AnalysisKhamenei served as president before succeeding Khomeini

Likely Raisi win in Iran election sees Khamenei setting stage for a successor

Path has been cleared for triumph in Friday’s vote of judiciary chief who oversaw executions of thousands, as Supreme Leader consolidates power and prepares his legacy

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a picture of him with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an election campaign rally in the capital Tehran, on June 14, 2021. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a picture of him with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an election campaign rally in the capital Tehran, on June 14, 2021. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iran’s judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is expected to prevail in Friday’s presidential election, as hard-line regime elements consolidate power while 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei looks toward Iran’s future after he is gone.

Raisi, a 60-year-old cleric who oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners after the Iran-Iraq War, is polling at more than 60% of expected voters.

In late May, Iran’s Guardian Council barred the leading moderate candidates from running for the presidency, removing the key obstacles for Raisi to replace President Hassan Rouhani in August as Iran’s eighth president.

“It’s what you would call in America, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs approach,” said Clay Ramsay, Senior Research Associate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies.

The presidential field thinned out even further on Wednesday, as three of the seven men who had been approved to enter the lackluster race pulled out.

The Guardian Council’s move, which shocked both Iranians and international observers, was unprecedented in its brazenness. “Iranian elections were always unfree, unfair, but unpredictable because they were competitive,” said Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the Crisis Group.

Iran’s presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, points during a campaign rally in Eslamshahr, southwest of Tehran, Iran, June 6, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

By knocking Raisi’s main rivals out of contention, the unelected elements of the Iranian state are doing away with competitive elections, despite the implications this will have in the eyes of the Iranian public.

It is unclear whether Khamenei himself ordered the move. The Guardian Council is made up of senior members of Iran’s conservative revolutionary faction who advocate an adversarial stance on the world stage, while Khamenei seems to recognize the importance of viable economic and diplomatic ties with the world, which Rouhani’s camp has pushed, particularly in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

Khamenei seemed displeased with the Guardian Council’s decision, releasing a statement after the disqualifications that “some candidates were wronged… I call on the responsible bodies to restore their honor.”

Khamenei’s adviser said that the “Guardian Council must explain clearly, quickly and transparently why such a big mistake has been made, and every person and entity that has given false information must be made public.”

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, President Hassan Rouhani, second right, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, right, judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani, second left, and head of the Assembly of Experts and secretary of Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati listen to the national anthem at the start of the official endorsement ceremony of President Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, August 3, 2017. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Later that day, the Guardian Council responded that it had operated properly, and that no changes would be made to the candidate list.

Still, Khamenei could have overturned their decision, and chose not to.

“My perception is that the Supreme Leader saw the Guardian Council’s result,” said Ramsay, “and he heard the feedback, and he really wanted to backpedal and the council wouldn’t do it.”

The regime has also placed great stock in high election turnout, pointing to voting rates as evidence of Iran representing a popular revolution. But in this cycle, Iran’s conservative unelected power centers seem to prefer a boring, safe election that leaves most voters disillusioned and at home.

The 2020 parliamentary elections featured the lowest voter turnout since the 1979 revolution, resulting in a resounding victory for hardliners.  It seems that the state is replicating that model for the presidential vote.

Polls indicate there will be historically low turnout Friday, as widespread hopelessness in the possibility of reform, the disqualification of viable moderates, and the COVID-19 pandemic keep Iranians away from polling stations.

Voters with face masks fill out their ballots in the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, February 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“The regime used to be intensely interested in turnout as a pillar of legitimacy, now it is much more interested in the outcome,” said Vaez.

“The system is doing this, which is basically costing them one of the pillars of their legitimacy – the institution of the election – in order to empower a loyal, trusted, subservient ally,” Vaez explained.  “I don’t think the system would pay such a huge price just to get Raisi as president. It probably has a bigger agenda in mind.”

The succession

The agenda revolves around the pressing question of who succeeds Khamenei as Iran’s third Supreme Leader.

“The most important factor driving Khamenei in this cycle is legacy,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Khamenei currently enjoys a pliant parliament, and by gaining a client president, he will be able to set the stage for a successor of his choosing.

In addition, he can make deep systemic changes to the governing structure of the Islamic Republic in his final years in office. That could include moving from a presidential system to a parliamentary one, said Vaez. The new government structure would do away with the presidency, a powerful, elected counterweight to the office of the Supreme Leader.

Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of the first anniversary of death of former Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, on January 1, 2021. (STR / AFP)

Khamenei has hinted at such a move in the past. “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 in the system,” he said in 2011.

Raisi may well be that successor.

Khamenei himself served as president before succeeding the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, as Supreme Leader.

But nothing is certain. Some have argued that by assuming office amid crippling economic challenges and popular discontent, Raisi is being set up for failure as president so that he will become too unpopular to replace Khamenei. Other experts anticipate that his four-year term as president will be his “internship,” giving Khamenei ample time to assess his skills and loyalty.

Even with Raisi’s lead in polls and lack of serious opposition, there still is a chance that Iran will deliver another surprise result, and elect the moderate technocrat Abdolnaser Hemmati. Since Mohammad Khatami shocked observers by winning the presidency in 1997, Iran’s presidential elections have been unpredictable.

Former Iranian Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, one of the seven candidates in Iran’s presidential election, gives a press conference, in Tehran, Iran, June 15, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

A Hemmati win, however unlikely, would hold benefits for Khamenei, as it would allow him to present a moderate face to the world as he pushes for sanctions relief.

If Raisi fails to cross the 50% threshold on Friday, he would face a run-off against his top challenger the next week, which would add new uncertainty into the race.

But the consensus expectation is that Raisi will win an outright majority in the first round.

What happens next?

Experts do not anticipate mass protests in the immediate aftermath of the vote. Civil unrest occurs when there is high voter turnout and the expectation of change – as was the case in the protests after the controversial 2009 elections –  and voter apathy indicates that they are losing hope in their ability to enact meaningful reforms through the ballot box.

“But hopelessness can give way to anger,” cautioned Ramsay.

And that anger could result in protests against the regime itself.  “It’s imperative to keep your eyes on the street, and less on the state during this cycle,” said Ben Taleblu. “Less participation would mean that the demand is of revolution, and not reform, from the population.”

After the vote, attention will turn immediately back to Vienna, where Iran and the US are engaged in plodding indirect negotiations over both countries returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.

In this Monday, June 15, 2009 file photo, hundreds of thousands of supporters of leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims there was voting fraud in the election, turn out to protest the result of the election at a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran. Iran is marking the anniversary of the end of the 2009 protests it calls “the sedition”(AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

If Raisi wins in the first round, the pace of progress should pick up, at least on the Iranian end.

“There will be a sigh of relief among the ruling class,” said Ramsay, “now they know where they are. It would grease the wheels a bit.”

Rouhani would stay in office until August, and Khamenei could well push for his negotiators to wrap up a deal before Rouhani steps down, said Vaez. That way, the president would get the blame for Iranian concessions to the West, while Raisi reaps the economic benefits as sanctions are gradually lifted.

However, a run-off vote would  “unnerve a lot of people in the Iranian political class,” Ramsay added, “and I think they would be anxious about coming to closure too soon in Vienna.”

“I think you’ll see a lot of variation of speed depending on how the next few weeks go with the elections.”

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