COMMENT: Five important questions ahead of the 2024 Iranian presidential election

COMMENT: Five important questions ahead of the 2024 Iranian presidential election
Several candidates registered for the presidential elections, but only a handful will make it through. / bne IntelliNews
By Farzan Sabet June 7, 2024

The Islamic Republic of Iran is set to hold a snap presidential election following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19. A total of 81 individuals successfully registered by the deadline of 03 June to be considered as potential candidates in the upcoming vote.

The Council of Guardians will vet these registrants from 04 to 10 June and the approved candidates will be announced on 11 June. The election campaign will take place from 11 to 26 June, with voting to be held on 28 June. If no candidate wins a majority, then a second round of voting will take place on 05 July, in order to elect a president in line with the constitutionally mandated deadline.

The next milestone to watch is which candidates the Guardian Council approves from the list of successful registrants. Since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ascended to Leader in 1989, this body has approved as few as two candidates to compete in a presidential election (1989), and as many as 10 (2001). Of the individuals who have successfully registered to be considered as potential candidates in presidential voting since 1989, on average six people have been approved by the council as candidates in each cycle.

Ahead of the election, I ask and attempt to answer what I consider to be five important questions on how this process may unfold and its implications for the future of policies and politics in Iran.

I also consider the potential candidacies of twelve individuals - six principlists and six so-called “moderates” - who I believe have a good chance of being qualified by the Guardian Council as candidates in the 2024 Iranian presidential election, could play a meaningful role in the campaign, or even become leading contenders. However, if history is any indication, on average only half of them are likely to make it through the Guardian Council’s filter.

Will the upcoming election have some degree of competitiveness?

The 2024 Iranian presidential election, like virtually every presidential election since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, will not be free and fair by international standards. A key limitation of these elections is the role played by the Guardian Council, a quasi-legislative body, whose responsibilities include vetting prospective candidates for these votes. The council has historically disqualified the overwhelming majority of the individuals who register to be considered during each election cycle, and permitted only a small handful of Islamic Republic elites to qualify and run.

But even consummate insiders are liable to be disqualified. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 and a leading figure of the revolution, was disqualified from standing as a candidate in the 2013 presidential election.1 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, was disqualified from standing as a candidate in the 2017 and 2021 elections. Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament from 2008 to 2020, was not qualified to stand for the 2021 election.

Moreover, the entrenched centres of power in the Islamic Republic have been accused of manipulating the outcomes of even these carefully stage-managed elections. The 2009 presidential election was famously alleged to have been engineered in favour of the incumbent President Ahmadinejad, leading to the Green Movement demonstrations, and the 2021 election was believed by many to have been engineered to favour then-candidate Raisi.

In the latter case, the rapid elevation of Raisi to a succession of senior positions in the Iranian system, culminating in his ensconcement in the presidency in 2021, was seen as part of a larger plan to prepare the way for the transition of power to a new Leader following the passing of Ayatollah Khamenei at some future date.

If such a plan does indeed exist, and it necessitates the exclusion of a large cross-section of the Iranian political spectrum by the Leader and unelected power centers, then there is little reason for them to permit even quasi-competitive elections, and we should expect the disqualification of many viable and potentially popular candidates, particularly from the so-called “moderate” coalition (discussed under question 3).

If, on the other hand, the Leader and these power centres seek a course correction and to re-expand the circle of power or simply lack their own candidate that they view as being similarly suitable to the now deceased President Raisi, then they may permit a measure of competitiveness in the election.

2. Will the principlists unite around a single candidate?

The principlists, often referred to as the “conservatives” or “hardliners” in the English-language media, are the dominant political current in Iran. The presidency and other elected power centres are dominated by them, and they have the strong backing of Ayatollah Khamenei and unelected power centres like the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

The principlists believe in the absolute political and religious authority of the Leader, are deeply socially conservative, and promote a “resistance economy” that seeks self-sufficiency for Iran in the face of sanctions and places rhetorical emphasis on social justice. They also advocate for a hardline foreign policy that is staunchly anti-American and anti-Zionist, favours stronger ties with the eastern major powers and global South states as well as the Axis of Resistance network, and valorizes military action.

