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[Research Reports] Iranian Politics Leading Up to the 2021 Presidential Elections and US Influences

Mari Nukii (Associate Professor, Bunkyo Gakuin University)
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'Middle East and Africa' Research Group #11

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors' views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Stalled Iran-US Relations

It is no exaggeration to say that Iran has been one of victims most suffered from the Trump administration's 'America First' policy in the four years since President Trump's inauguration in 2017. The main cause was Trump's unilateral declaration on May 8, 2018 to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and resume sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, in May 2019, the United States imposed a total embargo on Iranian oil and sent the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and bomber units to the Middle East, heightening the risk of military conflict between the two countries.

In Iran, President Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy caused the Iranian rial to plummet, generating severe inflation and plunging the Iranian economy into an unprecedented crisis. At the end of December 2017 and again in November 2019, people who were dissatisfied with gasoline price hikes and economic difficulties staged nationwide protests. Millions took part in the protests, the largest and most widespread uprising since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They strongly indicated the people's destitution and dissatisfaction with the regime. The protests themselves were suppressed by the security forces and the Revolutionary Guards in about two weeks. However, support for the Rouhani administration and its power base, which promised to distribute the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement widely to the people, has weakened, and the influence of the Revolutionary Guards is now stronger than ever.

In November 2020, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who had pledged to return to the nuclear deal, won the US presidential election, raising hopes in Iran that sanctions could be lifted in early 2021.

The term of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has been actively seeking to improve relations with Europe and the United States and in favor of the Iranian nuclear agreement, will expire at the end of July 2021. Unless the United States takes bold conciliatory measures toward Iran, it is highly likely that a hardline conservative president strongly skeptical of the United States and eager to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear program will win the June presidential election.

Timeline for Iran's 2021 Presidential Election

The next presidential election is scheduled for June 18, 2021. Judging from past election schedules, discussions on candidates for the presidential election can be expected to intensify between March and April. Major factions will negotiate to select a single candidate and then announce their final choice. Registration of candidates will be carried out by the Election Commission under the Ministry of the Interior from May 11 to 16. In mid-May the Guardian Council will examine the qualifications of more than 1000 registered candidates in accordance with the requirements for president under Article 15 of the Constitution, ultimately narrowing down the field to about six candidates. Presidential campaigns will start in late May, and all the candidates will participate in a televised debate.

Indicators that can influence the outcome of the presidential election include (1) the final list of candidates who have passed the qualification examination by the Guardian Council, (2) enthusiasm among voters and their turnout, and (3) the level of coronavirus infections. Those who are not qualified as candidates in the first place will be unable even to participate in the election race. It is assumed that the six or so candidates will fall into one of three categories for every election: the favored candidates of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, acceptable candidates, and frothy candidates who are not very well known but could strike a balance among factions. Since taking office as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has excluded political opponents while reflecting his own views on politics through the Guardian Council. It has the power to screen candidates for each election as well as to make a final determination of whether a bill deliberated on in Parliament is in accordance with Islamic law.

Fundamentalists with rock-solid conservative support tend to win elections with low voter turnout. On the other hand, reformist and moderate candidates have a certain level of support among non-affiliates, mainly middle-class citizens living in urban areas. Reformists and moderates have an advantage in elections when the voter turnout is high, since they are more likely to attract floating votes and tend to. The defeat of the moderates and reformists in the February 21, 2020 parliamentary elections can be attributed to (1) historically low voter turnout, (2) the Guardian Council's rejection of all prominent moderate and reformist candidates, (3) calls by some reformist leaders for an election boycott, and (4) the spread of the coronavirus. Therefore, in the 2021 presidential election, there is a high probability that the fundamentalist candidate will win if the same factors overlap.

Who Will Supreme Leader Khamenei Recommend for President?

At present, the most important political issues for Khamenei are supposed to be, first, the stability of the Islamic regime and a smooth succession to the position of Supreme Leader. The second would be the success of nuclear negotiations with the United States, leading to the lifting of economic sanctions and the recovery of the Iranian economy. Now that the moderate and reformist forces have been weakened following the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, it is highly likely that hardline conservatives backed by the Revolutionary Guards, the strongest military group in quelling domestic disturbances and countering American military threats, will be chosen as the next president and the supreme leader.

Among the key candidates announcing their candidacy for president by March 2021 is Saeed Mohammad, a 53-year-old second brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the commander of its Khatham al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, a construction company founded in the 1980s as the logistics arm of the Revolutionary Guards1. He has little substantial military experience in the battle field and a track record in business and administrative management at the Revolutionary Guard Welfare Foundation and at Khatam al-Anbiya. It is believed that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is already in control of the commercial arena and the legislature and is closely tied to the judiciary, is entrusting General Mohammad with the fulfillment of its long-cherished wish to place a former Revolutionary Guards commander in the presidential post. Thus, it can achieve complete control of the central government.

On February 25, 2021, former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Ali Motahhari (63 years old), a traditional conservative politician who leans moderate, announced his candidacy for the presidential election. Ali Motahhari was born in 1958 as the son of the renowned Ayatollah Ali Morteza Motahhari, also known as the revolutionary ideological and spiritual leader who supported Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He is relatively popular with the population because of his open criticism of the suppression of human rights and corruption by hardline conservative politicians and the Revolutionary Guards. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, he won second place in Tehran's electoral district.

