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Who Are Early Contenders For Iran’s Looming Presidential Vote? – Analysis

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By Golnaz Esfandiari*

(RFE/RL) — With the application deadline expired and a month to go before Iran’s election of a new president, two names are emerging as the likely top contenders to succeed President Hassan Rohani.

Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani have each been part of the country’s Islamic establishment for a long time. Both have made failed presidential bids in the past, and neither is widely seen as a particularly charismatic or inspirational leader — although the stern-faced Raisi has demonstrated a fondness for populist slogans that the articulate Larijani has tended to avoid.

Raisi’s prominence has increased in recent years, however, while the influence of the Larijani family, which includes a father who was exiled by the Shah and a brother who once led the judiciary, has seemingly been in decline.

Larijani is himself an experienced politician who has held key posts over the years.

Raisi’s career has included a steady rise through the ranks of the judicial system, where as a deputy prosecutor in Tehran he played a role in the 1989 massacre of political prisoners following a fatwa by the founder of Iran’s Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

They were both among 592 hopefuls, including 40 women, who registered to run in Iran’s June 18 election. Most have already been eliminated under the country’s tightly orchestrated vetting process.


All candidates for elected office in Iran are screened by the Guardians Council, whose 12 members are directly and indirectly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say in Iran’s political and religious affairs.

The council has in the past blocked candidates deemed not sufficiently loyal to Khamenei.

The council, which recently narrowed its criteria for the potential candidates — barring candidates younger than 40 or older than 75 and requiring at least four years of management experience and no criminal record — has said it will only review the credentials of 40 of those registered, thus disqualifying the others.

Iran’s election comes amid rising discontent over the poor state of the economy, which has been crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 from an international nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. There has been also public frustration at the Iranian government’s perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and a slow vaccination rollout.

Big Names

Ebrahim Raisi

The 61-year-old Raisi’s leadership of the judiciary is akin to the chief justice’s post in other systems.

He was defeated by the incumbent Rohani, a relative moderate, in the 2017 presidential vote, officially receiving 38 percent to Rohani’s 57 percent.

Raisi has declared that he is running this time as an independent, and has vowed to fight poverty and corruption.

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A trained cleric, he has been cited as a possible successor to Khamenei, 82. But another presidential defeat could deal a blow to his chances of eventually becoming supreme leader.

Raisi is tipped by some as a favorite for the presidency because he enjoys the trust of Khamenei, who before appointing him to the top judiciary post in 2019 put him in charge of one of the country’s wealthiest religious charities.

He also has other ties to Iran’s centers of power. He is married to the daughter of a longtime Khamenei loyalist, Mashhad Friday Prayer leader and ultra-hard-line cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda.

The conservative daily Resalat’s front page portrayed him as the front-runner.

Yet, as some observers have noted, a win is not guaranteed.

“No one can be declared the winner in advance, not even Raisi,” Tehran-based journalist and analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi told the Fararu.com news site. “Candidates will have to speak on television, and they may participate in a debate.”

He questioned whether, in a side-by-side contest with Larijani, Raisi “will have much to say.”

Zeidabadi cited Raisi’s repeated use of “slogans” and statements that “no one believes can be done in practice.”

But conservative political analyst Amir Reza Vaezi Ashtiani suggested that Raisi was likely to attract a significant number of votes.

“Raisi had 16 million votes in the last election. Since then he has done well, and his [potential] votes have increased,” Ashtiani said.

Given past history, there has been speculation that other hard-line candidates might withdraw closer to election day in an effort to unite behind Raisi.

Ali Larijani

Larijani has served as parliament speaker for 12 years and chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

When registering for the election, he took a verbal jab at Raisi and hopefuls from the senior ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), part of Iran’s military, saying that “the economy is neither a garrison nor a court that would be managed with shouts and orders.”

Larijani, 64, has in past years aligned himself with Rohani, and he has been portrayed by some as a vote for a “third Rohani government” and its policies.

Iran’s system bars presidents from serving a third term.

Hessamedin Ashena, a former Iranian presidential adviser, suggested this week that Larijani’s decision to run posed a serious challenge to other contenders.

“Winning the election is no longer easy,” Ashena said on Twitter.

Larijani, who also served in the IRGC, appears to believe that he can secure votes within the conservative camp and among supporters of reform.

But many in the pro-reform camp view him with suspicion based in part on his time heading a heavily censored, state-controlled television network that aired a program, called Hoviyyat (Identity), which appeared aimed at tarnishing the reputations of many Iranians, including intellectuals and dissidents.

The news site Asriran.com suggested that some traditional conservatives have for years considered Larijani a trusted politician and believe he’s the “Hashemi Rafsanjani of the new era of Iran” — a reference to the late pragmatic president and political force — and are likely to back him.

“It is also possible that part of the reform movement will cast their ballots for Larijani for the continuation of the path of moderation,” the news site added.

Larijani received only about 6 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2005 presidential vote.

Other Conservative Contenders

Several other conservatives are hoping to run, including two former officials within the powerful IRGC.

Hossein Dehghan, 64, is a former defense minister and military adviser to Khamenei.

Saeed Mohammad, 53, headed the IRGC’s construction conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbia.

Former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili , 56, and Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, 67, are also registered. Jalili was defeated in the 2013 presidential vote, while Rezai has already made three unsuccessful runs.

Former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has also registered to compete, although he was barred from running in the 2017 vote.

Reformists

Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, 64, is seen as a leading candidate for the reformists. Jahangiri, who was a candidate in the 2017 vote, performed well in the televised debates at the time.

He later withdrew in favor of Rohani. Some have suggested that Jahangiri could end up supporting Larijani.

Other reformist hopefuls include the chairman of the Tehran City Council, 60-year-old Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani. He is the eldest son of the influential former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Another is former Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian, 66, who served in the Khatami administration in 1997-2005.

Reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, 64, who was jailed in the brutal state crackdown that followed the 2009 disputed presidential vote, has also registered to run. He is likely to be blocked due to his criticism of the establishment and of Khamenei.

Women

Zahra Shojaei, 65, an adviser on women’s affairs during the Khatami administration, is the only prominent woman to have registered for the June election.

No woman has ever been allowed by Iran’s vetters to run for the presidency.

The final list of vetted candidates should be published on May 27.

  • Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.

RFE RL

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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