The election of Raisi as president in 2021 was the culmination of a long process that saw the near wholesale takeover of the Islamic Republic’s elected and unelected power centres by the principlists. This system consolidation under the umbrella of a single political current was, at least in theory, supposed to give it a large measure of ideological coherence and unity of action. In practice, however, the principlists are deeply divided, as shown by the fractious debates in the parliament.

The sudden death of President Raisi is likely to worsen intra-principalist disunity. For one thing, a figure with comparable characteristics to the deceased president does not appear to be on the horizon. President Raisi, despite his shortcomings, was a clerical descendent of the Prophet Mohammad who steadily climbed the system’s rungs of power and held a succession of senior positions in Iran under the direct tutelage and with the personal imprimatur of Ayatollah Khamenei. Another thing is that his low public profile before 2016 and lack of involvement in electoral politics and intra-principlist competition helped him unify this political current.

This time around, Ayatollah Khamenei and the unelected power centres lack time to find, groom, and elevate a figure that principlists would find similarly suitable and unify around. This leaves them an unenviable set of options from among those who have registered to be considered as potential candidates for the election.

On one side stand principlist luminaries like Saeed Jalili (the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013), Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf (the speaker of parliament since 2020), and Ali Reza Zakani (the mayor of Tehran since 2021), who are prominent public figures and have held senior positions in the Islamic Republic. But they also come with baggage, like poor performances in past presidential elections or past political or corruption scandals.

On the other side are principlist figures like Parviz Fattah (the head of a powerful and influential business conglomerate and charitable foundation connected to the Office of the Leader), Mehrdad Bazrpash (the minister of roads and urban development since 2021), and Vahid Haghanian (the chief personal aide and deputy chief of staff in the Office of the Leader),2 who are somewhat known quantities but nonetheless remain untested in presidential elections.

In a poll taken by Imam Sadegh University from 28 to 29 May, in which 48.3% of voters were projected to participate in the presidential election, 20.7% of likely and committed voters favoured Jalili, 4.8% favoured Qalibaf, 4.8% favoured Fattah, 0.7% favoured Zakani, and 0.7% favoured Bazrpash.

Jalili and Qalibaf, who have strong principlist followings and public name recognition, are nonetheless deeply enmeshed in intra-principlist competition and will face challenges unifying their political current. Zakani, Fattah, Bazrpash, and Haghanian may lack the political gravitas or name recognition to play this role.

Former President Ahmadinejad is a unique case in this context. He has one foot in the principlist camp, but has also become alienated from it, in large part due to the clashes he had with Ayatollah Khamenei during his second term in office from 2009 to 2013. Indeed, rather than being labelled as a principlist in the IRNA list of individuals who successfully registered to be considered for candidacy in the 2024 presidential election, he has been placed in his own unique “Spring” political category.

But Ahmadinejad retains a meaningful popular appeal, both among principlists and a broader segment of Iranian society, garnering 23.7% or the highest favorability rating of any prospective candidate in the Imam Sadegh University poll. He will nonetheless likely be disqualified for a third time from standing for president by the Guardian Council.

A key determinant for principlist unity in this election could be whether Ayatollah Khamenei and the unelected power centres give the nod to any one candidate. In the absence of such intervention from on high, the competition within this political current could further intensify, and principlists may then fail to unify around a single candidate, a factor that contributed to their defeat in the 2013 presidential election.

Low voter turnout, which very well could be the case in the upcoming presidential election, has historically favoured principlist candidates with the unified backing of their political current, facing off against “moderate” opponent(s) who do not have unified backing from their coalition. This dynamic contributed to the victory of candidate Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election and candidate Raisi in the 2021 election.

In the absence of an anointed successor to President Raisi, and the ability of principlists to reach consensus among themselves to back a single candidate, infighting in this current could erupt into the open, and prospective candidates like Qalibaf could engage in political entrepreneurship to expand their public support.

