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What Iran’s elections mean for Biden and Khamenei

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The hasty race to elect Iran’s next political leader following the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi last month has entered a decisive campaigning phase with the potential to significantly shape the nation’s domestic and foreign policies at a crucial period.

Most of the six candidates approved out of more than 80 initial hopefuls reflect the nation’s consolidation of power in the hands of conservative religious and military circles under the ultimate authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and an increasingly influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

But how the race plays out could indicate power shifts taking place at the heart of the Islamic Republic.

While, unlike Raisi’s widely foreseen 2021 win, there is no clear front-runner for this year’s election, two men have emerged as the strongest candidates in the eyes of many observers. They are Saeed Jalili, a member of the Khamenei-appointed Expediency Discernment Council and the supreme leader’s representative to the Supreme National Security Council, and Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a well-known former IRGC commander who serves as speaker of the nation’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

The IRGC answers directly to Khamenei, but at a time when the elite military institution has spread its influence beyond the realm of defense into other decision-making circles and an aging Khamenei has no clearly defined successor, the outcome of the vote may be telling of the future of the nation’s leadership.

“The IRGC is likely to win regardless of who is elected president,” Ali Alfouneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Newsweek. “But since everyone perceives Jalili as Khamenei’s favorite, every vote for Qalibaf is a vote against Khamenei, and a Qalibaf victory will be interpreted as Khamenei’s defeat.”

Iran’s six approved 2024 presidential candidates from top right to bottom left: Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Saeed Jalili, Masoud Pezeshkian, Alireza Zakani and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf.

Vahid Salemi/AP

Nuclear Divisions

Jalili and Qalibaf, both having served in numerous government positions and unsuccessfully run for the presidency in the past, now bring unique advantages and vulnerabilities to their current campaign.

“Jalili, who lost a leg and his sense of humor in the war against Iraq, caused international sanctions during his tenure as nuclear negotiator,” Alfoneh said. “If voters boycott the elections, feeling they have no real choice, Jalili is likely to be elected with 30 percent of the vote, similar to Raisi.”

Alfoneh argued that “this is Khamenei’s ideal scenario.” But he also explained how Qalibaf’s popularity and pragmatism could present a challenge to Jalili’s path to power.

“Jalili faces competition from Qalibaf, the green-eyed favorite of Tehran ladies, who find him oh-so-dashing in his pilot uniform, and the favored son of Khorasan province,” Alfoneh said. “A veteran of the Revolutionary Guard, a political pragmatist, and a bon vivant constantly involved in corruption cases, Qalibaf appeals to a public that appreciates the pursuit of earthly pleasures over revolutionary ideology.”

The difference between an administration headed by Jalili or Qalibaf may also boil down to entrenching Iran’s current foreign policy path or recalibrating in key areas.

“Jalili would likely continue Raisi’s policies but engage more in foreign policy to the regime’s detriment,” Alfoneh said. “His insecurity forces him to take inflexible positions in negotiations, avoiding concessions without Khamenei’s written authorization, which he is unlikely to receive. Khamenei, after all, has a habit of blaming presidents for his own miscalculations.”

“Domestically,” he added, “Jalili may increase friction between state and society by empowering repressive elements like the morality police.”

On the other hand, Alfoneh argued that “Qalibaf, more self-confident, may bring authority to the presidency” and he “might try to revive a nuclear agreement with the United States, provided President Biden is reelected.”

The deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was reached in 2015 under then-U.S. President Barack Obama, who Biden served as vice president and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi’s reformist predecessor.

The accord promised sanctions relief in exchange for Iran substantially restricting its nuclear activities, but it was abandoned by the U.S. in 2018 under former President Donald Trump.

Efforts toward restoring mutual participation under Biden and Raisi have repeatedly unraveled amid mutual distrust and heightened geopolitical tensions that have only deepened amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

“Skilled in the art of greasing palms, Qalibaf could secure Revolutionary Guard support for negotiations and persuade the Supreme National Security Council to follow his line, potentially presenting Khamenei with a fait accompli,” Alfohen said. “Khamenei, not wanting to be blamed for Iran’s diplomatic isolation and economic hardships, may have to cooperate with Qalibaf, which is why he will indirectly support Jalili’s campaign.”

Saeed Azimi, a political journalist and commentator in Tehran, also noted that “Qalibaf is a supporter of the JCPOA, while Jalili opposes it,” pointing to a recent Iran Wire report citing an unnamed European diplomat who said individuals presenting themselves as advisers to Qalibaf approached Western officials with preliminary overtures for talks.

“I believe Qalibaf has the power to convince senior IRGC commanders to get on board with his foreign policy approach,” Azimi said. “He wouldn’t be facing opposition from the IRGC.”

Jalili, on the other hand, according to Azimi, would be expected to double down on Iran’s steps away from international nuclear cooperation in light of ongoing U.S. sanctions and a recent vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board to censure the Islamic Republic for its nuclear activities. He argued that Jalili may even withdraw Iran’s signature from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Iran, Supreme, Leader, Ayatollah, Khamenei, parliamentary, elections
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on May 10 after casting his ballot in the parliamentary runoff elections.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Unpopular Opinions

Jalili’s win could also further arouse domestic aversion to reforms, with Azimi calling the election a “make or break scenario” for Iran’s economy.

