Today, the Islamic Republic system in Iran faces critical and backbreaking challenges that it has never before experienced. The government wrestles with unprecedented economic dilemmas, and the coronavirus outbreak claims more lives each day in addition to its financial, social, and political consequences.
These crises along with numerous catastrophes in almost all fields have severely intensified the gap between the state and society while officials and state-run media frequently warn about the upcoming protests. In such circumstances, the ayatollahs intend to hold another Presidential election on June 18.
“The people’s frustration has deeper roots in this status quo. However, political movements analyze and make decisions regardless of these roots, and this distance is getting deeper between politicians and people. This distance would be deeper with political gestures,” wrote the state-run Ebtekar daily on April 6.
In other words, the people have grasped that current politicians cannot change their living conditions and resolve their complicated difficulties. Instead, they are adding insult to society’s injuries and thereby pushing citizens to think about solutions beyond the Islamic Republic system.
The ayatollahs’ 42-year reign has shown that they could not and cannot afford to bring prosperity and welfare to Iran’s 83-million population. In this regard, there is an ongoing struggle between citizens, particularly the young generation, and rulers for fundamental rights like freedom of speech, equality, justice, and a fair and democratic election.
In Iran, the Supreme Leader has the final word. In 2009, former President Mohammad Khatami described the President in Iran as a waiter reminding the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s efforts to expand the president’s power when Khamenei himself was the president.
Nonetheless, to prevent potential protests, Khamenei intend to remove ‘reformists,’ ‘moderates,’ or anything else they call themselves from power. During their protests in January 2018, November 2019, and January 2020, citizens openly chanted the slogan, “Reformists, Principalists, the game is over” showing their disappointment over the current political divisions.
“The election must symbolize the national unity, not duality, division, and bipolarity,” Khamenei said in his recent remarks on March 21 revealing his intention to nip any competition in the bud. Following his remarks, Khamenei’s faction launched a comprehensive campaign to stifle the rivals, and in some cases, the Supreme Leader personally ran this campaign.
Majlis Paves the Path for Khamenei’s Desired Figure
On December 20, 2020, the official IRNA news agency reported, “Members of the Parliament [Majlis] rejected a proposal for banning military individuals from running for the [Presidential] election.”
“The constitution has allowed all armed forces members to register for the Presidential election without resignation,” IRNA quoted the Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as saying. “The object of interference in political issues and candidacy for the election are two different topics.”
Notably, before the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) chief, in a US drone attack in Iraq, Khamenei had dreamed to appoint him as a the most loyal president to himself, Iran analysts say. However, the U.S. January 3, 2020, drone strike changed the puzzle completely forcing Khamenei to think about other options.
Observers recently speak about Hossein Dehghan, the Supreme Leader’s military advisor, Ghalibaf, Saeed Jalili, the former Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) secretary, and Saeed Mohammad, the former IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters chief, Rostam Ghasemi, another former Khatam al-Anbiya chief, and Mohsen Rezaei, the former IRGC commander-in-chief as potential future presidents.
All these military commanders, of course, had taken out their fatigues long while ago fearing a public backlash. However, the Khamenei-controlled Majlis has left the gate open for more military individuals, particularly IRGC commanders, to participate in the June 18 Presidential election.
Khamenei Personally Ousts Potential Rivals
Hassan Khomeini Announces Dissuasion from Candidacy in June Election
Furthermore, the Supreme Leader has personally convinced one potential candidate not to engage in the Presidential competition. On April 12, Tasnim news agency affiliated with the IRGC-QF reported, “Seyyed Hassan Khomeini would not be a candidate for the 2021 election.”
In recent months, ‘reformists’ had raised the name of the Islamic Republic founder’s grandson Hassan Khomeini as their main candidate. They believed that he could unify ‘reformist front’ due to his title. However, Khamenei personally spoke with him urging him not to run for the election.
“The [Islamic] Revolution’s Supreme Leader considered that [Khomeini’s] candidacy in the election was not appropriate. He expressed that he counts Hassan as his son asking him not to enter this field in such circumstances,” said Yasser Khomeini, Hassan’s brother.
Zarif’s Audiotape Removed Him from Election in Advance
On April 5, the leaked audiotape of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s interview with state-affiliated journalist Saeed Leylaz shocked both the people inside and his counterparties abroad. In his interview, the Foreign Minister had openly declared his opposition to the Islamic Republic’s regional path.
He also admitted that Khamenei was the main orchestrator for nuclear talks laying all the blames on him. Already, Khamenei was beholden behind the curtains leaving the way open to criticize and breaches nuclear obligations. However, Zarif highlighted the role of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC eluding himself from nuclear talks’ consequences.