3. Will the so-called “moderates” unite around a single candidate?

Iranian politics since Ayatollah Khamenei ascended to Leader in 1989 has become steadily polarized between the principlists, on one hand, and a growing coalition of relatively more moderate system insiders who have been purged, excluded, or otherwise become disenchanted with the status-quo, on the other hand.

This so-called “moderate” coalition includes the reformists (in power under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005), the “centrists” or “pragmatists” (in power under President Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997 and President Hassan Rouhani from 2013 to 2021), and traditional conservatives who have gradually left the principlists’ orbit, like Ali Larijani (the speaker of parliament from 2008 to 2020).

The individuals, groups, and constituencies associated with the moderate coalition in Iran do not necessarily believe in the absolute religious and political authority of the Leader, are open to a greater level of social freedoms, are oriented towards economic liberalization, and favour a more moderate foreign policy that seeks improved ties with the Western states and places a greater emphasis on diplomacy than military action.

In the 2024 presidential election, prominent prospective candidates from the moderate coalition include the traditional conservative Larijani, the centrist Abdolnaser Hemmati (who served as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran from 2018 to 2021 and won around ten percent of the vote in the 2021 presidential election), the reformist Eshagh Jahangiri (first vice president from 2013 to 2021), the centrist Abbas Akhoondi (the minister of roads and urban development from 2013 to 2018 who, like Larijani, was born in Najaf, Iraq), the reformist Mohammad Reza Aref (first vice president from 2001 to 2005), and the reformist Masoud Pezeshkian (a serving member of parliament since 2008, first deputy speaker of parliament from 2016 to 2020, and the minister of health and medical education from 2001 to 2005). According to the recent Imam Sadegh University poll, 4.6% of prospective voters favoured Pezeshkian, and 3.4% favoured Larijani.

It remains to be seen which of these candidates are qualified to stand for the election. The disqualification of prominent moderate candidates like Larijani, who have considerable public name recognition, would indicate a continuation of the status-quo by the system, rather than a course correction and a re-expansion of the circle of power, and likely decrease the chances of the moderates to win.

Another factor to keep in mind is whether moderates will be able to unify around a single candidate. In past presidential elections when they did, like the 2013 vote, they were better positioned to win. But in years when moderates did not reach a consensus to support their leading candidate in an election, as happened in 2005 and 2021, this was a leading factor that contributed to their defeat or poor performance

Finally, the polarisation of the political environment, a sense of excitement surrounding elections, and a resulting high voter turnout have historically boosted the moderates’ chances of electoral victory, as happened in the 1997 and 2013 presidential elections.

Look for a strong performance by the moderates if the Guardian Council does not disqualify their leading candidates, they unite behind a single candidate, and a polarized political atmosphere and sense of election drama increase voter turnout.

4. Will this election restore the Islamic Republic’s eroding legitimacy?

As I argued last week, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has been badly battered by a range of factors, and the system in Iran will have to decide if it will remain on its current trajectory, or at least attempt to repair this legitimacy. Even if it does attempt to course correct and repair it, however, I explained that the cycle of anti-system mass demonstrations since 2018 show that this will be no easy feat and that many Iranians today have come to reject the principlist-moderate dichotomy in politics:

The ever-shrinking circle of power in the Islamic Republic will have to decide between attempting to mobilize the public and increasing popular participation in the upcoming election or once again engineering the selection of its favoured candidate as it most recently did with President Raisi in the 2021 vote.

The system in Iran is loathe to permit a truly free and open election. But without, at a minimum, permitting viable candidates from the so-called “moderate” political current in Iran to participate and a somewhat open political atmosphere around election time, it is likely to continue to face headwinds against popular participation. According to Iranian government statistics, the voter participation rate in the 2017 presidential election was just over 73%. It fell precipitously during the 2021 presidential election to around 49% .

This sharp decline cannot be mainly attributed to other factors like the coronavirus pandemic that plagued the country and the world for much of 2020 and 2021: While the voter participation rate in the 2020 parliamentary elections was around 43%, already down from the 2016 elections when it was 63%, it declined further during this year’s parliamentary elections to approximately 41%, with invalid votes making up five percent of the total vote count and possibly even higher according to some media reports. In the second round of this year’s election on 10 May, voter turnout in Tehran, the capital city of Iran and its largest constituency, may have been as low as eight percent.

