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Iran Election: The President, the Landlord and the Future of the Nuclear Deal

Three reformist presidents have shown Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the capabilities of the supreme leader, despite his enormous power, are indeed limited

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Presidential candidates Saeed Jalili, left, Abdolnasser Hemmati, center, and Alireza Zakani, conclude a part of the final debate at a state-run TV studio in Tehran, on Saturday.
Presidential candidates Saeed Jalili, left, Abdolnasser Hemmati, center, and Alireza Zakani, conclude a part of the final debate at a state-run TV studio in Tehran, on Saturday.Credit: Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/ Young Journalists Club, YJC via AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, had a few regrets last week. “A mistake was made in disqualifying some of the candidates and an injustice was committed by blackening their name,” he said. Khamenei was referring mainly to the decision to disqualify Ali Larijani, the former speaker of the Iranian parliament, from running for president.

Despite being a member of Iran’s conservative camp, Larijani worked closely with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, supporting him throughout his term, and backed the nuclear agreement. Larijani could have swept up votes from the reformists if he had remained in the race, and that is precisely what Khamenei was afraid of.

Four days before the election, scheduled for June 18, Khamenei could give himself permission to criticize the Constitutional Council, whose members banned more than 1,400 presidential candidates and left only seven in the ring, since it is Khamenei who appoints half of the 12 members of the council, and decides the names of the “worthy” candidates, striking down all the others.

Yet it’s almost as if he hasn’t had enough of the fact that for the 31 years of his term, three presidents who were part of the reformist camp, or at least the pragmatic camp, have been elected, beginning with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Mohammad Khatami and now Hassan Rohani. All three of them reminded him – and the entire world – that the capabilities of the supreme leader, despite his enormous power, are indeed limited. Even when the supreme leadership promotes a president, it is the public that elects him – as long as there is no wholesale fraud in the election results, as was the case in the second term of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ultimately became Khamenei’s rival.

For some time now 82-year-old Khamenei has been in the twilight phase of his term, grooming his successor. It is in this context that the support he is now offering Ebrahim Raisi, who is considered the leading candidate in the presidential election and is already being touted as the successor to Khamenei when the latter dies.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, last week.Credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/ REU

In the 2017 presidential election, Raisi was defeated by Rohani, winning only 37 percent of the vote (57 percent went to Rohani). This outcome highlighted that conservative power isn’t as well received by the public as it once was.

But this time, their path could be smoother. Only one reformist candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, is a threat to Raisi. The question that particularly worries the conservatives is what the voter turnout will be. In the 2013 and 2017 elections in which Rohani ran, voter turnout was 76 percent and 70 percent respectively.

This time the regime is worried that a low voter turnout could play into Raisi’s hands, because it would mean that most of the reformists despaired over the chance for reforms and the election process, and are also disappointed that in his two terms, the reformist Rohani was unable to significantly improve the standard of living and end the economic crisis.

On the other hand, a low voter turnout will compromise the legitimacy of the president-elect and of the entire regime. But even if Raisi is elected, he is not necessarily the natural candidate to succeed Khamenei later on. In a televised debate earlier this month, Raisi was accused of not only lacking a higher education but not even finishing the sixth grade, while one of the conditions for approval of a candidacy is at least a master’s degree. Raisi, who headed Iran’s justice system, claimed that he has a law degree. “If you have such a degree, it’s because you forced the professors to hand it to you,” one of the candidates retorted.

In the final debate, which took place on Saturday, the reformist candidate Hemmati, who was most recently governor of the Central Bank of Iran, said Raisi had no clue about economics and “with all due respect to his religious studies, the country needs a person who can extricate it from the deep economic crisis caused by the regime’s failed policies and management.” By the way, Raisi’s religious studies and the title of Ayatollah that he holds are a matter of dispute. What is indisputable is his responsibility for the horrific murders of political prisoners in the late 1980s.

Iran's Kazem Gharib Abadi (L) and Abbas Araghchi (C) with Enrique Mora of the European External Action Service leaving the Vienna hotel where where nuclear talks are taking place, earlier this month.Credit: Lisa Leutner,AP

The question that troubles the West, especially the United States, is what will happen in the negotiations over the nuclear agreement if it is not signed by the end of this week. The sixth round of talks between the major powers and Iran began in Vienna on Saturday, and according to Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian representative to the talks, it could be the last round, at the end of which the agreement will be signed.

Reports from the talks reveal that only a few secondary issues remain, and the United States is showing much more flexibility. Last week, the U.S. even lifted some of the sanctions on members of the regime as a kind of show of good faith.

Even the announcement by the secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi – that remnants of enriched uranium had been discovered at a few sites is worrisome – was swept under the rug and did not motivate the participants to stop and examine those claims. It seems that everyone is in a big hurry to end the talks and move up the election.

At the same time, Raisi’s statement that he would support the negotiations and a signed agreement “if it serves the interests of Iran” attests that Khamenei is determined to reach an agreement, and perhaps he is only undecided about the desired date for signing it. According to some sources, he could put off the signing until after the election, but still under Rohani’s transitional government. He can thus place responsibility for the agreement on Rohani without compromising the “conservative purity” of Raisi, who will be able to claim that he inherited the agreement.

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