Iranians head to the polls to vote for a new president on June 14. With the current firebrand leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, out of the running thanks to term limits, they will choose among a group of decidedly conservative candidates that have already been vetted by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In a Q&A, Karim Sadjadpour explains that with no obvious front-runner, it is not clear whether the people or the supreme leader will have the decisive vote in the end. Either way, the international community is likely to see more of the same when it comes to Iran’s nuclear and foreign policies.

How important is the election in Iran?

Karim Sadjadpour
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
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The election is far more important for Iranians than it is for the international community. It will impact Iranian lives more than it will impact Tehran’s nuclear and foreign policy principles.

The position of president in the Islamic Republic of Iran is somewhat unique in that it’s neither authoritative nor ceremonial. The vast majority of constitutional authority rests with the supreme leader. Regardless of who wins the election, Ayatollah Khamenei will continue to have the final say on issues like the nuclear program and relations with the United States.

But the president can play an important role in managing—and often mismanaging—Iran’s economy, its domestic atmosphere, and its international image. Since Khamenei hasn’t left Iran since 1989, the president is often the public face of Iran to the world.

As in Washington, a new president in Tehran brings different personnel to the country’s bureaucracies. And that affects the nation’s overall tenor.

During the era of reformist president Mohammad Khatami there was an atmosphere of greater political and social tolerance than there has been during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Whereas Khatami is most remembered for his slogan calling for a dialogue of civilizations, Ahmadinejad will be remembered for his Holocaust revisionism and diatribes against Israel. This helped earn Iran six UN Security Council resolutions and a robust international sanctions regime.

Given that Khamenei is now seventy-three years old, the next president of Iran could also play an important role during a political transition in the event that the leader dies during his tenure.

Who are the leading candidates? What is the likely result?

There are now six candidates remaining in the race—two recently dropped out. Five of them are fairly well-known figures, while one (Mohammad Gharazi) is seemingly kept around for entertainment purposes.

A decade ago, all of these candidates would have been considered conservatives, but given the Iranian political spectrum’s rightward shift, analysts have come up with new terms to differentiate among them, like “hardline conservative,” “traditional conservative,” and “pragmatic conservative.”

The five well-known candidates are:

  • Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran and former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

  • Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council and its chief nuclear negotiator

  • Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and adviser to the supreme leader

  • Hassan Rowhani, previous head of Iran’s National Security Council and its former chief nuclear negotiator

  • Mohsen Rezai, lead commander of the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war

Jalili was previously head of Khamenei’s office, and his campaign slogans—which preach Islamic principles coupled with political and economic resistance against hegemonic powers (that is, the United States)—align closely with Khamenei’s worldview. He and Velayati represent the so-called “principleist” camp, although Velayati projects a more urbane image.

While Ghalibaf is nominally a member of the “principleist” camp and pays lip service to Khamenei and revolutionary values, his main focus is to portray himself as a strong manager who can improve the country’s moribund economy. Several opinion polls—which admittedly should be taken with a large chunk of salt—show Ghalibaf in the lead. Rezai’s message is similar to that of Ghalibaf, but, like Velayati, he tries to play the role of a wise elder statesman.

Rowhani, an acolyte of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani (who was prohibited from running), is the lone “reformist” in the race, which is a reflection of the Iranian political spectrum’s shift to the right. A decade ago, many of the reformists who dominated Iran’s elected institutions—namely the presidency and the parliament—would have considered Rowhani more a rival than an ally.

If none of the candidates gets 50 percent of the vote in the first round, there will be a second-round runoff on June 21 between the top two vote-getters. Given that there are no runaway front-runners at the moment, a runoff appears likely.

The biggest question mark is whose vote will be more decisive, that of the people or that of the supreme leader. Khamenei has already engineered the election by rejecting—via the Guardian Council—candidates he deemed unpalatable (such as his old rival Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad’s chief adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei). It would be uncharacteristic of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards to refrain from trying to micromanage the results of such an important political institution in Iran.

Is there any threat of unrest or a repeat of the Green Revolution? How stable is the regime?

At the moment there are no signs of impending popular unrest. The Green Movement no longer exists as a cohesive entity (if it ever did). Its nominal leadership—2009 opposition presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—have been under house arrest for the last three years. The movement’s brain trust has been either exiled, imprisoned, or intimidated into silence.

Nonetheless the same political, social, and above all economic frustrations that compelled people to take to the streets in 2009 still very much exist, but this time around there is no organizing principal or common cause. In contrast to opposition movements in the Arab world in which the aspiration was and is to bring down regimes, the disgruntled masses in Iran still haven’t coalesced around a common goal. People are understandably reluctant to take to the streets when it’s not clear what they’re risking their lives for.

It’s often been noted that popular uprisings occur when people’s expectations are suddenly raised and then abruptly dashed. This is what happened in Iran’s 2009 election. This time around, I don’t think people have any illusions about the election, so a disillusioning outcome isn’t likely to animate folks the way it did in 2009.

Will the outcome have any impact on Iran’s involvement in the region?

Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East is controlled not by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs but by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reports to Khamenei, not Iran’s president.

The presidential candidates haven’t really challenged this setup. They have voiced only mild criticism, if any, about Iran’s regional policies. In fact, all of them have made clear they understand that it is Khamenei, not the president, who makes major foreign policy decisions in Iran.

As such, a different president will have little impact on Iran’s regional policies, be it Tehran’s hostility toward Israel or its deep commitment to keeping the Assad regime in power in Syria. Tehran has spent billions of dollars arming and financing the Assad regime, and I don’t see that resolve wavering.

Of course, presidents do have some impact. And the individual who may well miss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the most is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ahmadinejad’s bluster—particularly his Holocaust revisionism and vitriol toward Israel—was a factor in bringing about Iran’s unprecedented international economic isolation. It would have been much tougher to subject Iran to this degree of coercion under a more moderate president.

Will the result alter Tehran’s stance in talks over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program?

Several of the presidential candidates have critiqued Jalili’s diplomatic ineptitude, but they refrain from calling into question the wisdom of the nuclear program itself. In other words, their critique is focused primarily on Jalili’s tactics, not Khamenei’s strategy.

Like Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, the nuclear program is run by the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei is widely thought to have the last word on nuclear decisions. A different president could bring about some cosmetic changes in Iran’s nuclear posture and could impact negotiating dynamics. But I don’t see that altering Khamenei’s entrenched strategy and his worldview that Iran should never compromise in response to pressure.