Iran’s outgoing president has criticised a sudden narrowing of the eligibility criteria for those hoping to succeed him as registration formally opened for candidates in the 18 June vote.
Dissidents and critics claim the campaign is just a charade and helps provide legitimacy to an autocratic regime but the tensions over who can stand – and the move by a powerful unelected body to exert greater control – has revealed the tensions in Iranian society over the outcome.
Hassan Rouhani, who is due to stand down, insisted the 12-strong Guardian Council had no legal authority to impose new more restrictive criteria barring anyone younger than 40 and older than 75. He urged the interior ministry, which is responsible for accepting registrations, to ignore the age bar being imposed by the Guardian Council, saying it went beyond provisions in the Iranian constitution. The new criteria has however been backed by 200 Iranian parliamentarians.
The immediate impact will be to block Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the 39-year-old minister of communications and information technology, from standing for a four-year term as president. Even if the interior ministry followed Rouhani’s order, the Guardian Council has the ultimate power to block candidates on other criteria, including if they are deemed not sufficiently pious. Critics say this power is used to weed out candidates of which the religious leadership, represented by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disapproves.
Siamak Raphik, a member of the council, defended the new age criteria, saying the council was “the sole custodian of the eligibility of candidates”. He added: “Cohesion is vital for any country and elections are a source of cohesion and authority in the country.”
The list of approved candidates will be announced on 26 May after an appeal’s process.
During the five-day registration period for the last presidential election in 2017, a total of 1,636 individuals put their name to run for president, a large increase over the 686 in 2013. Most were no hopers or publicity seekers. In the end only six were approved by the Guardian Council to run. Among those disqualified were the former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his vice-president, Hamid Baghaei.
Women are not formally debarred from running, and many put themselves forward, including one arriving illegally on a motorcycle on Tuesday to register. No woman has however been allowed to stand in the Islamic Republic’s history.
Among the steady stream of candidates arriving to register included Brig Gen Saeed Mohammad, who recently resigned as the commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Construction Base.
This year’s campaign looks to be held against the backdrop of talks in Vienna on the future of the nuclear deal. A last-minute agreement, currently unlikely, might be a badly needed shot in the arm of those who favour engagement with the west.
But widespread disillusionment with the deal not lifting crippling US sanctions, a fourth wave of Covid and general middle class disenchantment with the chances for reform, suggests turnout will be low. Turnout in last year’s parliamentary elections fell to 42%, a record low.
Reformists have for months been discussing whether it is worth putting up a candidate, with some backing a boycott to leave the conservatives in visible control of the institutions on the basis that reformists are currently in office but in practice wield little power.
So far more than 30 politicians have declared a plan to run, including members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, but key figures have so far held back as they wait to test support and seek final intelligence on whether they have the approval of the supreme leader.
Three big conservatives – the judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, the former speaker of the Majlis (the parliament) and the politician charged with negotiating the 25-year strategic partnership with China, Ali Larijani, and the pro-IRGC Saeed Jalili have yet to declare.
If Raisi does stand – and it is tipped he will announce his candidacy on Thursday – he is likely to clear most other conservatives from the field, such as Jalili, as they try to get on board with his campaign.
Khamenei has said he wants the victor to be young and pious, and in Iranian politics Raisi’s 60 years makes him sprightly. He is widely tipped to be the next supreme leader when Khamenei dies. He lost heavily to Rouhani in 2017 and is currently on the US sanctions list.
The internally-divided reformists have pinned hopes on as many as five options including Rouhani’s vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, or the foreign minister, Javad Zarif.
But in a possible attempt to discredit them, there are reports that Jahangiri’s brother was arrested for smuggling while Zarif was the recent victim of the leak of an an audio file in which he admitted he was largely powerless in his current role.
Zarif has apologised to the supreme leader about his remarks, and those that want him out of the race for sure feel they have buried him. Zarif has repeatedly said he is not equipped for the presidency.
Other reformists have been warned off by the supreme leader. In April he told a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 revolution, that he should not run. Hassan Khomeini, who had already chosen a well-known revolutionary catchphrase of his grandfather – “All of us together” – as his campaign slogan, had perhaps the best potential to increase turnout in the election and provide hope to the embattled reformist-pragmatist camp.
Mostafa Tajzadeh is possibly the most outspoken reformist, but is not expected to clear the Guardian Council since he was imprisoned 2009 until 2016 for protesting over claims the 2008 presidential election was stolen.
Mohammad Shariatmadari, the minister for co-operatives and social welfare, has promised to form Khatmani’s third government, a reference to the two terms between 1997 and 2005 of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, in which he was commerce minister. Mohammad Reza Aref who previously stood in 2013 only to pull out in favour of Rouhani, is also keen to stand.
Opinions sharply differ on the true power of Iran’s president. Many experts for instance claim Iran’s negotiating position in Vienna is not ultimately determined by the president but by the supreme leader.