Iran’s presidential election: Restoration or deterioration of regime legitimacy?

The impending Iranian presidential election scheduled for 14 June 2013 is widely acknowledged to be one of the most critical in the regime’s thirty-five year history. With the economy in tatters as a result of sanctions and economic mismanagement, and the regime striving to restore its legitimacy following the 2009 election protests, voting patterns and voter turnout will not only influence a possible alternation of power, but may provide insight into the longterm survival of the regime. Hence security has been stepped up, voters have been encouraged to participate, and candidates with both economically rightist and leftist positions have stressed the need for economic growth.


Currently, the country’s economy is in the worst state it has been since the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in damages of over $1 trillion. Three rounds of UN sanctions and US and EU unilateral actions have contributed to a reduction in oil exports from around 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to under a million barrels per day from January 2013. There has also been an increase in inflation, which already stood at over twenty-seven per cent in 2012 and an increase in unemployment to over twenty per cent, with unofficial figures putting it at over thirty-five per cent. Further, government revenues, chiefly accrued from oil exports, halved in 2012, with the value of the Riaal depreciating by over sixty-six per cent, from 20 000 to the dollar in January 2012 to over 36 000 to the dollar in January 2013. This has been compounded by the government’s inefficient and mismanaged removal of energy and food subsidies, which have led to the closure of many industries and an increase in corruption. Citizens have thus become extremely fatigued and disillusioned.

A 2012 Gallup survey reported that over eighty-two per cent of the population viewed sanctions as negatively impacting on them directly, while seventy-five per cent of respondents agreed that the job market was growing increasingly tough. Therefore, it is economic issues, rather than the much-touted nuclear programme, which will likely have the largest impact on the impending election. Significantly, whoever is elected president will have much sway in the economic arena.


Iran’s political systemiran flow786x292

In order to understand the impact of presidential elections on Iran and on its domestic and foreign policies, an understanding of the structure of the Iranian political system is necessary. Governed by the 1979 constitution, Iran maintains judicial, legislative and executive branches. Elections are held quadrennially for both the legislature and presidency. In an effort to protect the country’s Islamic nature, and because the 1980–1988 Iraq-Iran war suspended the process of ‘formal’ state institutional development, parallel and constitutionally recognised institutions were developed, which are weightier and often more influential than their state counterparts.

The twelve-member Guardian Council acts as a quasi- judiciary, the eighty-three member Assembly of Experts as a pseudo-legislature and the twenty-six member Expediency Council performs tasks similar to that of a cabinet. At the head of the political system as a whole is the supreme leader/jurist (Vali-e-Faqih), currently Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. While much of the republic’s powers are vested in his hands, this power is exercised through these bodies. When the Iranian regime is referred to, the reference, then, is to these institutions as well as the elected government.

As a result of this, regime legitimacy is sometimes gauged by voting patterns and voter turnout, rather than an alternation of power. This is especially important in light of the consequences of the last presidential election, in 2009, which witnessed an unprecedented number of protests and allegations of vote rigging. Mass arrests were carried out; lives were lost; and protest leaders were labelled ‘seditionists’ and are currently under house arrest.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s actions during his second term in office resulted in the emergence of a new strand of thought in Iranian politics. Termed ‘nejadiya’ or ‘nejadiyism’, it emphasises Iranian nationalism, at the expense of the Islamic character of the nation. In addition, many subscribing to this strand seek to curb some powers of the Vali-e-Faqih, having complained of the power of the clergy in Iranian politics. In 2011, Ahmadinejad attempted and failed to replace his intelligence minister (Haider Mozlehi) and to appoint his own political envoys, moves which resulted in him being severely rebuked.


Authorised candidates and strands of thought

This complex nature of Iran’s political system has led to the prevalence and conceptualisation of overlapping and sometimes incongruous strands of thought. Iran Election Watch (an election website) argues that five strands of thought exist in the runup to the 2013 election: neoprinciplists, traditional principlists, the Ahmadinejad/Mashaei strand, centrists, and reformists. Others argue that seven key alliances are present. For the sake of coherency and to prevent overlap, only three will be elaborated on here.

Presidential candidates in Iran are vetted by the Guardian Council before being approved to contest the election. The list of candidates approved by the Council for this month’s election was released on 21 May 2013. Of the 680 hopefuls who initially applied, only eight have been authorised to stand. These are former Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commander Mohsin Rezeai; current chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili; former Majlis speaker, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel; former Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati; current Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; former telecommunications minister, Mohammad Gharazi; former national security chief, Hassan Rouhani; and former first vice president in the Khatami administration (2001 to 2005), Mohammad Reza Aref.


The first six of these candidates represent the so-called ‘principlist’ strand. Principlists strictly stand by the tenets of the 1979 Islamic revolution, specifically the concept of the Velayat-e-Faqih, and it is believed that Khamenei would endorse a principlist win. They are more conservative in matters concerning civil and political rights; many therefore supported the 2009 crackdown, labelling protesters as ‘seditionists’. Economically, principlists support Iran’s redistributive ‘resistance’ economy, but have criticised the Ahmadinejad administration’s mismanagement of it. Ghalibaf and Velayati are favourites within this strand; Jalili is the dark horse who could surge to a win.

