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Helicopter politics. Why Iran’s upcoming presidential election matters

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19 has raised unexpected questions for the country’s reigning establishment. They are now faced with the prospect of choosing not only a new president, but also a possible successor to 85-year-old supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since 1989 Even if the office of president represents a secondary role in the Iranian power structure, the stakes surrounding the upcoming decision are high.


The shaken nation must choose a new president

Ebrahim Raisi’s sudden death came as a shock to Iran's entire political system. Constitutionally speaking, the Iranian president is an easily replaceable figure, as swapping out the office holder does not affect the regime of the Ayatollahs in any appreciable way. The head of state is the supreme leader (rahbar) — currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who has ruled the country since 1989. The president, who functions as the face of the nation but has little influence over actual state policy, is elected every four years and normally serves two terms.

While the president's personality, rhetoric, and leadership skills certainly matter, his decisions do not deviate from the course outlined by the supreme leader, and his activities are closely monitored by influential Iranian bodies such as the parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and the Guardian Council. However, Iran is currently in the midst of a complicated phase that may allow for the office of president to exert more sway than usual.

The Iranian political system is a complex mechanism with many levers for checks and balances, ultimately designed to preserve the Ayatollahs' hold on power. Under such circumstances, Ebrahim Raisi was the ideal president — a seemingly unambitious loyalist and technocrat who suited the various groups within the country’s political elite just fine. Once upon a time, Ali Khamenei seemed to be just as convenient for everyone, and it is no coincidence that Raisi was frequently named as a potential successor to the supreme leader.

The question of Khamenei's successor has been under discussion for years already

No one knows exactly how Iran’s next supreme leader will be elected, but given that Khamenei turned 85 in April, it is no secret in Tehran that the question of his successor has been under discussion for years already. The only precedent for such a transition of power occurred in 1989, after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. From a legal standpoint, the power to elect and remove the country's supreme leader rests with the Assembly of Experts, which is composed of 88 clerics. It is obvious, however, that a much smaller group will make the ultimate decision. In 1989, the choice required the approval of three figures: the president, the chief justice, and the chairman of the Constitutional Council (the body that has the power to endorse candidates for all public offices).

Recalling that Ali Khamenei was president at the time of his elevation to the role of supreme leader, one cannot help but draw parallels. While being president is not a mandatory condition for becoming supreme leader, it is assumed that the president, as in 1989, will have one of the decisive votes. This consideration was taken into account in 2021 when the powers-that-be promoted Raisi’s candidacy for president, and over the past three years, the establishment has only reinforced his position.

In all likelihood, had fate not intervened in the form of heavy fog in the mountains where Raisi’s helicopter crashed, the president would have been slated to receive another post: Chair of the Assembly of Experts. Its current chair, 93-year-old Mohammad-Ali Movahedi Kermani, was close to the older cadre of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) veterans, but his relationship with the new generation of the Guards is unclear.

The IRGC is another significant player in Iran. Despite having no formal voice in legislative or governance decisions, the military organization handles all security-related matters, including coordinating pro-Iranian forces in the region and managing considerable assets at home and abroad. The IRGC's input in selecting the new supreme leader cannot be ignored — and it might even turn out to be decisive.

Supreme leader candidates

Given his age, Assembly of Experts chair Kermani is unlikely to run for supreme leader, even if he lives to see the election of Khamenei's successor. However, as the Raisi incident showed, there are no guarantees either way. Khamenei has long outlived many who have been touted as his successors, and Raisi was just one candidate in a long lineup.

Another name frequently mentioned in Iranian political circles as a possible Rahbar is that of Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader's son. Raisi's death has improved the younger Khamenei’s chances, but there is one catch: both Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who came after him, consistently opposed the principle of hereditary succession, as they sought to avoid any associations with the Pahlavi dynasty that the Islamic Revolution toppled in 1979. Nevertheless, rumors that Mojtaba might become the supreme leader have not been refuted by those currently in power, and even if the supreme leader’s son decides against running for his father’s post, he may still try to promote a candidate of his choosing.

Mojtaba Khamenei
Mojtaba Khamenei

Following Raisi's death, many Iranianists also pointed to Alireza Arafi, 67, who was elected Vice Chairman of the Assembly of Experts on May 21. Arafi is widely seen as a dark horse capable of rivaling Mojtaba Khamenei. As a member of the Guardian Council, Arafi leads Friday prayers in Qom, a holy city in Shi’a Islam, and heads the Islamic Seminaries of Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei characterized Arafi as an “original, intellectual, and resourceful lawmaker.” He is also viewed as a fairly progressive politician — one who recognizes the importance of technology, unlike the older generation of ayatollahs.

