Decision 1400 - Meet the Candidates
An explainer of all seven approved candidates running in the Iranian presidential election.
The upcoming Iranian presidential election is proving to be perhaps the most momentous in the history of the Islamic Republic. Economic upheaval, a nuclear deal at a critical crossroads, and the mass disqualification of virtually all non-conservative candidates against the protests of the president himself, have lead to an environment that has produced widespread voter apathy about the intractability of Iran’s ongoing problems. Seven candidates have nevertheless been approved by the Guardian Council, with no successful appeals and no intervention by Supreme Leader Khamenei to date.
Ebrahim Raisi (Conservative)
Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi has returned from a devastating loss to President Rouhani in 2017 to front-runner status four years later, though how much of that front-runner status has been determined by disqualifying his rivals has been up for debate.
Raisi has been a prosecutor for the Islamic Republic since its early days in 1981, eventually working his way up to deputy prosecutor in Tehran, during which time he was implicated in ordering the mass execution of thousands of left-wing prisoners, executions which started with MEK members who were involved in Saddam’s invasion of Iran but later moved onto communists whose criteria for killing included stating a belief in materialism. These killings and the internal battles within the government about their morality did not halt his rise however, later going on to lead one of the government’s anti-corruption investigation agencies, and then ascending to becoming the prosecutor-general.
Since being appointed as head of the judiciary by Khamenei in 2019, the highest judicial position in the country, Raisi has seen a concentrated media campaign in his favor work its magic for him, improving his approval ratings by putting him in opposition to the Rouhani administration and making him one of the nation’s most popular politicians. Polls have long shown him far ahead of any of the other candidates running currently to the point of inanity, with the nearest candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, only polling at 3.4% against Raisi’s 38.5%. Nevertheless, when put up against candidates who were disqualified, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his lead begins to crumble, with some polls showing his support nearly halving and some within almost a percentage point of second place.
The mass disqualifications by the Guardian Council have lead many to believe that the government is pulling out the stops to allow Raisi to ascend to the presidency with a wide mandate, with the potential that he may even succeed Khamenei for the position of Supreme Leader in the near future. A roadblock to this path however may be low turnout, as calls to boycott the election are beginning to come from more and more prominent figures on both the sides of the neo-principlists and on the reformists, and polls show turnout at potentially its lowest in Iranian history, hovering in the high 30s, low 40s. Raisi had allegedly lobbied for more candidates to be added to increase voter turnout, such as Ali Larijani who was also disqualified, but the Guardian Council did not accept these attempts if they were actually made.
Despite all of these potential issues, by all accounts it looks like Ebrahim Raisi’s election to lose.
Mohsen Rezaee (Conservative)
IRGC Major General Mohsen Rezaee is nothing if not predictable, and is hoping that his fourth time running for president will finally be his charm.
Mohsen Rezaee made a name for himself in the 1980s by quickly rising through the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to become its commander-in-chief in 1981, leading the military organization’s forces against Saddam Hussein’s army for the entirety of the war with Iraq. Rezaee would eventually leave the IRGC in 1997 to become the secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, an advisory board that mediates between the Guardian Council and the Iranian parliament, but amidst multiple runs for president in the following years, Rezaee never felt quite at home exclusively in the political scene, eventually returning to the IRGC as an active service member in 2015.
Interestingly, despite Second Brigadier General Saeed Mohammad’s incredibly publicized candidacy that pushed him as the first active-duty IRGC general to run for president, Mohammad’s sudden disqualification has in fact made Rezaee the first active-duty IRGC general to be approved as a candidate.
Rezaee’s extensive service may continue to be a detriment to his reputation with Iranian voters, however. One of the consistent trends in Iranian politics has been the unpopularity of military candidates, as Ayatollah Khomeini himself had warned against, and Rezaee during his multiple presidential runs never reaching past 11% of the vote. It is unclear about the possibility that he may drop out during the race to improve Raisi’s share of the vote, as Rezaee has withdrawn from presidential races before without endorsing candidates and did not explicitly endorse Raisi when he ran in 2017.
Saeed Jalili (Conservative)
As Saeed Jalili used to be Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, it’s not difficult to see why he would be keen on running again this year amidst negotiations to reenter the JCPOA that the administration that came after his term in office had entered into.
