even less likely. There is, after all, a decent chance that the nuclear deal Iran struck with the United States and other major powers might be restored by the time Raisi comes into office. In that case, he would begin his presidency by reaping the deal’s economic dividends and taking credit for the country’s recovery from COVID-19 as well, given the prospects of greater vaccine availability by then. If Khamenei is trying to set up a rival to fail, he’s picked an odd time to do it.
A more likely explanation for why Khamenei and the Guardian Council put their fingers on the scale so decisively to assist Raisi is that they have reason to believe he would not oppose major structural changes that would put the system on a more stable footing while ensuring the survival of Khamenei’s family and his vision for the revolution. Specifically, the supreme leader may aim to convert Iran’s presidential system to a parliamentary one or to replace the supreme leader’s role with a council that would take over once he passes on. He hinted at the former a decade ago, when he publicly announced that “if one day, possibly in the distant future, it is felt that a parliamentary system is more suited for electing those responsible for the executive branch, then there would be no problems in making changes to the system.” A parliamentary system would reduce the friction between the offices of the supreme leader and the president that currently exists in Iran’s bifurcated political structure and would make it easier for an amenable parliament to remove and replace the chief executive. And thus one of the system’s key representative institutions—its executive—could no longer challenge its theocratic unelected ones, strengthening the control of the supreme leader.
Abolishing a single-man supreme leadership, meanwhile, would diminish the risk that after Khamenei leaves office, his successor would marginalize his family. The absence of a sole dominant ruler would also allow Khamenei’s son Mojtaba to retain a great deal of behind-the-scenes influence even after his father had passed away. Having sidelined Khomeini’s family and imprisoned Rafsanjani’s children himself, Khamenei is right to fear a similar fate for his son, who could ensure that Khamenei’s legacy is protected and his strategic agenda outlives him.
Such significant changes might not be Ayatollah Khamenei’s ultimate objective. He might just want his new (and probably last) president to be less troublesome than the previous four, who often caused him headaches. But if he is seeking transformational change, a compliant president would certainly help.