Presidential Elections in Iran: Procedures, Candidates, and the Persistent Clout of Key Institutions

19 Mar 2021

Presidential Elections in Iran: Procedures, Candidates, and the Persistent Clout of Key Institutions

Most speculation about the candidates and outcome of Iran’s upcoming presidential election appears premature, and assessments about potential impact on U.S.-Iranian relations seem exaggerated.

By Ali Alfoneh

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)

March 19, 2021


As the Islamic Republic prepares for the June 18 presidential election, Iranian and international media are boiling over with speculations concerning who is likely to prevail and how the outcome may impact Iran’s relations with the United States. A review of the basic procedures and political dynamics of presidential elections as well as strategic decision making in Iran since 1979 serves as a cautionary antidote to such speculation: If history is any guide, serious presidential contenders will not join the race until five weeks prior to the election, and the president is but one among multiple institutional decision makers in Iran’s highest strategic decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council.

Despite the intense media buzz, registration of candidates does not begin until May 11 and continues until May 15. During these five days, the Guardian Council, which is tasked with safeguarding the constitution, will vet and pronounce its ruling on competency of the candidates according to constitutional requirements detailed in the June 26, 1984 Law on Presidential Elections and its later amendments. These requirements include objective and subjective criteria. The former include adherence to Twelver Shiism, Iranian citizenship, not being or ever having been subject of a foreign country, possessing a master’s degree or its equivalent, being between 40 and 70 years old at the time of registration, and having completed military service (or being legally exempt from it). The subjective requirements include belonging to Iran’s “religious and political grandees,” possessing “leadership skills,” and having “a good reputation” of “honesty and piety,” and belief in “the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic.”

The objective criteria alone bar more than half of Iran’s population from running for president: The Guardian Council’s literal interpretation of the term religious and political “grandees” as “men” has hitherto disqualified women. The Twelver Shiism requirement additionally disqualifies Iran’s Sunni minority, which constitutes around 10% of the population, and smaller religious minorities, such as Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, as well as secular Iranians.

The subjective criteria further empower the Guardian Council, and thereby Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to disqualify those deemed politically undesirable and secure ideological conformity among the elites. With the exception of the Islamic Republic’s first presidential election, which took place prior to the establishment of the Guardian Council, only a handful of candidates are usually allowed to run for each election and the others who have registered are dismissed on arbitrary grounds. The most spectacular disqualifications arguably took place in the run-up to the 2013 presidential election, when the Guardian Council, for reasons not publicly declared, disqualified Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the regime and a former president, and many other prominent regime personalities. Such disqualifications not only define the parameters of what the regime finds acceptable but also provide the electorate with a semblance of choice among the selected few.

Desiring to be among the selected few, serious presidential candidates are in no hurry to openly declare their candidacy and will not formally register as candidates until a few hours prior to the deadline. In the meantime, they engage in stealth lobbying among fellow elites and indirect messaging to the public to create a demand for their participation. Once they are confident of enjoying a modicum of support among the elites, perhaps even getting a green light from Khamenei in person, and if they also manage to mobilize a degree of public enthusiasm, they formally register as candidates. In such circumstances, the Guardian Council will find it harder to disqualify them, unless Khamenei’s green light was pure deception meant to entice the person to register and later disqualify and scandalize him to ruin the candidate’s political career, as Rafsanjani claims was the case in 2013. Less serious candidates are not restricted by such considerations and announce their candidacy early on to maximize media coverage.

There are three officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who have dominated media speculation as prospective candidates in recent months. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is a former IRGC air force and police chief and currently is parliamentary speaker – a position he most likely will not trade for the uncertain outcome of the presidential election. Hossein Dehghan, who was among those who took hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and served as IRGC Lebanon commander in the 1980s and later as defense minister, is another lightweight candidate. Dehghan appears more interested in adorning his curriculum vitae with presidential candidacy than actually pursuing the presidency. The third guardsman, Saeed Mohammad, is the young face of the IRGC who recently left his position as commander of the IRGC Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base, Iran’s largest contractor. Mohammad’s presidential bid got off to a bad start with rumors abounding about him having been fired from Khatam al-Anbia due to “irregularities” in his conduct. As with Mohsen Rezaei, former IRGC chief commander, who habitually runs in presidential elections and fails, there is no sign of significant popular support for Iran’s men on horseback.

If they pass through the needle’s eye of the Guardian Council, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other members of President Hassan Rouhani’s technocratic team may have a chance of beating the officers at the ballots. This may be in spite of their unfulfilled promise of a peace dividend to the electorate, due to the debacle of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. For now, however, Rouhani’s team is quietly lobbying the corridors of power to get a sense of the parameters for policies and candidates that the regime finds acceptable.

The outcome of these maneuverings may be of some importance for the struggle for succession to supreme leader after Khamenei, which explains the factional rivalry between the IRGC on the one hand and the technocrats on the other. However, it would be wrong to expect a seismic shift in U.S.-Iranian relations based on who prevails in the presidential election. Ever since the 1989 constitutional amendment that established the Supreme National Security Council, it has gradually developed into the highest strategic decision-making body in the Islamic Republic.

The Supreme National Security Council is presided over by the president, but the constitutionally mandated composition of the council also provides each power of the state a seat at the table. Strategic cabinet ministers, and not least the supreme leader, or his representative, also each have a vote. While the details of the inner workings of this institution remain mysterious to outsiders, anecdotal accounts suggest democratic decision making among the members. In other words, the prevailing policy orientation among the majority of the council members will be the policy of the Iranian state and not necessarily the policy preferences of the president.

In this light, most speculation about the candidates and outcome of the election appears premature, and assessments about potential impact on U.S.-Iranian relations seem exaggerated. The focus of individuals generated by an electoral campaign ought not distract attention away from the institutions likely to have more impact than individuals.

Iranian Presidential Election Candidates 2021


Ali Alfoneh

is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).