Will Iran's next president be a hardliner like Raisi or a moderate like Rouhani?

It depends on whether Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to make the June 28 election freer and fairer than it was in 2021

Could Iran elect one of Mohammad Mokhber, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Ali Larijani, Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Javad Zarif to be its next president? AFP, Reuters, AP
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The death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash this month shocked the nation. But this shock has quickly given way to an intense struggle between various political factions vying for the second-most powerful job in the country, after that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With an election to pick Mr Raisi’s successor scheduled for June 28, one question on the minds of many Iran observers is whether a wide array of candidates will be allowed to run this time.

On paper, the departed president’s shoes shouldn’t be so hard to fill. The cleric is understood to have been chosen because he lacked political independence and would toe the line of Mr Khamenei and his fellow hardliners in the regime. Surely, another figurehead could easily take his place. But Iran has a way of surprising its observers.

Mr Raisi was effectively handed the presidency in 2021 after his most formidable rivals were disqualified by the Guardian Council, the body of clerics and jurists appointed by Mr Khamenei and one of whose mandates is to supervise elections. The 2021 vote marked the first time, since 1997, that the result was mostly pre-ordained.

Theoretically, the Guardian Council could repeat what it did three years ago and disqualify potential reformist and centrist candidates in the upcoming election, too. This could then pave the way for the only candidate in the race so far: former national security adviser Saeed Jalili, a notorious hardliner who wielded considerable influence in the Raisi administration.

But it isn’t so straightforward.

If Mr Raisi was considered a pushover, Mr Jalili is known for his rigidity. It is a quality that has made him enemies even within conservative circles, to the extent that there were concerns about the outsized role of some of his allies in the Raisi administration.

Mr Jalili’s rigidity was most on display during his tenure as national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator from 2007 to 2013.

Raisi’s success was built around the impression that he was an unimpressive yet experienced bureaucrat, who posed no political challenge to the Supreme Leader

During this period, Iran’s economy suffered after being sanctioned by the UN and the West over its nuclear programme. Yet Mr Jalili seemed in no rush to engage with western powers to have some of these sanctions lifted. And when he did, he largely lectured officials sitting across the table, instead of actually negotiating with them.

Mr Jalili’s poor track record cost him his presidential aspirations in the 2013 election, with his most vicious critics being fellow conservative candidates. Even today, there is little love lost between him and his political bedfellows.

In a recently leaked audio file, a leading hardline MP is heard claiming that Qassem Suleimani, the assassinated commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had said that if Mr Jalili were elected president, he would resign. Suleimani appeared to have been objecting to Mr Jalili’s desire for control.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that there is already an “Anybody but Jalili” campaign under way in 2024. According to the London-based outlet IranWire, several leading regime officials have been co-ordinating their efforts to torpedo Mr Jalili’s electoral chances.

But if such a campaign succeeds, then who else has a shot at the presidency?

A number of conservatives could throw their hats in the ring, notably Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who is said to be among those seeking to stop Mr Jalili from winning.

Mr Qalibaf, who has long harboured presidential ambitions despite three unsuccessful attempts, is expected to have the IRGC’s backing as a former commander of its air force. But he is considered a technocrat with no ideological moorings and who has openly spoken of Reza Pahlavi – the Shah who founded the dynasty deposed in the 1979 revolution – as a role model. Mr Khamenei is unlikely to want to hand over power to a military officer with a base of his own.

Mr Qalibaf’s chances of winning are undermined by allegations of corruption. A cross section of Iranian society will also remember his role in the suppression of protesters as the national police chief in the early 2000s.

Moreover, his re-election as Speaker, despite a poor showing in this year’s parliamentary election, could quite possibly mean that he prefers to keep his job without dealing with all the scrutiny that will inevitably accompany another presidential campaign.

Other potential candidates include another old IRGC hand, Parviz Fattah, who heads a large semi-public agency under Mr Khamenei’s supervision. But he faces the same problem as Mr Qalibaf: Mr Khamenei might view his military-industrial background with wariness.

It’s important to note here that Mr Raisi’s success was built around the impression that he was an unimpressive yet experienced bureaucrat, who posed no political challenge to the Supreme Leader. And so, while there are other possible hardline contenders whose names are being discussed, Mr Khamenei is unlikely to favour most of them.

This could, then, force the Guardian Council to open the doors to centrist or reformist candidates. Mr Khamenei might even do what he did in 2013: allow moderately conservative figures with technocratic credentials to run. One such candidate was Hassan Rouhani, who went on to complete two terms as president.

Were Mr Khamenei to go down that road, one of the names doing the rounds is that of Ali Larijani.

In addition to being from an influential clerical family, Mr Larijani has served as the head of the state broadcaster and as speaker of Parliament. He is no reformist, but he isn’t a hardliner either. His full-throated backing of Mr Rouhani’s presidency has won him plenty of latent support among centrists and reformists.

He is a cerebral figure, armed with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tehran. But he is also a former IRGC official, which might come in handy if he decides to run.

There are a number of centrists, like Mr Larijani, who could consider running, if they are allowed to. This is particularly so, if the reform-minded members of Iran’s polity coalesce behind any one of them instead of supporting a candidate from their own ideological space.

Rumours inevitably continue to swirl about on who these candidates could be, but we won’t have to wait long for the dust to settle. Aspirants will begin registering to run beginning today, with the Guardian Council set to announce a final list of candidates on June 11.

This shortlist will determine the dynamics of the race and provide clues to another key question on the minds of Iran observers: will large portions of the electorate boycott the vote as they did in 2020, 2021 and 2024 – or will there be a significantly bigger turnout this time? Watch this space.

Published: May 29, 2024, 2:00 PM