“In the case of a hard-liner win, notably Jalili, things would be much more difficult for the people,” Azimi told Newsweek. “His tight approach on foreign policy closes the door for foreign investment. He is a believer of internet censorship and will enforce the morality police on a harsher level.”

But Azimi also cautioned against any early forecast for the election result or the positions of the other candidates, who include the parliament representative for Tabriz, Osku, Azarshahr Masoud Pezeshkian, former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Vice President Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, and Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani.

For example, he highlighted that Pezeshkian, the lone reformist candidate, is still “a firm believer of the Islamic Republic and a great lobbyist,” while Pourmohammadi, the only cleric on the ballot, served three Iranian presidents with varying outlooks and “is popular with both conservatives and moderates,” meaning he did not necessarily fit the typical conservative mold.

“Notwithstanding some analysts noting the elections in Tehran are engineered, I assume this would be a tight, unpredictable race,” Azimi said. “None of the candidates could be construed as ‘popular’ among the public.”

Given his past willingness to openly challenge the political establishment, notably during the 2009 elections that led to a disputed victory to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was disqualified from the current election, Pazeshkian may have “some edge” in terms of support on the Iranian street, where “some of the silent majority view Pezeshkian as their ‘voice,'” Azimi said.

Azimi argued that Pezeshkian could also “potentially revive the 2015 nuclear deal, ease internet restrictions, ease hijab laws, and sign Iran into the Financial Action Task Force Charter,” as well as “look into expanding ties with all countries as his administration will extend a warm welcome to Western and Eastern powers.”

Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, a London-based news site that focuses on Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula countries, also said that Pezeshkian would be “more likely to, beyond foreign policy issues, seek to relax social restrictions at home.”

However, Shabani told Newsweek that Pezeshkian “lacks a national political machine, so he will rely on a likely last-minute wave of endorsements to prop up his prospects, but it is unclear whether that will be enough to get a disillusioned electorate to go to the polls.”

Low voter turnout has been a growing issue in Iranian elections. In the 2021 presidential race, less than 48.48 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s four-decade history.

The figure dropped to less than 41 percent for the most recent legislative elections held in March and May, the second round taking place just over a week before Raisi’s shock demise in a helicopter crash upon his return from a trip to the border with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Raisi was widely viewed as a potential successor to Khamenei, who is only the second to hold the supreme leader position after the death of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

The 2024 parliamentary election, which was held simultaneously with the vote for the 88-member Assembly of Experts tasked with deciding the next supreme leader, delivered a widely expected landslide for conservatives who once again dominated the unplanned presidential race just a month later.

But, as Shabani noted, divisions were present within the ruling camp.

“This is the first presidential election since 2017 in which there is a Reformist candidate, and that single hopeful is now facing five conservatives,” Shabani said. “Having said that, conservatives are deeply divided among themselves, and that will most acutely become apparent in the upcoming televised debates, which have historically played an important part in shaping how voters view candidates.”

Given Khamenei’s traditionally prevailing position in Iranian politics, Shabani pointed out that “each presidential election is imbued with an implicit battle over who is most in line with the supreme leader,” who “is not supposed to take sides” during the election.

“What is apparent is that Qalibaf is among the front-runners and that he enjoys the backing of important segments of the IRGC,” Shabani said. “This does not, however, guarantee victory as evidenced by Qalibaf’s previous three failed attempts to secure the presidency.”

Iran, IRGC, march, in, Iraq, War, parade
Members of Iran’s IRGC march during a military parade near Tehran on September 22, 2023. “The IRGC is likely to win” the upcoming Iran election “regardless of who is elected president,” an expert said.

Vahid Salemi/AP

‘Completely Unpredictable’

Like Azimi, however, fellow Tehran-based journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi described the Iranian political scene as “completely unpredictable,” particularly as most of the candidates have few credentials known to the public eye despite their years of service and even Qalibaf’s portfolio did not guarantee popular backing.

“Only Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf is known for various tasks he’s served in the past two decades,” Sadeghi told Newsweek. “Nevertheless, being renowned doesn’t necessarily mean being popular.”

She noted as well that Ghazizadeh, who also leads the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans, “is also known to some extent because he was a candidate in 2021.” Jalili and Zakani were also approved to run in the last presidential election but ultimately dropped out in favor of Raisi before the race.

Meanwhile, Sadeghi said, Pezeshkian “is more or less known to local people in the East and West Azerbaijan provinces of Iran, especially in East Azerbaijan, which is his constituency.”

But in the absence of a clear favorite among the people, Sadeghi argued “we should put aside the option of popularity and focus on whom people see closer to the late President Raisi.”

And no matter who wins, she asserted it would remain up to the supreme leader and his security council to oversee Iran’s course on foreign policy.

“When it comes to foreign policy, the main decision-maker in this regard is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself alongside the Supreme National Security Council,” Sadeghi said. “The president who gets elected on June 28, should follow the roadmap that the state or, as we call it, Nezam, designs.”