The Iranian regime typically uses elections to claim legitimacy internationally. But this year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seemingly has a more pressing priority in mind: securing the tools for a smooth transition into a post-Khamenei era in Iran.
Iran’s election watchdog, the Guardian Council – an unelected body overseen by Khamenei – has approved only seven out of 592 hopefuls to run in the June 18 presidential elections. The most prominent approved candidate was judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric who is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei.
The other six candidates’ chances of becoming president are virtually non-existent, and some of them are even expected to pull out of the race in favor of Raisi before the elections. Consequently, a Raisi presidency is all but certain.
A major surprise, however, was the Guardian Council’s disqualification of Ali Larijani, a long-serving member of the establishment who was speaker of parliament for over a decade and who currently serves as an advisor to Khamenei.
Larijani, who was noticeably active on social media during the 10 days he thought he was running for president, had appeared to be the consensus candidate of the self-described reformist and moderate factions in Iran. This was especially apparent from the reactions to his disqualification, as reformist politicians, activists and journalists appeared more outraged by his disqualification than the barring of any other candidate, including their own Eshaq Jahangiri, the current vice president and the most prominent reformist candidate.
Larijani has aligned himself with the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani over the past few years and was hoping to secure the backing of the president’s voting base.
Therefore, many were anticipating a two-horse race between Raisi and Larijani.
Following Larijani’s unexpected exclusion, some reformists were still hopeful Khamenei would intervene and overturn the Guardian Council’s decision; but on Thursday, the supreme leader gave his full support to the council and blasted those who called for a boycott of the elections.
Larijani’s surprise exclusion by the Khamenei-aligned council is, for some, an indicator that unlike in previous elections, the regime is not as interested in high voter turnout and giving some semblance of democracy in Iran. Rather, the focus appears to be on ensuring the right man is in office as the 82-year-old Khamenei approaches the end of his post.
Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst at Iran International TV, believes that the issue of succession is driving Khamenei’s decision-making “on all fronts.”
“The next presidential election is critical for Iran’s supreme leader. There is a chance that the Islamic Republic’s next president may very well be the supreme leader’s last given his age. So, it’s critical for Khamenei to get this election right to advance his top priority – regime preservation,” Brodsky told Al Arabiya English. “Thus, succession is at the top of his mind – it’s driving his decision-making on all fronts.”
But the exclusion of every candidate that could have possibly posed a challenge to Raisi is arguably not the first sign that Khamenei and his inner circle – known as Beit-e Rahbari, or the leadership base – have a candidate in mind they want president at any cost.
For months, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was discussed as a possible candidate for the reformists in the June elections, but then a leaked audio recording surfaced in April, in which the top diplomat was heard criticising the Revolutionary Guards, causing a political firestorm in Iran.
Publicly, Zarif has always maintained he has never eyed the presidency, but his political rivals inside the country never seemed to believe him – and perhaps rightfully so.
Mohammad Atrianfar, member of the Executives of Construction Party, a reformist political party in Iran, said earlier this week that Zarif had agreed to be the reformists’ candidate in the elections but changed his mind after the leaked recording debacle.
A week after the recording was published by the London-based Iran International TV, Khamenei gave a televised speech in which he scolded Zarif for his remarks and accused him of echoing US talking points, practically ending any political ambitions the foreign minister might have had.
The source of the leak remains unknown, but given how things have played out since, it would be plausible to think that the same forces that seemingly want a straightforward run for Raisi in the elections may have been behind the leak as part of their efforts to eliminate anyone who could challenge the top judge.
The 60-year-old Raisi, who was allegedly one of the main perpetrators of Iran’s mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s, is a fairly new face to the public. He owes his prominence today to a campaign – seemingly being driven by the highest centers of power in Iran – that has aimed over the past six or so years to portray him as a humble, anti-corruption, and decisive figure.
In 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi as the custodian of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, a multi-billion dollar religious conglomerate encompassing businesses and endowments that oversees the holy Shia shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the home city of both Khamenei and Raisi.
Raisi then ran for president in 2017, losing to Rouhani. But the pro-Raisi campaign did not end there.
In 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi head of the judiciary, one of the most powerful positions within the Iranian establishment. Since then, state media has incessantly portrayed Raisi as an anti-corruption crusader.
And now, it looks like there is only one test left for Raisi as part of a supposed succession scheme: the presidency.
“The Islamic Republic has only had one leadership transition – when Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini died in 1989. At the time, Khamenei was elevated from the presidency to the supreme leadership. Thus, if Raisi were to ascend to the presidency, he would be following the precedent that was set in 1989,” said Brodsky.
“A Raisi win in 2021 would also allow him to compensate for a quality he lacked while serving merely as judiciary chief – the ability to achieve success in Iran’s electoral system,” Brodsky added. “This is something Khamenei had in 1989, and the ground is being laid for Raisi to be able to claim the same quality.”
The supposed Raisi succession scheme, Iranian journalist and analyst Behnam Gholipour believes, has already been delayed by four years following Raisi’s defeat to Rouhani in 2017, so this time, the regime is taking no risks by not allowing any serious contenders to run against Raisi.
Gholipour has dubbed the supposed succession scheme the “regime’s Ghadeer” – a reference to the event of Ghadeer Khumm, which refers to a sermon delivered by Islam’s Prophet Mohammad shortly before his death. In the sermon, Shia Muslims believe, Prophet Mohammad declared his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib as his successor.
Still, despite all the signs, “it is too early to definitively say whether Raisi will become supreme leader,” said Brodsky. “But it is safe to assume he is a leading contender. At the very least, if Khamenei were to pass away during his tenure as president, Raisi would be playing a critical role during the transition, including the possibility of serving on an interim leadership council.”