Q&A

Iran’s Election Is Unfree, Unfair, and Preordained

What a new president will mean for Tehran, Washington, and the world.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
An election rally for Ebrahim Raisi
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attend an election campaign rally in Tehran on June 14. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Millions of Iranian voters headed to the polls on Friday, June 18, to elect a new president. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani is not eligible to run since he has completed two full terms in office, and election authorities have barred other reform candidates from entering the race.

So who’s running? There were seven candidates at the start of this week. Three dropped out on Wednesday, increasing the chances that one of the four remaining candidates crosses the 50 percent electoral threshold that would make a second round of voting unnecessary.

The front-runner is Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric seen as the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi lost the 2017 election to Rouhani and has since led the country's judiciary. The other three remaining candidates are Abdolnaser Hemmati, the head of Iran’s Central Bank; Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, a surgeon who is also a conservative politician; and Mohsen Rezaee, a former member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Millions of Iranian voters headed to the polls on Friday, June 18, to elect a new president. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani is not eligible to run since he has completed two full terms in office, and election authorities have barred other reform candidates from entering the race.

So who’s running? There were seven candidates at the start of this week. Three dropped out on Wednesday, increasing the chances that one of the four remaining candidates crosses the 50 percent electoral threshold that would make a second round of voting unnecessary.

The front-runner is Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric seen as the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi lost the 2017 election to Rouhani and has since led the country’s judiciary. The other three remaining candidates are Abdolnaser Hemmati, the head of Iran’s Central Bank; Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, a surgeon who is also a conservative politician; and Mohsen Rezaee, a former member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

To figure out what this election means for Iran, the world, and the ongoing nuclear talks, Foreign Policy’s Ravi Agrawal spoke to Dina Esfandiary, a senior advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the Crisis Group, and Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The discussion was part of an FP Live event, an audio recording of which can be found here. The following transcript of that conversation has been edited for clarity.

Ravi Agrawal: Karim, what are your major takeaways from the campaign so far?

Karim Sadjadpour: In the past, what made the Iranian elections unique was this combination of being unfree, unfair, but also unpredictable. This time around, it’s different. They engineered it in a way in which the preferred candidate of the supreme leader, Ebrahim Raisi, faces no meaningful challenges. So there’s very little popular enthusiasm inside Iran for what seems like a preordained outcome.

There’s very little popular enthusiasm inside Iran for what seems like a preordained outcome.

RA: Dina, how are Washington and Brussels viewing the election?

Dina Esfandiary: The winner is likely to be a conservative, but I don’t think that’s going to mean a major change in Iranian foreign policy. There will, however, be a change in tone. And I think that’s what the United States and the EU are going to be watching out for.

RA: Can you give us an example of what sort of tone we could expect?

DE: I don’t think Iran is suddenly going to turn around and say, “We’re not going to pursue discussions on the return to the nuclear deal,” or, “We won’t participate in the dialogue with Saudi Arabia in Iraq.” But those discussions might be a little more difficult. Conservatives don’t necessarily see eye to eye with the West. The objectives and interests they want to pursue are tougher than those President Hassan Rouhani was willing to accept.

The upside, though, is that there will be a more unified government in Iran. There’s likely to be less infighting between the moderates and the conservatives. That might mean they can come to more lasting agreements.

RA: Karim, it seems like there’s some concerns about historically low turnout, in the 40 percent range or lower, partly because of COVID-19 and partly because of political apathy. What does that mean for the polity of Iran?

KS: I’m not sure. You’re right that there’s little enthusiasm. But I’m not sure that they can’t just rig the turnout numbers and show the numbers being much higher than they are in actuality.

It’ll be key to see what happens six, seven, eight months from now, because if the nuclear deal is revived, people’s expectations are going to rise. They’re going to feel like their quality of life is meant to improve. And when the government isn’t able to deliver for them economically, that’s when we might start to see some popular tumult.

RA: What makes Ebrahim Raisi who he is, and what might his vision be for Iran?

KS: Susan Glasser wrote a profile of Mike Pompeo in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, and she quoted someone saying that Mike Pompeo was like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass. And that kind of reminds me of Ebrahim Raisi. He’s a heat seeking-missile for Khamenei’s ass. He’s been this obsequious protege of the leader all these years.

What’s most notable in his biography for many Iranians is his complicity in mass executions, which happened in the late ’80s. Around 5,000 members of Iran’s opposition were executed. He was one of four judges who signed those death warrants. When you listen to him, he is devoid of charisma. He doesn’t have a popular appeal.

RA: Dina, anything to add?

DE: In the past few weeks, Raisi has made some interesting statements about where his position might lie as president. He has expressed a willingness to continue all engagement related to the JCPOA, which was a little bit surprising given that he is in the hard-liner camp.

RA: I’m curious whether with this election, there could be a chance for a “Nixon goes to China” effect in Iran. Perhaps the nuclear deal with the United States will be easier to implement for Iran with a trusted conservative in office.

DE: Nothing will be easier.

RA: Less difficult, perhaps?

DE: That’s one way of looking at it. There’s likely to be somewhat of a unity within Iran, at least politically, because everybody is coming from the same camp. That does mean that once something is agreed to—putting aside how difficult it may be to agree to that something—its implementation won’t be fought over so much internally. But the negotiations themselves might be tougher.