Just a few hours before leaking the tape, Zarif had sarcastically announced his dissuasion from the Presidential election in a letter to Khamenei. He had warned about pressure led by Khamenei’s faction, saying, “I’m not concerned about getting low votes… I do not intend to run for Presidency, but I may revise my decision if the pressure increased.”
In response, Khamenei severely chastised Zarif and all but barred him from running in the Presidential competition. “These days, we heard some remarks on behalf of some officials, which are surprising and unfortunate. I heard that enemy’s media had aired these remarks… Some of these remarks are the repetition of our enemies’ words,” he said.
“For years, the Americans have been extremely unhappy about the Islamic Republic’s influence in the region. They were upset from the Quds Forces’ activities, and they killed Soleimani for this reason… Dividing diplomacy form the country’s other policies is a great mistake, which should not be made by an Islamic Republic official,” Khamenei added addressing Zarif’s remarks about Soleimani’s destructive role in foreign policies and “spending diplomacy on the field.”
Khamenei-Controlled Guardian Council Purges Other Candidates
Meanwhile, the Guardian Council completed this path and almost purged less-known candidates paving the path for Khamenei’s desirable figure. In its recent directive about candidates’ conditions, the council has announced that Presidential candidates must be neither less than 40 nor above 75 years old, meaning 39-year-old Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the current Minister of Information and Communications Technology, and 80-year-old Mohammad Gharazi, the former Minister of Petroleum, cannot run for the Presidency.
Also, the council has emphasized that candidates should enjoy a sufficient managerial background, and they should not have criminal convictions. Therefore, Saeed Mohammad—for the lack of managerial records—and Mostafa Tajzadeh—for his criminal conviction in 2009—were purged.
Who Is Khamenei’s Required President?
Already, observers thought Saeed Mohammad is Khamenei’s required candidate and potential president due to the Supreme Leader’s previous comments about the establishment of a “young and hezbollahi government.” Khamenei, of course, declared his intention more bluntly by pointing to Qassem Soleimani’s method and iconic role.
However, following Mohammad’s resignation from the IRGC Khatam al-Anbiya Headquarters, the IRGC deputy for political affairs Yadollah Javani revealed that Mohammad had actually been fired due to his corruption cases. To save face, Mohammad rejected Javani’s remarks bringing the rivalries to new levels.
Eventually, in an interview with the IRGC-controlled Fars news agency, the Supreme Leader’s Representative for the IRGC Abdollah Haji Sadeqi approved Javani’s position. “Javani has raised the opinion of the IRGC supreme commandership—an indirect mention to Khamenei and not even the IRGC commander-in-chief Hossein Salami,” said Haji Sadeqi.
On the other hand, Khamenei’s loyalists in the Majlis and colleges launched two separate campaigns inviting Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi to run for the Presidency. “In a letter to the Ayatollah Raisi, more than 220 MPs invited the Judiciary Chief to register for the Presidential election due to the country’s dire economic, political, social, and cultural conditions and his executive records for taking office,” Fars reported on April 26.
MPs’ letter sent two messages to both Khamenei’s supporters and opponents. They obviously acknowledged his supporters that Khamenei’s required candidate is Ebrahim Raisi, not Ghalibaf, Mohammad, Rostami, or Jalili. MPs also clarified that Khamenei would no longer step back from Raisi as the president.
A day later, Fars once again reported, “More than 2,000 professors, student activists, and graduates—affiliated with the IRGC and Basij paramilitary forces—joined the campaign for the invitation of Raisi to run for the 2021 Presidential election.”
Furthermore, other principalists’ candidates like Speaker Ghalibaf have announced that they would withdraw from the Presidential competition if Raisi announced his candidacy. In the previous Presidential election, Ghalibaf withdrew in favor of Raisi.
Why Has Raisi Not Announced He Is Running for Election Yet?
Raisi is known as one of the most notorious judges in Iran for his role in the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. In May 2017, he tried his chance but failed despite Khamenei and the IRGC’s support. He is also a potential candidate for replacing Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
In this respect, the issue is not too easy. Raisi started his provincial trips some while ago, which is considered as an unannounced action for a Presidential candidacy. However, Raisi still refuses to announce his candidacy formally.
Observers believe that he is concerned about another public apathy as the government experienced in the February 2020 Parliamentary elections. In this context, Raisi prefers to hold the Judiciary Chief post rather than betting on a dead horse and tarnishing his reputation on the cusp of the death of Khamenei and taking the Supreme Leader’s office.
In other words, Raisi would not run in the election without necessary guarantees by Khamenei and IRGC ensuring a significant victory for him. However, the upcoming developments inside Iran and abroad may motivate Raisi and may persuade Khamenei to look for another figure. It all depends on the time.