Iran’s presidential election on Friday seems on track to select a president from the political faction loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Reportedly, more than 500 candidates registered for the election — but the Guardian Council, which vets electoral candidates, disqualified all but a handful. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, is ineligible to run for a third term.
Who is left on the ballot? Unlike the past six elections, the council left no reformists in the final list of qualified candidates. That leaves just seven approved candidates, mostly hard-liners — including three little-known politicians and three candidates who lost previously. None are likely to endanger the victory of the current head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi.
Opinion polls show Raisi leading with more than 50 percent of the vote. These same polls project voter turnout at about 40 percent, the lowest in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history. Young, educated and urban voters, in particular, seem likely to skip the election.
Raisi and his backers in the IRGC — the dominant military force defined in the constitution as the “guardians of the revolution” — have offered aggressive rhetoric and hawkish policies. Iran’s supreme leader oversees the IRGC, which controls Iran’s proxy groups throughout the Middle East. The official position of IRGC has always been against the 2015 nuclear deal and any compromise with the United States and its allies. According to the Trump administration, the reason behind the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 was the IRGC presence in the region.
But surprisingly little will change in Iran, despite the political handover to revolutionaries. Here’s why.
Iran’s economic crisis has deepened
The economic crisis is worse now than in any other Iranian election year. Iran’s economic growth rate dropped to an average of negative 3.7 percent since the last election. Roughly half of last year’s budget was financed through government bonds — all of which mature this year — and the country is running a 30 percent budget deficit. The triangle of sanctions, the pandemic and government mismanagement have left 44 percent of the population below the poverty line, while inflation reached 46 percent, the sixth highest in the world. According to one recent poll, 68 percent of Iranians expect their economic conditions to get worse.
Officially, 82,000 Iranians have lost their lives because of covid-19, but analysts speculate the actual death rate may be up to four times as high. The pandemic resulted in the loss of 1 million jobs and contributed to the high inflation rate. And ongoing U.S. sanctions prevented Iran from accessing its financial resources abroad, while the United States blocked its request for a $5 billion covid-19 relief loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The Revolutionary Guard’s role has expanded
In the past two decades, the IRGC has responded to the crisis by gradually expanding its administrative roles and the scope of its activities to include regional politics, culture, infrastructure, commerce and the covid-19 pandemic response. This has tipped the balance of power between Iran’s institutions away from the presidency and toward an “invisible government” run by the Revolutionary Guard. In April, for example, a leaked recording revealed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s complaints that he had “zero” influence on foreign policy — the IRGC was calling the shots.
The Revolutionary Guard holds the power to block any policy reform. Paradoxically, a president who shares the IRGC’s priorities could help the regime normalize and break the gridlock in foreign policy, namely, regional relationships and the stalled nuclear negotiations with the United States, the European Union and other parties. Currently, the IRGC and other leaders’ subordinates have the ultimate say over every critical aspect of foreign relations, such as regional proxies, missile programs and the nuclear deal.
This setting radicalizes Iran’s behavior in two ways. First, the IRGC is advancing its international ambition without coordination with the administration — but the administration is responsible for the economic setback caused by IRGC policies. And second, Iran’s supreme leader and his subordinates have allocated ample resources to constrain the power of elected presidents. The election of Raisi could merge the authority and responsibility in Iran and alleviate the rivalry between the elected branch and IRGC, especially because the new president will have no choice but to seek relief from sanctions to ease the government’s access to blocked assets and allow Iran to resume regular sales of oil.
Is this Iran’s new era?
The election will have bigger implications for the long-term outlook for consolidating the power of the “revolutionary current.” Iran’s supreme leader is maneuvering the country into a new era of consolidated power and reduced electoral competition, counting on “a new generation of revolutionary youth” to manage what he calls the “Second Phase of the Revolution.” The new terminology of “revolutionary current” is significant, signaling a nonpartisan coalition in which there is room only for loyalists rather than ongoing factional battles.
Succession is a leading issue in this election, given Khamenei’s age (82). Efforts are underway to fortify the power of the current leader’s office in the forthcoming leader transition. In recent years, younger clerics have replaced Khamenei’s elderly representatives in the provinces. Additionally, the IRGC and loyal subordinates of the leader have trained a new generation of young revolutionaries — some of whom became legislators in the 2020 parliamentary elections — to occupy critical administrative positions.
The push to consolidate power will block any prospect of Iran’s reformists gaining power through elections in the near future. But this dynamic carries a cost — it would minimize the regime’s legitimacy through representation. The next president will need to win legitimacy through performance to avoid social unrest like the violent protests last year that resulted in more than 300 casualties. And these concerns explain why we should not expect an aggressive foreign policy from Iran’s next president.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the negative economic growth since Iran’s previous election.
Amir Hossein Mahdavi, a PhD student in political science at the University of Connecticut, holds graduate degrees in international conflict resolution from Brandeis University and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. A scholar of Iran’s political and economic affairs, he previously served as an editor at several of Iran’s news outlets.