Alireza Arafi
Alireza Arafi

Still, Arafi should not be mistaken for a reformer. Western organizations have accused Arafi of recruiting foreign Muslim students for the IRGC and maintaining close ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. Arafi's political profile makes him an interesting candidate for both the IRGC and the clergy. He may well attempt to put himself on a trajectory to the post of supreme leader by entering the upcoming presidential race.

Is a protest vote possible?

Early elections for the office of president will be held on Jun. 28. Applications from candidates will be accepted from May 30 to Jun. 3, after which the Guardian Council will select its slate of eligible candidates. The short election campaign — two weeks, from Jun. 12 to Jun. 27 — makes it almost impossible for candidates undesirable to the ruling establishment to win over voters.

Still, Iranians are traditionally politically active if given a real choice. The 2021 presidential election saw record low turnout — only 48.8%, with Raisi receiving 17.9 million votes (about 62% of those who went to the polls). In Tehran province, only about a quarter of residents voted. To compare, President Hassan Rouhani won the 2017 election with 23.6 million votes and a turnout of 73.3%.

Iranians are traditionally politically active if given a real choice

The lack of interest in the 2021 election was due to the Guardian Council’s decision not to allow any genuinely competitive candidate to run against Raisi. For similar reasons, the parliamentary elections in February of this year featured turnout of just 40.6%. By failing to show up to the polls, Iranians have made it clear to the authorities that they consider neither the president nor the parliament to be legitimate.

Despite the theatrical scenes of grieving that accompanied Raisi’s burial, the nation will remember his presidency for mass protests it sparked, along with the hardline crackdown that followed the demonstrations. In September 2022, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the vice police in Tehran for improperly wearing her hijab, brought massive crowds out onto the streets. Amini was said to have felt ill at the station before being taken to the hospital, where she died. According to her family, however, the cause of death was beatings during her arrest. According to Iranian opposition media, more than 550 protesters died at the hands of security forces during the resulting rallies of 2022-2023, and more than 20,000 were arrested. While past waves of popular discontent were largely directed against the government or the president — both easily replaceable — the recent protests featured more and more messages directed against Ayatollah Khamenei and the regime as a whole.

Protest activity in Iran continues, albeit in a diminished form. The oppressive apparatus of Iran’s security agencies may have reasserted its dominance, but the situation remains volatile.

Political struggle

The authorities are not interested in increasing the tension. Interestingly, Raisi's death has created room for an unplanned change of trajectory — a theme that has repeated itself many times in Iran's history. Periodically, hardline conservatives would give way to reformers who trod more carefully and cooperated more actively with the West.

Reformers were not allowed to participate in the 2021 elections, and the radical conservative bloc used that year’s elections to secure its grip on all branches of the Iranian government. As a result, the main struggle for the presidency — and, in the future, for the post of supreme leader — is expected to unfold among the conservatives. Still, Khamenei may decide to allow the disillusioned part of society to participate in the upcoming election process, rather than risk having to deal with them violently in the streets.

It would not be the first time Ayatollah Khamenei decreed the return of reformist candidates to the campaign trail, even after the Guardian Council had rejected them. If the supreme leader decides that the new president and his potential successor need to be given additional legitimacy, he will make the election campaign more competitive. On the other hand, no one wants surprises now, much less when choosing Khamenei's successor. The authorities rushed to hold the elections in order to prevent the emergence of a power vacuum, and also to minimize opportunities for the covert struggle in Tehran to reveal itself.

The authorities rushed to hold the elections to prevent the emergence of a power vacuum and minimize opportunities for the covert struggle in Tehran to reveal itself

“The Iranian people need not worry. There will be no upheaval in the country,” Khamenei said after confirming the fact of Raisi's death. His words sent the message that everything was under his control. However, we can only guess what balance of domestic forces is favorable to Rahbar now, and whether he is truly angling for his son to come to power. The presidential election campaign might shed light on these questions.

Who can become a presidential candidate?

Among the long list of potential presidential candidates, a few names stand out.

Raisi’s duties have been temporarily assumed by 68-year-old First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber. Mokhber may choose to run for president, although he has so far preferred to remain in the shadows, heading or helping run foundations controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mohammad Mokhber
Mohammad Mokhber

Mokhber is often referred to as “the supreme leader's wallet.” Among his most recent positions, he served as executive director of the Setad Foundation, which deals with properties that were left without owners following the Islamic Revolution. Mokhber also managed the development and promotion of Iran's coronavirus vaccine, Barekat. Opposition circles are convinced that he may be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians during the pandemic, as he played an instrumental role in restricting the import of foreign analogs while lobbying for the use of his own vaccine.

