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Iran Presidential Elections 2021

Ms Nagapushpa Devendra was Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Click here for profile
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  • June 03, 2021

    Iran’s 13th Presidential elections will be held on June 18, 2021.On May 25, 2021, Iran’s Guardian Council released a list of seven approved candidates for the upcoming presidential election - Saeed Jalili, Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, Alireza Zakani, Seyed Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, Mohsen Rezaei, and AbdolnaserHemmati. 

    Many candidates were disqualified, among them former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vice President EshaqJahangiri and former parliament speaker anda key nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. President Hassan Rouhani expressed his “disappointment” over the Council’s selection process.1

    An October 2020 poll indicated that almost half of the Iranians expressed their displeasure with incumbent President Rouhani’s governance.2One of the main critiques of the government, former President Ahmadinejad emerged as an early frontrunner for the presidential election.3 However, given his growing hostility with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei since 2010, his rejection by the Guardian Council was widely anticipated. Earlier in 2017, his candidacy for the presidential election was also rejected by Khamenei.

    The rejection of Jahangiri’s and Larijani’scandidature was unexpected. It was expected that Larijani could draw fair amount of support from the moderate-reformist camp and emerge as one of the main contenders against Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi.4 While no reasons were given for their rejection, reports noted that corruption charges were possibly one of the reasons held up against them.5 As per recent amendments on eligibility criteria for the post of president, individuals involved in economic offences are not eligible to contest.6

    The Candidates

    Ayatollah Seyed Ebrahim Raeisi, Judiciary Chief, is the most favoured candidate in the presidential race. He secured more than 15million votes in the 2017 presidential election. Raeisi is the only conservative politician who has the ability to create partisan unity. In fact, most of the candidates from the conservative blocs (also known as the Principalists or Revolutionary front) withdrew their candidacy in his favour this year. These included Hossein Dehghan, the former defence minister, RostanGhasemi, former oil minister, among others.

    Along with the hardliners, Raeisi is also supported by the country’s youths.7 Polls conducted by various institutes’ show that Raeisi is leading the presidential poll by a vast margin.8 Former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure policy” and re-imposition of sanctionshave played a major role in strengthening the hardliners in the Iranian power structures like judiciary, the Guardian Council and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Further, Rouhani’s failure to deliver on key economic promises eroded the appeal of the reformists, with significant anti-government protests held in 2018-2019.

    Raeisi has promised to establish a “strong Iran”, and focus on strengthening the country’s economy. He has also pledged to strength economic ties with Iran’s neighbours.9 Raeisi is viewed as the successor to Khamenei,is expected to further strengthen elements of the “resistance economy”, to help Iran achieve economicself-sufficiency.10

    Other conservatives like Mohsen Rezaei, the Secretary of the Expediency Council and Saeed Jalili, former Secretary of the Supreme National Security, have pledged to restore the country’s economic stability. Rezaei stated that he will initiate a structural change in the administration of the country.11 Jalili, on the other hand, proposed the idea of a “shadow cabinet” to help compensate for the Rouhani administration’s shortcomings.12 Jalili was among one of the top three candidates in 2013 elections.

    Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, a former Member of Parliament (MP), is ahardliner,who was one of the main persons behind the passing of the strategic action plan for lifting sanctions last year.  As part of the plan, the Iranian government was obliged to reduce its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. He promised that he would continue the Vienna dialogue and use better diplomacy in negotiating with the US and lifting the sanctions.13

    Alireza Zakani is another conservative who advocates “active and smart diplomacy” to make Iran stronger in the international arena.14 While he prioritises cooperation with countries like China, Zakani views Trump and Biden as two sides of the same coin.15

    AbdolnaserHemmati, head of Iran Central Bank and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, former governor, are two candidates who have emerged as the standard bearers for the reformists. Both intend to focus on the internal dynamics of the country. Hemmati, in his campaign, promised to resolve the country’s economic woes by achieving 5 per cent annual growth for the next four years.16 Alizadeh also pledges to focus on the economy, generating investment and creating jobs. On the foreign policy front, it is likely they will follow on the footsteps of Rouhani.


    The hashtags “there is no way I will vote” no matter what the candidates promise is widely used on social media platforms like the Twitter.17 It appears that though the failures of reformist government have drastically reduced the number of their support, Iranians also do not wish to have a conservative government. Reports in October 2020 indicated that 11 per cent of the Iranian population support the moderates - a decrease from 14 per cent in 2016, whereas 2 per cent are willing to align with the principalists.18

    Many Iranians are planning to boycott the election.19It is likely, therefore, that the turnout for this year would be less as compared to the 2017 presidential election, which registered a 70 per cent turnout.20 This may raise some issues as to the legitimacy of the winner as Iranian authorities often cite the number of voters as a proof of their elections being “legitimate”.

    The Guardian Council has chosen more hardliners than moderates for the presidential race. It is a reflection of the country’s contested power structure and political divide between moderates and hardliner that has sharpened over the years. This has been mainly because of two factors, government failure to improve the condition of the Iranian people and policies followed by the Trump administration after withdrawal from the nuclear deal. As the election approaches, talks over reviving the nuclear deal are still to produce any significant results.

    The hardliners are backed by the country’s Supreme Leader, who want Raeisi to emerge victorious.21 The other conservatives withdrawing their candidacy to avoid the division of votes at the last moment is perhaps inevitable. Raeisi was among politicians who in 2019 was subject to the US and European Union sanctions.

    Raeisi’s probable victory will no doubt strengthen calls for an aggressive stance towards the US. Such an approach will, however, be a hindrance to fulfilling the country’s economic agenda and could lead to greater domestic instability.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.