Jalili was lauded by many conservatives during his term as someone who did not give concessions easily to world powers over Iran’s nuclear energy program, but his high reputation with that faction came under fire from other candidates during the debates when he ran for president back in 2013, with even some conservatives attacking him for his lack of progress in solving the issue. In an environment where pro-diplomacy politicians have now been almost entirely disqualified and the national attitude toward nuclear deals has changed, Jalili may find himself in a better position on the debate stage this time around.
Finding a better environment to debate is only one thing however. Jalili’s polling is much lower in 2021 than it was in 2013, with him hovering currently at 1.8%, far lower than the already low results he was getting seven years ago that made him place third in the national election. Jalili may find himself however dropping out to support Raisi, as the former negotiator was one of the Chief Justice’s most ardent supporters in 2017, speaking at rallies and touting his record.
Abdolnaser Hemmati (Reformist)
When a nation is going through economic downturn like never seen before, the leader of the country’s central bank might be an interesting choice to run for president to say the least. Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati has nevertheless pushed through.
Hemmati has worked in the administrations of Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Rouhani, and was the spearheader of the privatization of insurance, which would soon become the political consensus of the reformist and conservative factions alike. Hemmati would later lead private and state-owned banks alike, overseeing mergers and assisting in the heightened economic growth that Iran saw during the respective administrations he had worked in. Hemmati may have found more popularity before the Trump administration tore up the nuclear deal and returned crippling sanctions to the country, but now he is running for president at a time when the results of many of his policies could raise many questions about his efficacy.
Privatized insurance has lead to increasing medical costs in a country without a universal healthcare system, Hemmati’s policies have not stymied much the Iranian rial’s inflation against the American sanctions regime, and unpaid wages to workers in state-owned enterprises as a result of the deteriorating situation have caused protest after protest that have made headlines abroad. Hemmati has had some successes, including negotiating for the unfreezing of funds to buy COVID-19 vaccines, but it has not translated into widespread approval.
Thus far, Hemmati is not going into the beginning of this race with much, with polls showing him in a distant fourth place, with 1.6%.
Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi (Conservative)
The long-time MP and deputy parliamentary speaker finally saw his opening this year to run for president, after achieving some notoriety for helping lead parliamentary sessions under Ghalibaf, including the push for more concessions from America in the JCPOA reentry negotiations.
Ghazizadeh Hashemi has differentiated his campaign so far by promising popular economic initiatives, such as paying couples vast amounts to start families, as well as outright refusing to drop out in favor of Raisi, saying that he intends to stay to the end.
It is unknown how large a voting bloc there is of conservative Iranians who also would rather not vote for Ebrahim Raisi, but it doesn’t appear to be very large. Ghazizadeh Hashemi is currently polling at 1%.
Mohsen Mehralizadeh (Reformist)
Out of a sea of reformist figures that registered to run for president, such as Khatami adviser Mostafa Tajzadeh and even the current vice president Eshaq Jahangiri, only two were approved, the other, Mehralizadeh, being a man so obscure that many newspapers did not even report his name in the headline when they announced his candidacy.
Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former vice president during the Khatami administration, has suddenly found himself at the center of immense controversy, with some in the reformist movement now beginning to coalesce around a call to not participate in the election altogether. Mehralizadeh has nevertheless attempted to stay in the race, calling on the Guardian Council to make the election more competitive and encouraging voters to stand against those who seek to make the “separation of powers into a combination of forces” in Iranian politics.
Mehralizadeh has run before for president in 2005, even being approved by the Guardian Council after an initial rejection via the personal intervention of Khamenei, but he did not find any success. He finished at the absolute bottom of the pack, behind more prominent reformist voices like Mehdi Karroubi. Now, in 2021, he is among the last ones standing, and the flight of many reformist supporters from its ranks has left him in an even worse position than before, polling at only 0.8%.
Alireza Zakani (Conservative)
MP Alireza Zakani has made history with his candidacy. He became the first presidential candidate ever in history to be approved by the Guardian Council after being disqualified before, once in 2013 and again in 2017.
Zakani has been a conservative ideologue for decades, becoming one of the most ardent condemners of the 2009 post-election protests and the reformist movement, though he also was a criticizer of the Ahmadinejad administration and the worst abuses done during the crackdown on his re-election opponents. Zakani also founded numerous news publications in order to fuel his political agenda.
A supporter base however has not followed these media appearances and unprecedented decisions in his favor. Zakani currently polls at the very bottom of the presidential race, with a staggeringly low 0.1% of voters saying they support him.