Mokhber is also implicated in several corruption scandals. As vice president, he was responsible for coordinating the government's economic activities, which included extensive cooperation with Russia. He visited Moscow with IRGC representatives in October 2023, when the two states were negotiating a deal to supply Russia with Iranian missiles and drones.

The number-two candidate is 62-year-old Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Ghalibaf assumed his post in 2020 after various tenures as head of the Iranian police, commander of the IRGC Air Force, and, finally, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017). If he decides to run in the early election, it will be his fourth attempt. In 2009 Ghalibaf's candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council, and in 2013 he finished second to Hassan Rouhani. In 2017, on the third attempt, Ghalibaf withdrew from the election so as not to interfere with the battle between Rouhani and Raisi. Even though he is considered to be conservative, some experts tend to categorize Ghalibaf as a compromise candidate. In any case, he is a much more prominent politician than Mokhber and is not associated with the current government.

Another candidate who could bring about a compromise between conservatives and reformists is 65-year-old Ali Larijani, a moderate politician who formerly held the positions of parliament speaker, IRGC commander, and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. In 2021, the Guardian Council did not allow him to join the presidential race, fearing he would prove too competitive for Raisi.

Another candidate who could bring about a compromise between conservatives and reformists is former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani

The most coveted figure for reformers, however, is former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, 64, who is mostly known for signing the milestone “nuclear deal” in 2015. This treaty placed enforceable restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reinstated the sanctions. Conservative groups in Iran took advantage of this development to intensify criticism of both Zarif and then-president Rouhani.

Mohammad Javad Zarif
Mohammad Javad Zarif

Zarif is a natural diplomat who enjoys the respect of many world leaders, including some in the West. He was formerly on excellent terms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but after Zarif’s resignation, he suddenly began blaming Moscow — and his Russian counterpart personally — for several of Iran's geopolitical problems, accusing Russia of attempting to undermine the nuclear deal. Zarif has also condemned the IRGC's interference in Iran's foreign policy, and it is highly unlikely that the Guards will be willing to forget about the slight. That said, Zarif remains a part of the establishment and knows which buttons to push. Thus, he was quick to blame the United States for the crash of President Raisi's helicopter, which he said was ultimately caused by sanctions that had led to a shortage of spare parts for such aircraft.

Rounding out the top five most discussed presidential candidates is 58-year-old Saeed Jalili, who succeeded Larijani at the Supreme National Security Council in 2007 and was the chief negotiator on Iran's nuclear program for six years, earning a reputation as a hardliner averse to any compromise. Jalili was once believed to be a protégé of Mojtaba Khamenei.

In 2021, Jalili withdrew just days before the vote, endorsing Raisi. According to some experts, it was Jalili who was behind many of Raisi's decisions as president. Jalili sits on the Expediency Discernment Council, which resolves differences between the Parliament and the Guardian Council.

Among the less prominent but still noteworthy candidates, it is worth mentioning the head of Iran's judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, whose vote is also expected to be influential in the election of the supreme leader. Ali Shamkhani, the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani are also on the potential list. All of them are conservatives and advocates of hardline policies. Some experts theorize that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could also vie for power, even if his reputation would raise red flags both in the West and among the majority of Iranians. By contrast, former Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri is counted among pro-reform candidates. Some reformers also support Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ruhollah Khomeini.

Acting Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, who assumed Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s responsibilities after he perished in the crash along with Raisi, is another longshot possibility. Bagheri, a career diplomat who worked at the Foreign Ministry before joining the Supreme National Security Council during Jalili’s tenure as the secretary, later became part of Jalili’s campaign team. In addition, Bagheri's brother is married to Ayatollah Khamenei's daughter, making him a member of the Supreme Leader's family. For now, he may limit his ambitions to establishing himself as the permanent Foreign Minister after the election, dropping the “acting” bit from his title.

The press has also cited the names of the late President Raisi's father-in-law — and even his wife — among the possible presidential candidates, but the latter defies belief.

No matter which candidates are ultimately approved, the Guardian Council’s decision deserves the closest scrutiny, as the list of names that appear on the official ballot will send a clear signal about the direction of Iran’s policy in the near future. Sooner than expected, the world will find out whether the regime is intent on cementing its current course towards strengthening the conservatives and the IRGC, or whether there may indeed still be hope for a more flexible approach.

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