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A country at stake: Iran prepares for its twelfth presidential election

The world is watching as Iran’s twelfth presidential election is scheduled for Friday, May 19. The election is considered by many to be a battleground between fundamentalists and reformists, and the results could potentially affect the country and the region for decades to come.

rouhani-raisi-photo-courtesy-of-author

Presidential elections have been held in Iran since the end of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a popular uprising that led to the toppling of the Iranian monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic.  The president of Iran is elected directly by a majority vote. The last election was held in 2013 when Hassan Rouhani was elected to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2013 election marked a turn in the Iranian political climate from conservative fundamentalism marked by anti-American rhetoric, to more moderate modernism, with a focus towards reengaging with western powers.

The President holds the second highest authority, next to the supreme leader.

The President is Iran’s highest popularly elected official and acts as the head of government. The Iranian Constitution gives the president the power to sign treaties and international agreements, to appoint ministers and ambassadors, to sign and implement laws passed by the legislature, and to administer the country’s budget and development plans. The President also acts as the face of Iran on the international stage and in negotiations and visits with other countries.

The President holds the second highest authority, next to the supreme leader. The supreme leader is Iran’s highest ranked political and religious official and is appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts, while the President is directly elected. The supreme leader controls the country’s armed forces and makes decisions on foreign policy, security, and defense issues. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei currently holds the position of supreme leader and has held the position since 1989. The President is subordinate to the supreme leader in many ways, with one way being that the supreme leader has the last say in the election of the president.

The Iranian Constitution requires that, in order to be eligible to run for president, a candidate must be of Iranian origin and nationality, have an “administrative capacity and resourcefulness, a good past record, trustworthiness and piety, and a convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab (Islamic school of thought) of the country.” These qualifications are very general and unrestrictive, resulting in thousands of applications for candidacy each election cycle. In order to run for president, potential candidates must register with the Guardian Council, which is a twelve-member group of jurists and religious scholars chosen by the supreme leader, and are then put through a highly discretionary vetting process. This year, over 1,600 people applied, and of those, only six potential candidates made it on the ballot. Among those rejected was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president of Iran, who threw his name in the hat for candidacy despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s contrary advisement.

[T]he opposing sides represent conservative traditionalism and isolationism versus moderate, modernist ideas.

The six candidates approved by the Guardian Council to be on the 2017 presidential ballot included: incumbent Hassan Rouhani, Ebrahim Raisi, Eshaq Jahangiri, Mostafa Mirsalim, Mostafa Hashemitaba, and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf. As of Monday, May 15, Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran, dropped his name from the race and extended his support to Raisi. Jahangiri, the current first vice president of Iran, followed Qalibaf in dropping from the ballot and is now backing President Rouhani.

Hassan Rouhani has been the president of Iran since 2013. He is a moderate politician backed by reformists. Rouhani has held positions such as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and has a professional history rich in nuclear negotiations. Ebrahim Raisi is known as a conservative hard-liner with a background in the judiciary as a tough prosecutor. He is also the head of one of the Middle East’s most important and wealthy religious foundations, Astan Quds Razavi. Mostafa Mirsalim is another very conservative candidate known for his harsh treatment of independent media publications.

It has been predicted that the presidential race will come down to Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi. This will mimic the dynamic of the previous election, in that the opposing sides represent conservative traditionalism and isolationism versus moderate, modernist ideas. If neither Rouhani nor Raisi receive over 50 percent of the vote Friday, there will be an additional run off between to two candidates with the highest amount of votes.

Amongst Iranian voters on all sides of the political spectrum, there is an overwhelming sentiment that the government needs to focus less on gaining regional power and supporting Shiite military groups, and more on rebuilding the domestic economy.

The major issues driving the political divide and presidential race are economic inequality, corruption, and foreign policy. One of Rouhani’s greatest achievements as president of Iran, negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), serves as a large contention point in the election. The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and major world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), made in July 2015 to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful. Although many see it as a major, positive step in deescalating major world tensions, resulting in the partial lifting of Western sanctions upon Iran, Rouhani is receiving criticism from both moderates and conservatives over the agreement.

Conservative parties have often criticized Rouhani for being too soft on relations and engagement with the United States and Western powers. Rouhani’s diplomatic discourse with U.S. President Barack Obama was seen as a sign of weakness, and was considered, as The Guardian describes it, “a taboo for more than three decades.” At the same time, moderate voters are still skeptical over the success of the nuclear deal. The economic benefits to the citizens of Iran have fallen far short of what they expected, and they are still feeling the impact of the sanctions.

Amongst Iranian voters on all sides of the political spectrum, there is an overwhelming sentiment that the government needs to focus less on gaining regional power and supporting Shiite military groups, and more on rebuilding the domestic economy. The New York Times reported Monday, “disillusioned and cynical, [citizens] are frustrated by years of high unemployment, inflation that eats relentlessly into living standards and widespread corruption.” Despite sanction lifts and increased oil sales, the unemployment rate in Iran is 12.7 percent, the youth unemployment rate is 30.2 percent, and “a third of the country remains in absolute poverty.” These figures, according to economists, “underestimate the problem” as “eight million Iranians are jobless, and only half of Iran’s educated women ever find a job.” Most of the country’s wealth remains centered in the government and amongst government employees.

Also potentially at stake in this election is Iran’s relationship with the international community. The fact that the outcome of the election has great potential to affect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is of major concern to other countries. It is highly unlikely that the agreement would be compromised by Iranian action, regardless of who wins the presidential seat. Nonetheless, some are worried that a conservative, hard-liner win could put an additional strain on relations with the United States, which could in turn affect how the Western nations treat the agreement.

“Iran’s aging leaders have been forced to give ground, tolerating changes they can no longer prevent.”

Additionally, this election comes at a critical time in Iran’s history. Ayatollah Khameini is reaching old age and was recently hospitalized after undergoing prostate surgery. The end of the supreme leader’s term seems near, and whoever wins the presidential election could influence the decision of who will replace him. Many political analysts have had their eyes on Raisi as the frontrunner for Khameini’s successor for years, and, as BBC reported, “observers see his run for presidency as a dry run for his next job.”

In the midst of the election season, reformists are optimistic about the future of the country. Overall, Iran has come a long way in recent years in terms of technology, education, infrastructure, and individual freedoms. As the New York Times pointed out, “Iran’s aging leaders have been forced to give ground, tolerating changes they can no longer prevent.” Because President Rouhani, as an incumbent, has never lost a presidential election since the beginning of the Islamic republic in 1979, it would seem as though history is on the side of the reformists.

Cydney Joyner
About Cydney Joyner (8 Articles)
Cydney Joyner is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Winston-Salem, NC. She attended undergrad at Salem College, a women's college in Winston-Salem, where she studied Political Science, International Relations, and Religion. During the summer following her first year of law school, she worked at the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office in Asheville, NC. Her legal interests are criminal law, international law, and constitutional law. This summer Cydney is interning at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of NC in Asheville.