Iran's election is a choice between 'extreme' and 'more extreme'

The ballot on June 18 sees hardliners are seeking to engineer a landslide win

Two workers hang a banner of the presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, currently judiciary chief, near his campaign rally in town of Eslamshahr southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 6, 2021. Iran will hold presidential elections on June 18 with 7 candidates approved by the Guardian Council. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
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No vote has yet been cast, but already the outcome of Iran’s upcoming presidential election is considered by many to be a foregone conclusion, with victory unquestioningly being claimed by hardliners.

Ever since the disputed outcome of the 2009 presidential contest, which saw tens of thousands of Iranian protesters take to the streets in what became known as the “Green Movement”, the hardline faction within the Iranian regime has acted to consolidate its grip on power.

The protests were the biggest of their kind in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and their leaders have since been silenced, while their supporters have been subjected to brutal repression.

Iranian security forces, backed by the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, arrested thousands of protesters, dozens of whom lost their lives. The movement’s leaders – former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi and political activist Zahra Rahnavard – have remained under house arrest since 2011.

The brutality of the regime’s crackdown on anti-government protesters has meant that more recent protests, such as those that took place in cities and towns throughout the country in 2018 and 2019, have tended to focus more on the economy and not politics, even though the regime has nevertheless adopted the same repressive measures. Hundreds of protesters were reported to have died and thousands more detained as the regime sought to reassert its authority.

The disqualification of reform-minded candidates appears to have turned the presidential election into a one-horse race

The determination of hardliners to expand their influence within the regime has been very much in evidence as the country prepares for its next round of presidential elections on June 18.

When Iran’s Guardian Council finally approved its choice of seven candidates for the contest last month, it came as little surprise to observers that all the candidates boasted hardline credentials.

For, far from being a genuinely democratic process, anyone wishing to take part in both Iran’s presidential and parliamentary elections must first be subjected to intense security by numerous committees, including the Guardian Council, an unelected body that consists of 12 theologians and jurists. The Council members are all approved by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office, and endeavour to ensure that only those that are deemed suitable by Mr Khamenei are allowed to stand for office.

In this Wednesday, June 9, 2021 photo, a supporter of the presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, currently judiciary chief, hold his posters during a campaign rally at the Takhti Stadium in Ahvaz, Iran. Around 5,000 of people have gathered in a football stadium in southeastern city of Ahvaz to support the Iranian hard-line presidential candidate, Iranian media reported. (Alireza Mohammadi/ISNA via AP)
A supporter of Ebrahim Raisiduring a campaign rally at a Stadium in Ahvaz, Iran, June 9. AP

This means that even Iranian politicians who have already held high office within the regime can be deemed unfit to run for the presidency.

In this year’s contest, for example, the forensic examination of potential candidates by regime loyalists has resulted in the disqualification of Eshaq Jahangri, who served as the first vice president of Iran's current leader, Hassan Rouhani, as well as Ali Larijani, a conservative former speaker of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the candidate who has emerged as the most likely successor to Mr Rouhani is Ebrahim Raisi, the austere chief of Iran’s judiciary, who is a close ally of Mr Khamenei. Other hardliners approved to run in the contest include nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Mr Rouhani beat Mr Raisi by a landslide in the last election in 2017, but he is not allowed to stand again after serving two consecutive terms. Mr Raisi only won 38 per cent of the vote in the first round, compared to 57 per cent for Mr Rouhani. During that campaign, Mr Rouhani warned of the conservative Islamic restrictions that Mr Raisi would impose on Iranians if he won.

The latest crackdown on potential presidential candidates has led to major concerns that hardliners are seeking to engineer a landslide in their favour.

Mr Jahangri responded to his exclusion from the race by warning that the credibility of Iran’s electoral system was at stake. "The disqualification of many qualified people [is] a serious threat to public participation and fair competition among political tendencies, especially reformists," Iranian media quoted him as saying.

The disqualification of so many more reform-minded candidates certainly appears to have turned the presidential election into a one-horse race, with the controversial Mr Raisi emerging as the clear favourite.

Mr Raisi first came to prominence in the 1980s when he participated in Iran’s notorious Death Commission, which was responsible for ordering the mass execution of thousands of the regime’s political opponents in 1988. Many others were sent to clear landmines during the Iran-Iraq war.

Despite losing to Mr Rouhani in the last poll, the 60-year-old Mr Raisi has remained a firm favourite of Mr Khamenei, and was appointed head of Iran’s judicial system in 2019. There has even been speculation that the regime loyalist is being lined up to replace Mr Khamenei as the country’s Supreme Leader.

Mr Raisi’s appointment to head Iran’s judiciary resulted in him being added to the US sanctions list for promoting oppression at home and abroad. The US cited the execution of children, the oppression of human rights lawyers and the campaign against protesters that followed the 2009 election.

Now, with the latest Iranian opinion polls predicting that Mr Raisi, who has the official backing of the IRGC, will win 72 per cent of the vote, Iran looks set to take a significant move towards adopting a more extreme approach, and one that does not bode well for US President Joe Biden’s attempts to revive a controversial nuclear deal with Tehran.

As nuclear experts warn that the “breakout time” Iran requires to move from nuclear development to producing a nuclear warhead has been reduced to a matter of months, if not weeks, the need for progress on nullifying the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions has never been greater.

Unlike Mr Rouhani, who was elected eight years ago with a mandate to improve relations with the West, Mr Raisi has made it clear that he opposes negotiations, an approach which suggests that, under his presidency, Iran will not be prepared to countenance any concessions on its nuclear activities.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National