The Islamic Republic’s Republic Is Dying
Iran’s presidential election next month marks a turning point for the country—for all the wrong reasons.
“Our economic growth was not at the pace needed to solve problems, especially for the youth and their unemployment,” proclaimed Ali Larijani, Iran’s former speaker of parliament, in a recent interview. “It was natural that it could not have such growth under sanctions.” Larijani’s comments, which came days before he was disqualified by a powerful theocratic body from running in Iran’s June 18 presidential election, were a pointed reminder of the immediate stakes of this year’s vote.
Whereas Larijani has voiced support for negotiations with the West to lift sanctions and potentially address disputes beyond the nuclear issue, his would-be challenger for the presidency, the hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, has very different views about how best to deal with U.S. sanctions. Two months ago, Raisi declared: “Instead of seeking negotiations with the enemy, we must resolve the country’s economic problems through correctly managing the country’s human and natural capacities.”
But the disqualification of Larijani and other prominent moderates and reformists from this year’s election, which has left Raisi with a practically uncontested path to the presidency, matters far beyond the nuclear file. It represents an inflection point in the political history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hard-liners with authoritarian and strongly anti-American worldviews are brazenly maneuvering to remove their moderate rivals from the political landscape and overturn the system’s republican elements.
The Islamic Republic was from the get-go envisioned by its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a mix between his interpretation of Shiite political philosophies and Western republicanism and electoral politics. Its governance system is a unique blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority, though the institutions that represent the latter hold a tutelary power over the former. The Islamic Republic has a president and a parliament, but also a Guardian Council of clerics and jurists that vets legislation and political candidates, and a supreme religious leader who is the ultimate arbiter on high-level decisions.
The main political fault line within Iran’s narrowly defined system since the 1990s has largely been between proponents of preserving the dominance of the state’s theocratic institutions and those who want to reform them and empower republican institutions. The more theocratic elements seek an insular political and social status quo, while reform-minded forces have tried to open up the country. They also differ on foreign policy, with the theocratic die-hards often advocating autarky and isolationist policies, and opposing improved relations with the West, while reform-minded forces support engagement with the West and diplomacy-driven solutions to disputes in the region and beyond.
Over the years, theocratic institutions have tried to stamp out reformists and prevent them from gaining a dominant position in the system. The upset victory of reformist Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election was followed by the Guardian Council barring most reformists from running in the 2004 parliamentary election. The 2009 election that was contested by reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was followed by the shocking disqualification of former moderate President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running in the 2013 election. The election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani that year and his reelection in 2017 were met with the disqualification of most moderates in last year’s parliamentary election.
There is an evident pattern: Iran’s moderates tend to win elections when allowed to run, and hard-liners play a constant game of whack-a-mole to repress the moderates’ most promising political figures. This year’s election is the hard-liners’ most transparent attempt in Iran’s modern history to not just disqualify their rivals but remove their line of thinking entirely from Iran’s political landscape.
Larijani is not a reformist but hails from the pragmatic wing of the conservative establishment. Yet even he has been deemed unqualified to seek the presidency. In recent weeks, he made clear he would pursue an agenda focused on economic growth through increased integration with the global economy and would seek better relations with all global powers, including the United States. He emphasized that if the United States returns to the nuclear deal and sticks to its commitments, broader negotiations could be possible.
For Iranian hard-liners, Larijani’s agenda would have been a continuation of trends they viewed as dangerous and sought to reverse under Rouhani. In the aftermath of the nuclear deal in 2015, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned of efforts to politically and culturally infiltrate Iran by the country’s enemies and subvert the Islamic Republic from within. His words were taken as a green light by hard-liners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to round up many ordinary citizens and dual nationals on fabricated charges of “infiltration” and pursuing “soft regime change,” helping to arrest the economic and political opening the nuclear deal had set into motion.
The Trump administration’s abrogation of the nuclear deal played right into the hands of Iranian hard-liners. Had the nuclear deal been allowed to succeed and the Rouhani government presided over years of sharp economic growth, it is hard to imagine the scenario unfolding today. Iran’s moderate and reformist political camp is currently devoid of meaningful public support and powerless in the face of the overt hard-liner power grab. Meanwhile, Raisi has been riding high in opinion polls while spearheading an anti-corruption drive as judiciary chief. He is widely speculated to have ambitions to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.
Raisi joins six other candidates approved by the Guardian Council to vie for the presidency. But the campaign is set to be ceremonial. Three of the candidates, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and legislators Alireza Zakani and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, are uber-hard-liners who are expected to back Raisi in televised debates and drop out in his favor before the vote. Only two are from the moderate camp, Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former provincial governor. Neither has the political pedigree or public support to mount a serious challenge to Raisi.
The figures Raisi is surrounded by are all from Iran’s most radical faction, known as the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, or the Endurance Front. Jalili, Zakani, and Ghazizadeh are all closely associated with this camp, as is Raisi’s campaign manager, Ali Nikzad. The Endurance Front has for years sought to eliminate moderates from Iran’s political scene. In recent years, placards at the group’s rallies have suggested Rafsanjani was killed, rather than died of a heart attack, and threatened Rouhani’s life. Such figures as Zakani and Ghazizadeh have explicitly called for all supporters of diplomacy with the West to be thrown out of the system. The group’s late spiritual leader, fundamentalist Ayatollah Taqi Misbah Yazdi, supported a North Korea model for Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s revolutionary system has a habit of eating its own children. Khatami, the former reformist president, has been excised from the system, and mentioning him in government outlets is banned. Mousavi, the prime minister in the 1980s and 2009 presidential candidate, has been under house arrest since 2011. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the erstwhile prototypical hard-liner, has fallen out with the system and was also disqualified from running in this year’s election. This year’s election is set to shrink the tent of Islamic Republic even further by denying moderates any real shot of contesting the presidency.
Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, has severely rebuked the Guardian Council’s disqualifications. He lambasted the denial of the “people’s rights” and disregard for the system’s republican institutions as at odds with the system his grandfather established and “counterrevolutionary.” Khatami proclaimed the republican side of the system is under “serious threat” and “no one can be indifferent to this.” Meanwhile, Rouhani declared having an election with no competition is “lifeless.”
Iran’s hard-liners, who were greatly empowered by years of American pressure under the Trump administration, are seeking to consolidate total power. Their ultimate aim may be to set Raisi up as the next supreme leader. In doing so, they are staining the Islamic Republic with greater illegitimacy and alienating it from constituencies that have helped keep it in power since 1979.
Sina Toossi is a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.