During the nomination stage, three principlist alliances were formed: the ‘Followers of Imam’s Line and Leadership Front’, the ‘Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution’ and the ‘2+1 coalition’. Unlike the other two, the 2+1 coalition’s candidates are significant as all three – Ghalibaf, Velayati and Haddad-Adel – were authorised by the Guardian Council, and the coalition is regarded by many as having the supreme leader’s endorsement.

However, only one out of the three will ultimately stand, as per the 2+1 coalition agreement. The other two will withdraw before the election. It is still uncertain who will be the 2+1’s favoured candidate. Because of the large number of candidates originally nominated – 680, and because of the various nuances within the principlist camp, alliances are often formed to increase the chosen candidate’s chances of being authorised by the Guardian Council.

Ghalibaf, currently Tehran’s mayor, previously had stints as head of Iran’s air force and police services. He is popular with the citizenry and the military, and is the most likely candidate to be victorious. Velayati is Khamenei’s chief advisor on foreign affairs. Currently on the Expediency Council, his main appeal lies in his loyalty to the supreme leader. Jalili – a principlist who does not belong to any of the coalitions, like Velayati, has a good rapport with the supreme leader and is seen as a humble personality. However, his inability to converse in English and his inexperience have led many to question his competency for the position.


Shunned after the 2009 election and labelled seditionists, reformists have an opportunity in this election to re-enter political life. This is, in part, as result of influence by the clerical establishment, especially Khamenei’s objective to ensure the preservation of the system and increase its legitimacy. The clergy has thus sought to court the reformists and convince them to return to political contestation. The reformist platform is based on three key principles: upholding of civil and political freedoms, liberalising of the economy, and reducing Iran’s confrontational stance on the global stage. Reformists argue that Iran’s stance towards the international community is a key reason for its overall drastic situation, and advocate that the country act on the international stage as a ‘normal’ state with normal state aspirations rather than a ‘revolutionary regime’. Significantly, a key objective of the reformists is safeguarding the political system, that is, reformists are not opposed to the system of Velayat-e-Faqih and want to ensure its survival.

With the two leaders who led the reformist campaign in 2009 – Mir-Hossein Mosavi and Mehdi Karroubi – still under house arrest, and with Hashemi Rafsanjani not getting the green light from the Guardian Council, Rouhani and Aref will represent this strand. A Shi’a scholar and former head of Iran’s national security, Rouhani, who currently represents Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council, is the favoured candidate from this strand. Most famous for his role in nuclear negotiations with Europe, which led to the subsequent freezing of the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme, Rouhani has promised ‘constructive interaction with the world’ and direct negotiations with the USA should he be elected. In contrast, Aref is not very influential and is unlikely to proceed past the first round of elections unless Rouhani drops out or he secures Rafsanjani’s endorsement. However, Rafsanjani could still be a candidate since candidates dropped by the Guardian Council can be reinstated through an edict by Khamenei. This is especially significant as Rafsanjani – a former president and former confidante of Khamenei – was excluded from the Guardian Council’s final list even though he reportedly sought Khamenei’s approval before nominating himself.


Nejadiyism is a newly emerging strand in Iranian political thought. This strand promotes economic redistribution and a strong role for the state in economic policy formulation. Politically, the Nejadiya have differences with the political system. Nejadiya seek to expand the president’s authority – at the expense of the power of the supreme leader – and they emphasise Iran’s Persian and nationalist culture, rather than its Islamic traits. Thus far, they have tried to ensure that confrontation with the clerical establishment has been low-key and indirectly, and Nejadi demands have been minor, such as Ahmedinejad’s attempt to obtain the power to appoint political envoys. Labelled as ‘deviants’ by the clerical establishment and the principlists, no candidate subscribing to this strand has been authorised to stand in the election. However, with support from many in the establishment and the increasing disconnect between citizens – many of whom perceive the political aspects of Shiism as an anathema – and the regime, this strand is unlikely to disappear or be easily curbed.


Consequences of the election

This month’s election may be one of the most critical in the regime’s thirty-five year history. Successful organisation of the election will result in a restoration of the regime’s legitimacy. Furthermore, were a reformist candidate to win, civil freedoms would increase and attempts made to ‘marketise’ the economy. However, the exclusion of Nejadi candidates and Rafsanjani may result in voter turnout being on the lower end and an increase in the threat of postelection confrontation. However, judging by the 2012 municipal election, the threat of confrontation is minimal, with voters preferring to rather abstain from voting.

In conclusion, it can be noted that irrespective of who wins the election, not much will be altered in the foreign policy arena. The regime will continue to support the Asad government in Syria, fund and arm Hizbullah and lean eastward. Iran’s nuclear energy programme will continue apace, and the standoff with the West on this issue will not ease. (Of course, the development of the nuclear programme does not necessarily imply development of a nuclear weapons’ programme; even the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA has found no evidence that Iran is seeking the creation of a nuclear weapon). Foreign policy falls under the ambit of the supreme leader, and is supported by the majority of citizens. The confrontational rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad government will likely change. Should a reformist such as Rouhani win, interaction and engagement with western states, the USA in particular, will be promoted and the regime’s revolutionary aspirations and pronouncements toned down. It is noteworthy that two of the eight candidates (Rouhani and Jalili) have a nuclear negotiations background, indicating the regime’s concerns around nuclear issues.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 15:05

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