Following the end of President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms in office, Iran goes to the polls on June 18 to elect a new president. But in a country where the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards hold more political, social and economic power than the president, many Iranians are boycotting the vote and demanding fundamental changes to the system.
Come June 18, Shahin Mohammadi* is certain she won’t be making her way to a polling station in her first-ever election boycott. "I've always voted, in every election, but this time I won't be voting,” said the 42-year-old Tehran resident in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. "President after president, I go from disappointment to disappointment, and the country’s economic situation does not stop deteriorating. Why should I make the effort to go to the polls if the person I elect does nothing?”
Dismayed by President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms in power, many Iranians this year have publicly stated that they intend to boycott the June 18 presidential election. On social media, the hashtag “There’s no way I will vote” was trending in the lead-up to the 2021 presidential election, with several Iranians voicing a long list of grievances.
In early May, more than 230 Iranian activists signed an open letter calling for a boycott of the election – which they described as a “formality” – and demanding fundamental changes to the country’s democratic system “so that the unpopular establishment will not endure”.
For many Iranians, voting has long been a choice between bad or worse. But this time, large parts of the electorate are rejecting such limited options. In the February 2020 legislative elections, the last polls before the June 18 vote, abstentions were at a record 57 percent of the electorate.
In Iran, only candidates approved by the country’s unelected Guardians Council can stand for elections. After serving his two term limits, Rouhani cannot run for reelection, and the inevitable disquiet about the Guardian Council’s penchant for disqualifying many moderate and reformist candidates surfaced again this year.
But in the lead-up to the 2021 presidential election, a number of Iranians dug deeper into the cause of the country’s political malaise, questioning the lack of power entrusted to the elected president of the Islamic Republic and his government.
The issue dominated headlines in April when a leaked audio recording revealed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complaining that the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards had more influence on Tehran’s foreign policy than him.
Founded after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – also known as the Revolutionary Guards – is “a force responsible for defending the ideals of the Islamic Republic and is accountable only to the Supreme Leader", explained Thierry Coville, research fellow at the French Research Centre for International and Strategic Studies (IRIS).
Under the Iranian Constitution, the Supreme Leader holds most of the powers of the state. "It is the Supreme Leader who determines the direction of the state. The Iranian president, elected every four years, has a role comparable to that of a prime minister," explained Jonathan Piron, a historian specialising in Iran at the Brussels-based Etopia research centre.
Elected for life, the Supreme Leader controls the army, police and state media, and appoints the head of the judicial system. He also chooses six of the 12-member Guardians Council, the body charged with validating presidential candidacies. The other half is appointed by the judiciary, which is also appointed by the Supreme Leader.
"There are elements in which Iranian political life is developing, but everything remains centralised around the figure of the Leader of the Revolution," said Piron.
Rouhani ‘lacks the courage’ on social issues
The Iranian president's “room for manoeuvre is not only limited by the Supreme Leader, but he is also constrained by the parliament, which must validate the appointment of his ministers and can dismiss them at any time. Iranian parliamentarians also have the power to hold a vote of no-confidence in the president, with the agreement of the Supreme Leader”, explained Piron.
While the Iranian president has a margin of autonomy in domestic, economic and social policies, he has little or no say in security and judicial issues.
"The Iranian president is the guarantor of a certain number of rights and freedoms," noted Azadeh Kian from the University of Paris Diderot, adding that "as a guarantor of the Constitution", Rouhani could have committed himself to more freedoms and gender equality. "He promised to create a ministry of women's rights and appoint women ministers, but he has not done it because he lacks the courage to do so, and too often hides behind the discourse of 'The Supreme Leader does not want to'," said Kian, who is also the director of the Centre for Feminist and Gender Studies (Cedref) at the University of Paris.
While Rouhani is considered a "moderate" in the Iranian political spectrum, he’s had to manoeuvre a parliament that has been in conservative hands since 2020. The Supreme Leader, for his part, is known for his ultraconservative positions.
Economy in the hands of Revolutionary Guards
On the economic front, Iran has several "informal” actors that help reduce presidential power, according to Piron.
"Today, the Revolutionary Guards own many companies, particularly in the construction, infrastructure, transport and airport sectors. They are parastatals,” he noted, referring to neither public nor private companies working with the government in unofficial capacities. “They escape the control of the president of the Islamic Republic as well as taxes, and benefit from preferential positions during tenders. They are believed to control 20 to 30 percent of the economy, but the phenomenon remains difficult to quantify because it remains opaque, with many networks and companies created at different levels, without traceability.”
The Revolutionary Guards also has its own "social security", a legacy of the 1979 revolution, which has increased its autonomy.
An ideological army charged with defending the 1979 revolution, the IRGC – or simply “Pasdaran” to many Iranians – played a role in defending the Islamic Republic shortly after its birth and during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. But since the 1990s, the Revolutionary Guards have only deployed in the economic and social sectors of the Iranian state.
"The 2000s marked their rise in power, after the mandate of [late former Iranian president] Hashemi Rafsanjani, who committed Iran to a neo-liberal policy. The state opened up to private investment with a series of liberalisation measures and the Pasdaran took advantage of this to slip in through the cracks," explained Piron.
All-powerful religious foundations
The Revolutionary Guards are not the only economic entity above and beyond the control of the presidential cabinet. In addition to the Pasdaran, with its tentacles extending into major economic sectors, Iran has other autonomous institutions, such as the bonyads.
Bonyads – or Persian for “foundations” – are influential religious charitable trusts that reap huge subsidies from the government.
These influential religious foundations manage the properties confiscated after the Revolution as well as the billions of euros in donations from Shiite pilgrims, such as the Astan-e Quds-e Razavi, a bonyad that manages the Imam Reza shrine in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad.
One of the leading candidates in the 2021 presidential race, hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, previously ran the Imam Reza bonyad.
"The bonyads have some of the largest real estate holdings in the country and are partly tax-exempt," said Piron. The most powerful of them, the Mostazafan Foundation ("foundation of the disinherited") and the Astan-e Quds-e Razavi Foundation, manage hundreds of companies and employ several hundred thousand Iranians in a wide range of fields such as construction, transportation, mining, tourism and food processing.
"These parastatals are difficult to regulate and encourage clientelism and corruption," explained Piron. Rouhani and other presidents before him have tried to take on the tax-exempt bonyads in the past. But the outgoing president was rebuffed when he tried to address the issue during his second term, according to Piron, who estimates that the Revolutionary Guards, bonyads and other parastatals represent “more than 50 percent of the economy” and nevertheless “escape the control of the presidential cabinet".
A president for foreign visits
On the foreign policy front, the president's team "intervenes from afar". The recent leak of Zarif's comments, which included the foreign minister criticising the dominance of the Revolutionary Guards, has put a spotlight on the powerful force. According to Zarif, the Revolutionary Guards – in agreement with the Supreme Leader – appoint Iranian ambassadors in strategic Middle Eastern countries.
"The foreign minister is a mere executor," noted Piron. In the same way, the decision to sign or reject an international agreement, such as the nuclear deal, is the responsibility of the Supreme Leader. The latter then authorises the president and his government to negotiate, if necessary.
On the other hand, it is the Iranian president who travels abroad. He is also the one who signs treaties. "He is the face of the Iranian regime. This is a significant role, especially as the most powerful man in the Iranian state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 82 years old, is getting older,” said Piron.
The timing of this year’s presidential election is also critical given Khamenei’s advanced age, according to Piron. "We can credibly foresee that the future Iranian president will be the one who will oversee the succession of the Supreme Leader during his mandate."
* Name changed to protect identity.
(This is a translation of the original in French)