Based on the decision of the heads of the branches of power, the presidential election is scheduled to be held on June 28, 2024. The arguments from previous years’ supporters of the government will likely be repeated again this year: the president in the “current sensitive situation” must be a capable and strong manager, able to maintain security, handle crises, and be a pure follower of Ali Khamenei. Let’s see who is in the running.

Ebrahim Raisi, a member of the “Death Committee” who died in a helicopter crash, came to power in 2021 in an election that everyone considered rigged: Ali Khamenei’s maneuver for the succession period, following his previous maneuver in the parliamentary elections, which created the “most revolutionary” parliament of the era under the leadership of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

The electoral shows continued in March 2024 with the Assembly of Experts and Islamic Consultative Assembly elections. It seemed that the highest ranks of power in the Islamic Republic were preparing the conditions for the transition to the current leader’s successor. For this preparation, they aimed to have absolute control over all branches of government to minimize the chance of any unforeseen and unpredictable events.

However, history taught the arrogant leaders of the Islamic Republic a materialistic lesson. The unpredictable happened, a literal “accident” occurred, and the member of the Death Committee died in a crash.

According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the first vice president of Raisi now temporarily takes over the administration of the state and, along with the heads of the other two government branches, must hold an election within the next 50 days. According to the approved election calendar, candidate registration will happen soon, the Guardian Council must review the qualifications within a week, and after announcing the approved candidates, the election campaign will continue until the day before the election.

According to the head of the Commission on Internal Affairs, the temporary head of the state and the organizer of the election cannot run in the election unless he resigns from his position and Khamenei appoints another person as the temporary head of the state.

Which names?

The arguments from previous years’ supporters of the government will likely be repeated again this year: the president in the “current sensitive situation” must be a capable and strong manager, able to maintain security, handle crises, and be a pure follower of Ali Khamenei. He must act in absolute coordination with the leadership and the “field” (read: the IRGC) in foreign policy and maintain the current hardline approach in cultural-security policies to satisfy the most extreme supporters of Khamenei — those willing to bleed and sacrifice for the regime.

In these circumstances, some have indeed called for “turning the threat into an opportunity” and have suggested to the government that, to make up for the public’s discontent and their low participation in the parliamentary and previous presidential elections, they should use the “emotional atmosphere” created after Raisi’s death to hold a lively and enthusiastic election. For example, the news platform close to centrist, “Asre Iran” writes:

“After a lackluster election, we are now faced with a sudden election. Given the emotional and political atmosphere created in the country, an opportunity has arisen for the regime to urgently correct the mistakes that led to the parliamentary election situation. This is a chance to create conditions for greater public participation, restore hope in the electoral process, strengthen the relationship between the people and the government, and build public trust.”With these conditions, who are the potential candidates?

Technocrat military

In previous years, one example of the argument for a strong and capable manager was technocratic military figures. Ebrahim Raisi was neither a technocrat nor a military man, but he was a security-judiciary figure who, in times of crisis, had no qualms about killing and executing to preserve the regime. He was a disciple of Khamenei and connected to the influential clergy in Mashhad during his leadership. Now, with Raisi’s death, one possibility might be turning to the idea of a “technocratic military leader” or a “Reza Shah type for the Islamic Republic.”

In this category, IRGC figures stand out. All military names who have previously entered the presidential election arena but they failed.

Although Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, as one of the heads of the three branches of power, has a role in the three-member council with Raisi’s vice president and the judiciary, this role does not prevent him from running in the election. He had previously run in 2005, 2013, and 2017, and in the latter, he withdrew in favor of Ebrahim Raisi with the declaration of “New Fundamentalism.”

Despite leading the eleventh parliament, his presidency of the twelfth parliament is not guaranteed, facing serious rivals from various factions of fundamentalists who are in internal conflict. Ghalibaf’s rivals have repeatedly exposed his corruption, providing him with strong motivations to leave the parliament and aim for the presidency.

Another name is Mohsen Rezaei who participated in the presidential elections in 2005, 2009, 2013, and 2021. In the latest one, he withdrew in favor of Raisi and then became the head of his economic team, but this position was short-lived due to conflicts with Raisi’s vice president, leading to his removal. Moreover, Rezaei is now nearly 71 years old. The Guardian Council’s regulation before the 2021 election, which set the minimum age for the presidency at 40 and the maximum at 75, might discourage him from running again. Additionally, Rezaei is seen more as a joke than a serious candidate by the public due to his multiple election participations and behavior.

Saeed Mohammad, 57 years old, is affiliated with a powerful faction of the IRGC. However, he was disqualified for the 2021 election after resigning from the command of the Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters and is currently the deputy head of the Foundation of the Oppressed.

Ali Shamkhani participated in the eighth presidential election but lost to Khatami. He was also Khatami’s Defense minister. This military commander has held the position of Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for many years but was ousted from this seat by conservative critics of Rouhani. Despite this, Shamkhani is considered the architect of the rapprochement with regional powers and is currently an advisor on governance to Ali Khamenei. One of the serious obstacles in his path to the presidency is the prominent role of his children in corruption cases.