The waning legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has been further battered and bruised by cyclical mass protests in 2018, 2019, and 2022 that have become more widespread, persistent, and violent over time. The 2018 and 2019 demonstrations appear to have been mainly motivated by discontent around the weak economy and declining standard of living. The 2022 ones, in contrast, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, focused more on the lack of social and political freedoms in the country.

These mass protests shared at least two key traits in common. First, they have been composed of overwhelmingly young protestors confronted with a grim future. Second, in contrast to the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations that were arguably part of a radical reformist political project, these more recent protests have unambiguously called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and been more violent towards the state. The resultant harsh crackdown by the system, including the killing of hundreds of protestors, wounding thousands, and arrests in similarly high numbers, has created a sense of rage and anguish across a large segment of society that seethes just below the surface.

Some of the slogans by the demonstrators since 2018 have made it clear that they increasingly reject the dichotomous choice provided to them in elections by the Islamic Republic between the so-called “moderates” versus the principlists. They see the system, and not one political current or another, as the problem. Against this background, it’s unclear how effective the tactic of allowing limited competition between viable candidates from the different political currents in the upcoming election would be in terms of boosting popular participation.

My scepticism aside, a key dynamic for boosting voter turnout in past presidential elections has been polarising the public between the two main political currents (rather than society versus the system) and creating a sense of excitement around the vote, including by candidates criticising the serving president and focusing on critical and sensitive political issues. There are good reasons to question if these dynamics will be at play in the upcoming election.

President Raisi, by virtue of his premature death, has been granted martyr status, and presidential candidates will have one hand tied behind their backs when it comes to publicly attacking him and his government’s legacy.

It is also unclear what political issues the candidates will be permitted to campaign on. The hijab issue could be off-limits. It is also unclear what, if anything, presidential candidates will be able to promise on the nuclear negotiations with the United States and sanctions relief and if responsibility for these talks will even remain in the hands of the government in the future.

A more subtle but usually important factor is time for political candidates and narratives to be prepared, to circulate, and to gain a foothold in the media and society. The Islamic Republic was forced to hold the current election in a short 50-day window, and it is unclear if there will be sufficient time to create the needed polarization and excitement to significantly boost voter turnout.

5. How could the election results reshape Iran’s policies and politics?

The overall direction of the Islamic Republic system is first and foremost determined by Leader Ali Khamenei, and after that, through a process of consensus-building between the elected and unelected power centres, limiting the role of the Iranian presidency in formulating and implementing policy.

Nonetheless, the election of a new Iranian president holds the possibility of reshaping the country's policies and politics simply by putting new individuals and networks with different orientations and capacities into power than their predecessors.

But it remains to be seen whether a new president - a principlist or moderate - has the desire or ability to shift the consensus around sensitive issues in domestic politics, the country’s economy, and foreign policy and national security.

As long as Ayatollah Khamenei is alive, the new president will be in his shadow. But if he passes away in the upcoming four-year presidential term, then the next president may play an influential role in the power transition and leadership succession, which could be meaningfully different from the role that President Raisi would have played.


The unification of the Islamic Republic under the principlists and preparation of the political environment in Iran for the transition of power and succession to a new Leader following the passing of Ayatollah Khamenei has been in the works for years.

Given that the future of Iran and the system's character is at stake those holding the reins of power may see little reason to give them up and course correct despite the dire consequences for the country of their chosen path. It would, therefore, not be surprising if the Guardian Council disqualifies the leading moderate candidates like Larijani from standing for the 2024 Iranian presidential election.

Even if the leading moderate candidates are qualified to stand, they will face the challenge of reaching consensus to unify around a single figure from their midst. They have not always succeeded in uniting, but given the stakes, this may be less difficult to overcome than the other obstacles in their path.

