The sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi obliged Iran to hold snap presidential elections by June 28. In the first phase of this electoral process, all eyes will be on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, since the relative competitiveness of the upcoming contest depends entirely on who the leader allows to run. Will he open the door to a diverse set of political candidates from among multiple wings of regime supporters? Or will he opt to micro-manage the process to make sure his preferred candidate wins — meaning someone of his hardline ilk who will do as he is told.

The latter approach is exactly what Khamenei chose in 2021, when Raisi secured the presidency after 585 candidates were barred from campaigning and only seven men were handpicked to run. The regime organ that officially decides who can run, and also the scope of the legislation an elected president is actually allowed to implement, is called the Guardian Council. However, the 12 members of this body are all appointed, not elected by the people, and thus reflect the supreme leader’s wishes. The existence of this council and its electoral role is the greatest indicator that the Islamic Republic is a theocracy and not a democracy as Khamenei likes to maintain.

Reformist and moderate factions among the elite are hopeful Khamenei might show benevolence, but such hopes are likely misplaced. Khamenei will almost certainly keep the election limited to a contest among various candidates who share his ideologically hardline Islamist worldview. The 85-year-old is by most accounts fixated on his succession process. He wants nothing but obedience from whoever is president for the next four years as he prepares to pass on the baton.

For the sake of appearance, there will have to be some token non-hardline candidate; but observers shouldn’t expect any prominent or surprising names to emerge through this door. Despite his claims about the importance of elections, Khamenei has by now reconciled himself to the general Iranian public rejecting the legitimacy of the country’s deeply manipulated electoral process. Khamenei and the regime will accept another (very likely) record-low turnout — as has been the trend in recent years — and then nonetheless go on to claim popular support for his “winning” political agenda. It is a case of supreme political tone-deafness, but Khamenei does not shift or backtrack.

Candidates can register to run until June 3, though there is already a good sense of the likely contenders. Notably, there are only a couple of clerics so far among the top names mentioned in Iranian media. Instead, most of the hardline candidates have a link to the Revolutionary Guards. Among those coming from the “hardline camp,” it is not specific policy ideas that divides them but personal animus and factional rivalries. What keeps them relatively cohesive is their collective subservience to Khamenei’s agenda.

The top candidates associated with the amorphous hardline camp include several key names. First is Mohammad Mokhber, the late Raisi’s first vice president, who is now the acting president. He is known as the supreme leader’s “money man” due to his role managing wealthy economic foundations tied to Khamenei. Another notable player is Saeed Jalili, one of Khamenei’s personal national security representatives, whose election to the presidency would be a nightmare for both the Iranian people and for Western powers given his uncompromising Islamist convictions. As Iran’s top nuclear negotiator from 2007-2013, Jalili deepened the crisis and yet maintained Khamenei’s trust. Names of other figures with similarly close ties to Khamenei include Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the speaker of the Majlis, and Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran. 

There are also those with a bit more of a mixed record when it comes to their relationship with Khamenei. One such frequently mentioned figure is Ali Larijani, who was once a close underling until his influential family fell out of favor with the supreme leader. He is the sort of candidate who might be able to appeal to segments of both the reform/moderate and hardline camps. Larijani was barred from running for president in 2021 but might be approved by the Guardian Council this time around. That seems to be his hope.

Then there are the mavericks who cannot be discounted, the most noteworthy of whom is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former populist president (2005-13) will make every effort to use this election to keep himself relevant. And his showmanship in this election process will be among the more entertaining to watch.

The broader reformist/moderate camp appears at the moment to want to offer its own candidates and not boycott the election as the angry general public would wish. Names from this faction most likely to be approved to run include Abdol-Nasser Hemmati, the former Iranian Central Bank boss, and Eshaq Jahangiri, a vice president in Hassan Rouhani’s government of 2013-21.

Reformist-backed candidates who might be able to stir up some popular interest include Javad Zarif. The former foreign minister is someone Khamenei has personally known since the early 1980s. The supreme leader himself might have been able to tolerate his candidacy; but Zarif is simply too hated by the broader Khamenei support base. And for that reason, he is ultimately unlikely to be approved to run. As of now, Zarif has denied any interest in the presidency.

Khamenei may instead look for someone who could be a compromise candidate for the reform/moderate and hardliner camps. This individual could, for example, be Ali Akbar Salehi, a former foreign minister and proven loyalist but without mortal enemies inside the ranks of the regime. Another option might be someone like Ali Shamkhani, the former national security boss who has reportedly just been given a new role to negotiate Iran’s nuclear file with the West and a man who might be acceptable to a broader spectrum of the regime. A dozen or so more names are also cited as potential candidates. Whoever registers to run will find out by June 11 if he passed the screening process of the Guardian Council. Only then will the Iranian people learn what sort of political theater and course of action Khamenei has in mind for them over the coming weeks.


Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Fellow with MEI’s Black Sea Program.

Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office/Anadolu via Getty Images

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