Islamic Regime Approves 6 Presidential Candidates in Bid To Boost Turnout 

Experts believe that regardless of who is elected president, Tehran’s foreign and domestic policies are expected to remain largely unchanged 

By Debbie Mohnblatt/The Media Line  

As the Iranian presidential elections approach, the Islamic Republic approved six candidates to run: three hard-liners, two moderates, and one reformist, in an apparent bid to boost the electorate’s turnout. However, regardless of the result, Tehran’s foreign and domestic policies are expected to largely remain unchanged due to the constraints on presidential authority. 

The presidential elections, originally scheduled for 2025, were moved to this year’s June 28 in light of President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter accident last month. Candidates for presidential, parliamentary, and Assembly of Experts elections in Iran must be approved by the Guardian Council. This council vets the candidates to ensure they meet certain qualifications and adhere to the principles of the Islamic Republic. 

“The Guardian Council’s approval of candidates like Masoud Pezeshkian, who is backed by Iran’s Reform Front, seems aimed at increasing political participation and presenting the electoral process as free and fair,” Dr. Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal, a research scholar at Rasanah, International Institute for Iranian Studies, Riyadh, told The Media Line.  

Moonakal adds that despite the Council’s lack of transparency in its criteria for candidate approval, the current economic dissatisfaction and low voter turnout in previous elections likely influenced this decision. In any case, he stresses that none of the approved candidates, including Pezeshkian, have been overtly critical of the supreme leader or the establishment. 

He notes that candidates such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who were rejected, have openly criticized the regime. “Pezeshkian’s pragmatic approach, avoiding crossing the regime’s red lines, likely contributed to his approval by the Guardian Council,” Moonakal added, noting that it remains to be seen whether it would translate to higher voter turnout as people remain wary about the nature of politics in the country. 

Dr. Reza Khanzadeh, senior foreign policy advisor at the US-Iran Chamber of Commerce, tells The Media Line that it is not unusual for the Guardian Council to approve politicians with varying political philosophies.  

He notes that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Guardian Council collaborate to determine which individuals are permitted to run based on various factors. However, he adds that two criteria are particularly significant as they underscore the regime’s readiness to manipulate the office of the presidency to advance Khamenei’s domestic, regional, and international policies. 

The first, he says, is based on Washington’s political climate. “Depending on which political party controls the House, Senate, and Presidency and what kind of policies are being pursued, Khamenei and the Guardian Council select presidential candidates with a vision in mind that will best counterbalance Washington,” he added. 

The second criterion, Khanzadeh continued, “is what policies and narratives Khamenei and the IRGC want to pursue in the next four years.”  

He explained that Khamenei’s selection of presidential candidates reveals the types of policies and narratives he is either keen to pursue or, at the very least, willing to consider, depending on which candidate wins. 

“Since Iran’s president holds limited power, and the final decisions on all matters reside with Khamenei, it is relatively easy for Iran’s president to be silenced if Khamenei sees that some policies and/or narratives are hurting the regime,” said Khanzadeh noting that this happened in the last two years of Khatami and Ahmadinejad’s presidencies.  

Moonakal echoed this sentiment and noted that the power in Iran ultimately rests with the supreme leader. Nevertheless, he added, “The Iranian president is a key figure in the establishment, as he is elected through voting. The election process, though, is often manipulated by the establishment to ensure a favorable outcome.” 

He noted that some opinion polls indicated that the current speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, is leading among the presidential candidates. The poll also shows that the former secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, and former Iranian Health Minister Masoud Pezeshkian are among the top three. 

“Ghalibaf has the advantage of support from the IRGC and hard-liners, along with his extensive experience and established networks during his long tenure serving in various capacities,” he said, adding that Pezeshkian is a regime insider with reformist leanings and is a longtime MP with Azeri roots, which could help him rally support from Azeris and sections of other minorities.  

Khanzadeh emphasizes that the distinctions between hard-liners, moderates, and reformists are minimal when viewed through a broader lens encompassing their shared belief in and allegiance to the Islamic Republic and its ideals. 

He noted that Iran’s former president, Muhammad Khatami, a reformist who held office from 1997 to 2005, once said that their disagreements were not about whether the Islamic Republic should exist or not but rather how it should govern.  

Therefore, he added, “irrespective of whichever of the six candidates wins, the political climate coming out of Tehran will not change significantly. Even the lone reformist— Masoud Pezeshkian—briefly mentioned in an interview on Iran’s state media [Islamic Republic of Iran News Network] that he would continue many of Raisi’s policies.” 

While many experts believed that Raisi was to be Khamenei’s successor, Khanzadeh says that the results of this year’s elections will have little impact on who the next supreme leader will be, even though Iran’s next president will most likely be in office when Khamenei passes.  

He explains that the decision on Khamenei’s successor has been a highly contested and debated issue among the Khodi (trusted insiders loyal to the Islamic Republic’s core principles and leadership) for many years. “Most experts believe the Islamic Republic has been secretive about the potential candidates to replace Khamenei because they do not want to risk smear campaigns or assassination attempts,” Khanzadeh continued.  

However, he stresses that there is a larger concern that must be acknowledged: the Khodi’s difficulty in finding a cleric who simultaneously possesses the religious credentials, political experience, bureaucratic acumen, ideological fidelity, and willingness to hold such an office. “That is why conversations have risen that perhaps the office of the supreme leader may transform into a committee-like office with multiple clerics. But the trouble there is still finding clerics who are willing to join,” he continued. 

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