RA: What do we know about whether Biden’s thinking toward the JCPOA contrasted with Obama’s? Because it seems to me that Obama had more of a regional vision in mind, sort of a self-sustaining balance of power between Shiites and Sunnis that’s then sorted out by the local powers themselves.

DE: I think both former President Obama and President Biden share the vision that the nuclear deal is just a nuclear deal. It’s supposed to address just Iran’s nuclear program. Anything more than that would have been too difficult. And I think Biden very much subscribes to that.

We’ve seen what Iran is capable of in the region, particularly in response to Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign.

The difference is that we’re now a few years down the line. We’ve seen what Iran is capable of in the region, particularly in response to President Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign. There is a fear that has mounted and a very real need to address that.

I think Biden’s vision is to tackle the return to the nuclear deal as is for now. Once that is done, phase two will involve a discussion on a perhaps expanded nuclear deal which could eventually touch upon other problematic areas.

RA: There is chatter in Iran’s inner circle of government that, within the next couple of years, there will be a change in the top job in the country, the supreme leader, and that he might even choose his own successor. In case that happens, who do you think that person would be, and what would be its implications, Karim?

KS: There’s always been speculation that the leader’s health is poor, but he’s actually outlived several of his successors now. Again, I think the conventional wisdom is that he’s grooming Raisi to succeed him.

For me, the big question is: What are the revolutionary guards going to do? Because the institution of the revolutionary guards eclipses the institution of the clergy in terms of economic and political power. It’s not clear to me that the revolutionary guards are simply going to defer to the assembly of experts to tell them who is going to be their next commander in chief.

It’s impossible to make predictions about who the next leader is going to be. But either way, I think that Iran is going to become more overtly a military-ruled state than it is today.

RA: Interesting. Dina, what do you make of the seeming easing of tensions between the Saudis and Iran?

DE: I wouldn’t go so far as to call them an easing of tensions. I think they’re incredibly limited tactical engagement on a very specific topic, which at the moment is the finding of a resolution to the war in Yemen. But no matter what it is, it’s good news. And the reason is that some of Iran’s neighbors became increasingly nervous about what Iran could do. They suddenly realized they could no longer just rely on the United States to find a solution to the Iran problem.

But I’m not sure that it will lead to much, not least of all because it’s unclear how much Iran can deliver on the issue of Yemen. The link between Iran and the Houthis is not as clear-cut as we may think it is.

RA: Karim, as you pointed out, Raisi has had a checkered past on human rights issues. What does that mean for the West?

KS: Cosmetically, Raisi would be the first Iranian president who is sanctioned by the U.S. government and is directly implicated in mass killings. Whether or not he chooses to go to the U.N. General Assembly, whether or not think tanks and others will host him, whether media will want to interview him as they’ve done with previous Iranian presidents is unclear.

But substantively, opposition to the revival of the nuclear deal with Iran—which I think is inevitable—will be made easier by Raisi’s presidency. Republicans in the United States are going to say, “This guy’s a mass murderer, and we’re rewarding bad behavior.”

Raisi would be the first Iranian president who is sanctioned by the U.S. government and is directly implicated in mass killings.

RA: Karim, what are the important domestic questions left in Iranian politics? If the reform movement seems like it’s over, and the conservatives of the Islamic Republic have prevailed, what should outsiders be paying attention to now?

KS: Every decade, a new generation of Iranians kind of reaches the conclusion that their system is unlikely to be reformed via the ballot box. And what’s dangerous about that is that when you lose hope in being able to reform the system peacefully, there’s really only one alternative, which is tumult and uprising. In my view, the Islamic Republic a decade or so ago had decisions to make, similar to the decision that both the Soviet Union and China had to make in the 1970s: Do we prioritize revolutionary ideology, or do we prioritize economic and national interests? The Chinese prioritized economic interests over revolutionary ideology. And we’ve seen the path they’ve taken the last few decades. The Soviet Union obviously didn’t. And we saw what happened to them.

At this point, I’m just not confident that the Iranian system is one which has shown itself capable of reforming. I think the supreme leader believes that actually reforming the system—compromising on revolutionary principles—would hasten its demise, just as glasnost and perestroika hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. So the system can really only survive with continued repression. The gap between state and society is going to continue to increase. But in my view, repression can oftentimes last longer than we think it can.

RA: Dina, so many of the discussions we have are through the prism of the West. I’m curious if you have a take on what Iran’s elections mean for the likes of China or Russia or India. What are they seeing, and what do they expect?

DE: Russia and China have now been working with the Islamic Republic since its inception. They’ve built their relations. They’ve seen successive presidents come and go. And the pace of relations between Iran and these two countries has actually sped up quite a bit. Part of that is a result of Western sanctions and efforts to isolate Iran. The only countries willing to be its partners were Russia and China.

There’s less fear on their part than there might be from a European or American perspective, particularly with regards to dealing with a problematic person [like Raisi], to say the least. From Russia and China’s perspective, that’s a lesser concern, because they don’t get involved in the internal affairs of other states. They’re very pragmatic about the way that they engage other actors, and their relationship with Iran is very compartmentalized. It’s tactical. They talk about certain things and ignore other things.

RA: That’s fascinating. I would add that India has a somewhat similar perspective, where it doesn’t really want to get involved in the internal politics of another country. In large part, that’s because each of these three countries wouldn’t wish the same to be done to them.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.