The Fundamentalist, the Technocrat, and the Reformist

Published by the Atlantic

The Soviet despot Joseph Stalin once said that it is not the voters who matter most in elections but those who count the votes. When it comes to elections held in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the real power belongs to the small body of clerics and jurists called the Guardian Council, which vets every candidate and decides who gets to run. The council’s 12 members are directly or indirectly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an octogenarian who still calls all the most important shots.

On Sunday, the council presented the final slate of candidates for the presidential election to be held on June 28, following last month’s death in a helicopter accident of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hard-line president and Khamenei yes-man. Of the 80 current and former regime officials who registered to run, the council approved only six. The race will now be chiefly among two major conservative candidates and a lone reformist.

You can call them the technocrat, the fundamentalist, and the reformist, respectively: Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former mayor and police chief, who is known for his strongman tendencies and base of support in the powerful militia Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); Saeed Jalili, a former national-security adviser who is infamous for his Islamist fundamentalism, even by the regime’s standards; and Masud Pezeshkian, a member of Parliament, physician, and former health minister under President Mohammad Khatami. Because Pezeshkian was one of the three candidates endorsed by the Iranian Reformist Front, the reformists will now have to walk back their threat to boycott the vote.

The main surprise on Sunday was the disqualification of Ali Larijani, a centrist conservative who might have offered the regime a chance to tack back to the West-facing policies of the centrist former president Hassan Rouhani. Larijani was barred from running, just as he had been in 2021. According to sources I spoke with, the council’s vote on him was far from unanimous. Still, some told me that the anti-American establishment balked at the fact that his daughter holds a faculty position at Emory University in Atlanta.

Much more predictable was the disqualification of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative former president whose populist shenanigans gained him some street cred, but whose anti-clerical leanings have led Khamenei to distrust him as a loose cannon.

Notably, the long list of those disqualified also includes several of the late President Raisi’s cabinet ministers. Their exclusion is a slap in the face to the notorious “Circle of M,” a shadowy clique of hard-liners close to Raisi’s powerful son-in-law Meqdad Nili. In other words, even if hard-liners stay in charge, it’ll be a different set of hard-liners.

Why did the Guardian Council, and its ultimate source of authority, Khamenei, set the stage like this?

Khamenei is known to be indecisive, forever hedging his bets and trying to balance the regime’s many factions, each of which he owes something to. He is too paranoid to trust any single person or bloc. The final slate likely reflects his best effort to keep popular discontent and elite infighting from becoming unmanageable.

From the perspective of the regime’s and Khamenei’s interests, both Qalibaf and Jalili have pros and cons. As a loyal disciple of the regime’s revolutionary creed, Jalili could offer a safe pair of hands at the helm. But his extremism will further narrow the Islamic Republic’s base of support. He is likely to bring about an even harsher subjugation of women and suppression of dissidents as well as a more hostile foreign policy. When he led Iran’s nuclear negotiations from 2008 to 2013, Jalili was notorious for lecturing his Western counterparts instead of engaging in actual negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. He once showed up to a meeting with a demand for a change in the structure of the United Nations.

When Jalili previously ran for president, in 2013, even longtime conservatives such as former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati criticized him for his inflexibility and claimed that he had sabotaged Iran’s dealings with the West and helped provoke tighter sanctions. Qassem Soleimani, the chief of IRGC’s external operations wing who was killed by a U.S. strike in 2020, once reportedly threatened to quit if Jalili was elected president. Khamenei likely approves of much of Jalili’s agenda personally, but he may worry that pushing it through will be too divisive.

Qalibaf is cut from a wholly different cloth. Those who have known him for years attest that he is a power-hungry technocrat with hardly an ideological bone in his body, despite his many protestations to the contrary. Western media outlets have reported on his private expression of admiration for the Israeli military’s role in civilian manufacturing. He was mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, a period known for significant municipal corruption, but also for able management that made the city more livable in many ways.

Qalibaf’s raw ambition is obvious, in that he has run for president repeatedly, and on wildly different platforms. In 2005, he compared himself to Reza Shah, the autocratic king who founded the Pahlavi dynasty that the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew. In 2017, he tried economic populism: He claimed that he represented the “96 percent,” and called himself a “neo-conservative,” to be distinguished from the hated hard-liners—then later withdrew in favor of the real hard-liner, Raisi.