Even then, it remains to be seen if Iranians will turn out in large numbers to vote, a factor that has favoured moderate victory in past presidential elections. The eroding legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and deteriorating state-society relations as exemplified by the cycle of anti-system mass demonstrations since 2018, the limits on the ability of candidates to attack the track record of the martyr-president Raisi, and the short span of time to create a polarised political environment and excitement surrounding the elections, all militate that voter turnout will be comparably low as the 2021 election (as predicted by the Imam Sadegh University poll) or decline further.

Despite the signs and prevailing conditions that point to the continuation of the status-quo in some form or another, we should remain open to different scenarios, as Iranian presidential elections have been full of surprises in the past.

It is conceivable that the Leader and unelected power centres do not back any single principlist candidate, making it harder for this political current to unify, leading to intra-principlist competition that could spill out into the open. With the probable disqualification of Ahmadinejad, Jalili would be a leading principlist candidate, but he remains divisive both within his own current and the broader public.

Qalibaf maintains a strong following among principlists, as evinced by his re-election as the speaker of parliament at the end of May, but would have difficulty unifying the broader political current around his presidential candidacy due to his myriad of scandals. As a less hardline principlist, he could theoretically have broader public appeal, especially if he focuses on issues that his current does not typically favour. Still, his past electoral showings and favorability in the recent Imam Sadegh University poll have all been quite poor.

Haghanian may turn out to be a dark horse candidate who performs well and is worth keeping an eye on. Alternatively, he, alongside Zakani and Bazrpash, could be stalking horses that attack moderate opponents or even principlist rivals in the election campaign and debates (if they are held) in favour of their preferred candidate, securing positions or influence for themselves in the new government in the process.

Larijani stands out as the strongest potential candidate from the moderate coalition. He comes from a powerful political family: For example, his brother, Sadegh Larijani, has served as the chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council since 2018 and was the chief justice of Iran from 2009 to 2019.

Larijani himself previously served as speaker of parliament, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2005 to 2007, and director-general of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB or state media) from 1994 to 2004, among other roles.

If he is qualified for the 2024 election, he would stand a good chance of unifying the moderate coalition around himself, and if he wins, fielding an influential cabinet given his stature and connections across the Iranian political spectrum.

If Larijani is disqualified from standing, Jahangiri, Hemmati, or Akhoondi could each try their hand at unifying the moderate political current behind themselves, with varying chances of success. Aref and Pezeshkian are unlikely to be able to play this role, but could play stalking horse roles for their current, and obtain positions in a moderate government or influence for themselves and their networks.

But it remains unclear if Larijani or any moderate candidate can sufficiently juice voter turnout to make a difference in the election outcome. Again, given the stakes for the largely excluded and sidelined moderate coalition, they would likely be willing to engage in strong rhetoric against their principlist adversaries and make campaign promises that could be attractive for some disenchanted voters.

After the violent suppression of the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, a dark mood hung over society, and I was skeptical about whether moderate voters would re-engage with an electoral process that at time seemed to have been manipulated to ensure the victory of President Ahmadinejad. However, this mood reverted to one of polarization and excitement after Rouhani emerged as a candidate in the 2013 Iranian presidential election, and was handed a victory by voters many of who had likely been disengaged or disenchanted with the process just months prior.

The defeat of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal, President Rouhani’s signature initiative, for reasons outside of his government’s control, and his inability to deliver meaningful change on other issues like social freedoms reignited a sense of disenchantment with the Islamic Republic and hopelessness about the future for many moderate voters. It also helped ignite three rounds of anti-system mass protests since 2018 that explicitly rejected distinguishing between principlists and moderates and participation in the system’s electoral games.

My sense is that the “Women, Life, Freedom” demonstrations from September to December 2022 were a breaking point for many moderate voters from which the Islamic Republic, at least in its current iteration, is unlikely to recover any time soon.

But I may be wrong, and just as I was surprised in 2013, a heated election campaign could at least see a greater number of middle-aged and older moderate voters re-engage with the process, taking the voter turnout rate beyond the 50% threshold which the system could attempt to present as a victory and sign of its popular legitimacy. This would benefit prospective moderate candidates.

This blog previously featured on the Iran Wonk blog.