Security-ideological figures

However, if security-ideological figures close to Khamenei, such as Raisi, are to succeed him, then people like Saeed Jalili, Ali Bagheri Kani, Mehrdad Bazrpash, Parviz Fattah, Alireza Zakani, or Jalil Mohibi might also step forward.

All these are close to Khamenei and his inner circle. Ali Bagheri Kani, the current acting foreign minister after Raisi’s death, is a member of Khamenei’s family, with his brother being married to Khamenei’s youngest daughter. He might be needed more to stay in the foreign ministry and steer foreign policy according to Khamenei’s directives rather than run for president.

Saeed Jalili, who suffered a bitter defeat to Hassan Rouhani, is still seeking power. However, his close alignment with the rhetoric of the regime’s justice-seekers puts his economic policy at odds with Khamenei’s market-supporting and privatization policies.

In contrast, Jalil Mohibi, Mehrdad Bazrpash, and Parviz Fattah do not have such conflicts. Mohibi has become somewhat of a celebrity and has garnered many supporters around Ghalibaf. He is a young cleric who previously criticized Raisi, claiming he couldn’t manage even a five-story building. Additionally, Mohibi has been at the forefront of enforcing mandatory hijab and suppression policies, making him more culturally appealing to hardliners, although his stance on this issue has slightly changed recently.

Mehrdad Bazrpash, a former Basij member from Sharif University with ambition as high as his corruption, could be an appropriate choice for Ali Khamenei, who seeks a “young revolutionary government.”

Alireza Zakani, as the mayor of Tehran and a self-proclaimed soldier of Khamenei, has also been mentioned. As Ali Rasouli, a political analyst for Zamaneh, writes:

Alireza Zakani has been a controversial figure in Iran’s political scene for the past two decades. He considers himself a ‘servant’ of the Supreme Leader and his ‘humble soldier.’ This loyalty to the leadership has propelled him up the power ladder in the Islamic Republic’s structure at such a speed that even many within the system are astonished. Perhaps this upward trajectory will bring him to the presidential palace this time.

Classic conservatives

Turning to classic conservatives could also be another path for Ali Khamenei, especially if he wants to involve some reformists in the electoral game.

Among the candidates in this category, the most likely, yet also unlikely, option is Ali Larijani. The former Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly was disqualified in the last election, but it was said that Ali Khamenei did not agree with this disqualification. His brother, Sadeq Amoli Larijani, ranked fifth among five candidates in Gilan for the Assembly of Experts and has generally withdrawn from the scene. Bringing the Larijani family back to power, whose influence has greatly diminished, might not be sensible in Khamenei’s succession puzzle.

Nevertheless, if the regime wants to “turn the crisis into an opportunity” and hold a more vibrant and heated election, Larijani could be a candidate to bring in moderates and some reformists.

Regime-affiliated reformists

It is unlikely that the regime will turn to government-affiliated reformists, but if it does, a few names are mentioned: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Mohsen Hashemi (son of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), Abdolnaser Hemmati, and Mohammad Reza Aref. However, Aref, at 74 years old, will likely be disqualified due to the age limit.

These are all from the type of reformists who, unlike many others, did not challenge the central power of Khamenei and did not criticize his decisions with labels like tyrant or despot.

There were rumors that the reformists were preparing Mohsen Hashemi and Mohammad Javad Zarif for the next term. Now, they might bring them into this round. However, it does not seem that the regime wants to include more pro-Western politicians in the game or those who might show cultural leniency — even superficially.

Abdolnaser Hemmati, who participated in the 2021 election, showed that he is an element willing to engage in pre-determined losing games, and his low vote count probably does not make him an attractive option for moderates or government-affiliated reformists.

The Leadership Institution (Rahbari) and the Presidency

The governments of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Islamic Republic are both theocratic regimes. However, contrary to common perceptions, in certain aspects of power structure, the Islamic Republic is less religious than the Pahlavi monarchy. During the Pahlavi era, all state power was in the hands of the Shah, who claimed to be the shadow of God on earth. All governmental institutions were the Shah’s property, and all state officials, from the highest to the lowest, were his subjects. No one within the government dared to challenge him. As a Persian proverb says, “they were all bootlickers.” The core principle of the Pahlavi regime and its state was a master-servant philosophy. This was in stark contrast with the capitalist economic foundation of that state, a contradiction that led to its downfall.

The Islamic Republic, from the perspective of its political philosophy, is an odd paradox. On one hand, it is the manifestation of God’s will through the implementation of Islamic jurisprudence under the supervision of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. On the other hand, it is the manifestation of the people’s will through presidential elections, the parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and councils.

Although Khamenei, through the Guardian Council, plays a pivotal and significant role in determining who becomes president, presidents inevitably end up in conflict with Khamenei. This is because the president heads a massive and extensive apparatus of power whose interests do not align with the equally massive power structure of the Supreme Leader’s office.

The conflict between the president and Khamenei is a clash between these two powerful institutions within the Islamic Republic. Anyone who becomes president acquires power and becomes rebellious. An example is Ahmadinejad. Before becoming president, he was submissive like a mouse to Khamenei. But once he felt his own power, he stood up to him like a lion.

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