In recent years, many in the ultraconservative camp have soured on Qalibaf. Some younger hard-liners vociferously attacked him in the parliamentary elections earlier this year, calling him “The Godfather” and taunting him with memes from the film. Qalibaf is a survivor: He took a hit in the polls but was nonetheless able to hang onto his role as speaker of Parliament, notably with support from centrist and reformist MPs. But the suspicion of him from the right may matter more this time around. If he becomes president, he will be in a good position to shape Iran’s future after Khamenei’s eventual death.

The supreme leader may be disinclined to empower a technocrat with no ideological principles at what could become a transitional moment for the Islamic Republic. Yet Qalibaf looks more and more like Khamenei’s best choice. He has significant support within the IRGC and does not provoke the elite resistance that Jalili might. What’s more, he very much appears to be the current front-runner. One ominous sign that he is the favored candidate may be the arrest on Sunday of two journalists known for covering his corruption. On Tuesday, in his first televised interview as a candidate, Qalibaf made populist promises—to fight illegal immigration from Afghanistan, for example—but also took pains to assure his conservative base of his devotion to the late President Raisi and his path.

The chance of the presidency going to a reformist for the first time since 2005 seems remote. The council might have approved Pezeshkian in the hope of increasing voter turnout, something the regime is always sensitive about. In 2021, the presidential election promised to be an uncompetitive coronation for Raisi, and a majority of voters stayed home. Khamenei might have cynically calculated that Pezeshkian won’t garner enough votes to win but will bring enough people to the ballot boxes to push the turnout above 50 percent. At any rate, Pezeshkian is very much a loyal opposition figure and no real threat to the system. In his first televised interview after being approved, he disappointed even his early supporters by making no concrete promises for change and reiterating that he saw the job of the president as implementing “policies set by the Supreme Leader.” One reformist former MP balked at this performance on social media, commenting that Pezeshkian would surely lose if he went on like this. The spokesperson for the Iranian Reformist Front urged him to do a better job of appealing to “the majority critical of the status quo.”

Pezeshkian is certainly not in the race to be an also-ran. “We are in it to win,” a source close to him told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media. In five upcoming televised debates, each of which will last four hours, he will have a chance to do what he failed to do in the initial interviews.

In fact, the current setup of candidates could actually favor Pezeshkian. The hard-line vote will be divided among Qalibaf, Jalili, and two other candidates, unless those two end up resigning in favor of Jalili. The only centrist conservative candidate, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is a dour cleric, widely hated for his role in the execution of political prisoners in the 1980s.

Pezeshkian is thus likely to be a consensus candidate for reformists and centrists. Rouhani’s centrist Moderation and Development Party has already endorsed him, as have several of his cabinet ministers, including former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. If they are able to energize their base, Pezeshkian might have a real chance of winning, either on June 28 or in the second round, which will be held on July 8 if no candidate gets a majority at first. But that remains a very big if, given the candidate’s early performance. Pezeshkian will likely play up his Turkic Azeri background, hoping to win the support of the up to 15 million Iranians who share that heritage. He also speaks Kurdish—the primary language of his Kurdish mother and of the city of Mahabad, where he was born—and so may additionally try to court the Kurdish and Sunni votes. But although such efforts could work in his favor, they could also play against him, as some ultranationalists, among both supporters and opponents of the regime, have already started attacking him as a “pro-ethnic candidate.”

All of the candidates, Pezeshkian included, will have a tough time generating electoral enthusiasm. Most Iranians are disillusioned with the official politics of the Islamic Republic and its many factions. They remember the hundreds killed during demonstrations in recent years, including those under the centrist Rouhani. They know that real power doesn’t rest with the presidency anyway. Khamenei, the country’s autocratic ruler since 1989, has brought Iran to its nadir: economic disaster, political and social repression, international isolation, and the threat of an unwanted war with Israel and the United States. Those who count on Azeris showing up for Pezeshkian would do well to remember that only 28 percent of people in the ethnic Azeri stronghold of Tabriz turned up in the elections earlier this year that brought him to Parliament. Of the 1.9 million Tabrizis eligible to vote, fewer than 96,000 voted for him.

Still, Iranian political behavior is notoriously hard to predict. In the next two weeks, the candidates will wage an intense competition for hearts and minds. Whoever becomes the next president will not only hold the second most important job in the Islamic Republic; he will have a front-row seat to the real power struggle that is sure to arrive when Khamenei finally dies. Only then might we see actual change in the policies that have driven most Iranians to hate the regime.

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