In the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, reformers eventually gave up on fielding their own candidate and turned to support Rouhani. However, reformists have been frustrated by President Rouhani's failure to revive the economy, as well as his failure to achieve notable results in the policies they advocate, such as the expansion of freedom of speech and political activity and the protection of human rights. For this reason, there is a strong desire to recommend a reformist candidate in the 2021 presidential election. On the other hand, considering that many prominent reformist candidates for the 2020 National Assembly election were rejected by the Guardian Council, some reformists believe that it is more realistic to support moderate or traditional conservative candidates, whose support base is among Shiite religious circles and Bazaar merchants, in order to oppose hardline conservatives. One idea is to jointly recommend former National Assembly Speaker Ali Larijani, a traditional conservative politician who leans moderate and who took part in nuclear negotiations with the US and Europe as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2005 to 2007.

There is a possibility that a technocrat who is not a candidate of a major faction but is close to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who exhibits absolute obedience to the orders of Supreme Leader Khamenei, and who can negotiate with the West to lift sanctions will be elected president2. A candidate who falls into this third category is Hossein Dehkhan, the 64-year-old former Minister for Defense, who announced his candidacy for the presidency earlier than any other candidate in November 2020.

As of March 2021, there has been a great deal of debate in the Iranian media and political circles in support of choosing a 'military president'. In this context, 'military' means 'belonging to the Revolutionary Guards'3. The debate was fueled in part by a public speech by Supreme Leader Khamenei in 2019 in which he said, "(I) hope for a revolutionary young government in the future"4. Since around 2016, Khamenei has been rejecting the first generation of revolutionaries of his own age for important posts directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, such as the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Chief of the Staff of the Armed Forces and the Friday Prayer leaders of every city in the country, and has successively appointed relatively young and loyal 'people of the second generation of the revolution' in their 40s and 50s5. Such rejuvenation is seen as a way of smoothing the transition to a post-Khamenei regime. The 2021 presidential election will be the final step toward that end. In addition, as noted above, the influence of the Revolutionary Guards has increased more than ever in Iran due to President Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy.

America's Decision Is Key to Iran's Presidential Election

For the stability of the Middle East and the revival of the Iranian nuclear agreement, it is desirable that a moderate or reformist president be elected in the 2021 presidential election. For this to happen, it is necessary for the Rouhani administration to get the United States to lift some of its sanctions through nuclear talks by June 2021 and gain the support of the people and Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Unless there is significant progress in nuclear talks by June 2021, a hardline conservative president is likely to emerge. The next presidential election can be seen as a prelude to a political struggle over the successor to 81-year-old Khamenei. In other words, the outcome of the 2021 presidential election is an important indicator of whether Ayatollah Khamenei's successor will be more moderate or a hardline conservative close to the Revolutionary Guards. Therefore, the Biden administration's decision could have a major impact on the outcome of the next presidential election in Iran and the fate of a post-Khamenei regime.

However, even if a former Revolutionary Guards president is elected in the next Iranian presidential election, it would be premature to fear the possibility of war breaking out soon or to conclude that there is no room for dialogue with members of the Revolutionary Guards who have an ideology of maintaining the Islamic regime, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims. An analysis of the military strategy and actions of the Revolutionary Guards reveals that, while emphasizing the survival of the Islamic regime, they are pursuing a pragmatic policy of displaying deterrence while avoiding unnecessary military clashes with adversaries such as the United States and Israel. In addition, since the Revolutionary Guard Corps has many companies under its umbrella, it is thought that some groups within the Revolutionary Guard Corps will be willing to negotiate with Europe and the United States if they can expect economic benefits. Therefore, there is no need to be too pessimistic about the possibility of a president from the Revolutionary Guards. However, the international community must be prepared for the need to reorganize negotiations from scratch with groups whose logic and principles of action quite differ from those of the moderate and reformist governments.

(This is a revised paper that was originally written in Japanese as of March 23, 2021.)

1 During the lifetime of Ayatollah Khomeini, who is said to have left a will objecting to the involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in politics, the Revolutionary Guards focused on the military aspects of homeland defense and the overthrow of anti-revolutionary forces. Following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the Revolutionary Guard Corps expanded its presence in other fields. When Rafsanjani became president in 1989, he partially tolerated the economic activities of the Revolutionary Guards in order to absorb a large number of demobilized soldiers while keeping them from entering politics. As a result, the construction company "Khatam al-Anbiya" was established based on the logistics department of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and began to undertake public works such as road construction, urban improvement, and dam construction from the government. In addition, the Foundation for the Welfare of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was established for the welfare of members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and their families, began to engage in the construction of large-scale housing complexes, such as participating in the Mehr housing project for the poor promoted by the Ahmadinejad government. Ali Alfoneh, Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards is Turning Theocracy into Military Dictatorship, Washington, D.C.: the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2013, pp. 26, 166-173; Frederic Wehrey, The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Santa Monica: Rand National Defense Research Institute, 2009. pp. 55-75.

2 Khalaji, Mehdi, "Iran's 2021 Presidential Vote and the Tightening of Regime Control," Policy Notes, No. 89, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2020.

3 BBC Persia report on November 19, 2020 "The General Counsel of the IRGC defended the possibility of IRGC alumni becoming president"<>, accessed on November 20, 2020.

4 BBC Persia report on September 9, 2020 "1400 Presidential Elections: Iran's Supreme Leader Wants a Revolutionary Young Government"<>, accessed on September 10, 2020.

5 BBC Persia report on March 19, 2019 "Is the Reverend Khamenei setting the conditions for his abdication?"<>, accessed on March 20, 2019.