The June 2021 presidential election in the Islamic Republic of Iran is poised to deliver new sets of challenges internationally, as the West struggles to find diplomatic footing with the increasingly isolated Middle East nation. Iran is one of only a handful of nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa that commands the attention of international observers and states when a presidential election takes place.
This year, the results of the election — and the policy direction that emerges from it — will determine the future of negotiations on key security and foreign policy issues, including the renegotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal with the United States.
The few polls available indicate a hardliner is poised to take control of the presidency, though many international experts advise the results of these opinion polls — conducted by state-aligned groups — be met with a healthy dose of skepticism as to their veracity.
Should he win, a hardline Iranian principalist is expected to reverse the more moderate policies of Hassan Rouhani – the country’s unpopular, termed-out president. The hardliners are motivated, in large part, by a stagnated domestic economy (due to stringent international sanctions) and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a candidate in 2017 election cycle, President Rouhani outmaneuvered his competitors by harnessing the influence of social media as a means of accessibility and messaging distribution. Taking note, this cycle’s political leaders have worked hard to connect with voters through the digital sphere.
“With nearly 60 million of Iran’s 85 million people online, Iranian politicians are eager to spread their narrative through social media channels such as Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and more recently, the audio-discussion platform Clubhouse,” wrote Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni for the Middle East Institute. “While the first three are blocked by the state and can only be accessed via virtual private networks, Clubhouse, the most recent addition, has received a lot of attention among Iranians.”
The voice-based app has become a popular meeting place for Iranian election observers in-state and internationally, with some Clubhouse rooms hosting unfiltered, hours-long discussions for thousands of listeners. At the forefront of these discussions is the list of approved presidential candidates released by the Guardian Council at the end of May.
The Guardian Council, a twelve-member body that oversees the election process, unveiled new rules earlier in the month that narrowed candidate eligibility — a move immediately criticized as “restrictive” by outgoing President Rouhani.
The final list of approved candidates virtually eliminated any chance that a known moderate would emerge as a credible competitor to hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s Chief Justice and a close ally of the Ayatollah. Public criticism was swift from disqualified opposition candidates and their supporters, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who (in a May 31 Clubhouse discussion) vowed not to vote in the presidential election.
Similarly, a majority of the Iranian public is expected to also refuse to cast ballots on Election Day. A recently released poll revealed that less than 40% of the nation’s voters indicated they would vote in the June election.
While the election may not be of the utmost importance to the average Iranian citizen, it is of monumental importance to the regime, particularly at this time. In the past, the presidential elections were used by the regime as a method of establishing a perceived legitimacy of its government.
With an historically low voter turnout projected, and public disapproval of the election process growing louder, the regime and its tactics has been thrust into center stage. Critics have been quick to expose perceived deficiencies in the presidential election process.
The Guardian Council’s powerful role in vetting and approving candidates has led many international observers, including Shahin Milani writing for the Atlantic Council, to assert the presidency itself “is not as important or politically relevant as foreign observers might believe it to be.”
In Iran, the true power resides with the Guardian Council; the Revolutionary Guards Corps; and, ultimately, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is their influence that decides the future of Iran; and it is for this reason that many Iranians have expressed frustration that both the reformists and conservatives, in practice, are actually the same.
“The myth of electoral competition and political dynamism is maintained even though all but the strictest adherents to the theocracy are denied the right to run; media are strictly controlled even for those permitted to campaign; there is no independent body overseeing elections and ballot counting; international observers are prohibited; and people are intimidated into voting,” says Mariam Memarsadeghi, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “Once ’elected,’ the president and members of the legislature have no real power or independence and remain subservient to Khamenei.”
In April, leaked comments by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed the combined power of the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards over Iran’s foreign policy.
Wrote Farnaz Fassihi for the New York Times: “Mr. Zarif acknowledged on the tape that when it comes to negotiations, he is bound not just by the directions of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but by the demands of the Guards.”
Some analysts note the emergence of the Khamenei-linked conservative frontrunner as an indication that there may be a coming monumental shift in Iranian foreign policy: “in the event of a conservative candidate winning the elections especially someone with a military background, there is a likelihood of intensification of the standoff with the West.”
International experts will look to all of these factors in the coming weeks to assess how the election plays out. Understanding the way in which Iran’s elections are shaped may serve as a valuable insight for future diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.