Democratic Transitions Elections Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource June 21, 2024

There are several Iranian presidential candidates, but only one Khamenei might want

By Shay Khatiri

The June 28 presidential election in Iran will be the first of its kind. Since the 1988 constitutional reforms that abolished the prime minister’s office and elevated the presidency, this is the first time that the Islamic Republic is holding an election ahead of schedule.

There have been two key trends in the Islamic Republic’s elections. Inside Iran, one is known as shol kon, seft kon (loosen, tighten). It refers to eight-year intervals of conservative administration followed by eight years of a reformist or pragmatist one. For eight years, the regime increases domestic oppression and hostility toward the free world to rally its conservative base. For the next eight years, marginal social freedoms would give hope for gradual reform, and rhetorical softening of foreign policy would release foreign pressure, through sanctions relief. Until recently, this policy recovered the political capital the regime had spent at home and abroad during the previous eight years of conservative administrations.

This has been the norm since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader, with conservative Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) followed by reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), pragmatist Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), and conservative Ebrahim Raisi (2021-2024).


Raisi’s sudden death in a helicopter crash nearly three years into the job broke this trend. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic feels less of a need to play the same game. Domestically, reformists and moderates cannot rally the people any longer. On the international stage, it’s well-known that the presidency is not a policymaking office. Also, Democratic US administrations give the regime breathing room even if there is a conservative in office—the nuclear negotiations began when Barack Obama and Ahmadinejad were in office in March 2013—and Republicans will increase pressure even if a moderate governs—the Donald Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy began under Rouhani’s presidency in 2018.

The second trend has been that known commodities never get the presidential job. The last president widely known inside and outside Iran was Rafsanjani, who was a prominent revolutionary and the commander in chief of the armed forces during the Iran–Iraq War. Khatami, Ahmadinejad, Rouhani, and Raisi became famous after running for president. The Islamic Republic limits presidents to two consecutive terms. Rafsanjani made two further attempts, but both failed—he lost in 2005, likely because of election fraud, and was disqualified during his 2013 run. Reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and already a prominent figure, was also cheated out of office during the 2009 election, which prompted the post-election protests known as the Green Movement.

Khamenei worries that established figures can create movements within the regime structure that, combined with their knowledge of how the system works, can challenge him. Therefore, he has preferred unknown, uncharismatic figures, especially when it comes to reformists. Indeed, Ahmadinejad proved to be a formidable foe who freelanced too much. This was due, in part, to the fraudulent outcome of the 2009 election and the subsequent Green Movement. The widespread protests rallied the regime’s base behind Ahmadinejad as almost a martyr, metaphorically speaking. This elevated his stature to unprecedented heights and provided him with immunity from Khamenei’s wrath, which protects him to this day.

The president’s function

Elected offices in the Islamic Republic could be compared to the US civil service. In Iran, things are upside down. The policymaking class is unelected and forms the permanent state, while bureaucrats run in elections to implement this permanent state’s policies. Khatami once described his office as “the system’s footman.” Like all bureaucrats, elected officials can cause headaches for the policymakers through incompetence or mischief. Presidents can also use their bully pulpit to promote a cause. In Ahmadinejad’s case, that cause was himself, a mistake that can never be repeated in Khamenei’s eyes.

Khamenei needs an economic manager to address the economic crisis that ails the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s hand is relatively light in economics. Sanctions have taught him that he needs self-sufficiency, or economic nationalism, wherein everything is produced at home and science and research are elevated, a concept he termed a “resistance economy.” He also ensures wealth is distributed among all important regime subsidiaries—particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Beyond that, he leaves the details to his elected bureaucrats to figure out. More than ever, Khamenei needs a president who executes this imperative. Whether this is possible is a different question, but Raisi failed to satisfy the need.

Perhaps more than competence, Khamenei needs someone to rally his conservative base. Economic indicators, support for the system, confidence in institutions, and all other measurable and immeasurable political values in Iran are in decline. The supreme leader is not someone who fires up the base. He needs a president who can boost morale among the hardliner youth and motivate them ideologically to beat up protesters in the streets and fight in Syria and Iraq—and elsewhere if Iran expands its direct presence.

Considering these different trends and necessities, the six approved candidates require further scrutiny.

The only reformist among the six candidates is the amusingly named Masoud Pezeshkian—his last name means “of physician lineage,” and he lives up to his name as a surgeon and former health minister. Pezeshkian was Khatami’s health minister during his second term and has been a member of parliament since 2008. While there once were sincere reformists in Iran, many rounds of purges and eliminations have left only the insincere and slavish ones in office, including Pezeshkian. However, he checks an essential box for Khamenei: he has no charisma, popular base, or following within the regime structure. His competence and economic management are untested, but he will not rally any base for anyone. That Khamenei has yet to send a signal of support to rally the security forces behind a conservative is potentially a tacit sign that he favors Pezeshkian.

The second category of candidates is the fringe conservative. Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi is one of the dozen vice presidents—better described as deputy presidents—and oversees the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans portfolio. It is a fairly obscure position that oversees benefits for veterans and the families of war casualties. Despite its obscurity, this is an important position. The beneficiaries have been the regime’s foot soldiers, on whose shoulders it has stood for decades, but they are increasingly abandoning the regime. In his current role, Ghazizadeh Hashemi is tasked with using ideological and financial incentives to mobilize veterans. With his experience as the incumbent food distributor among the regime’s base, combined with his hardline politics, Ghazizadeh Hashemi could be the wildcard in this race for his capacity to rally support.

Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani is the other member of the fringe-conservative category and a former member of parliament. He has a low profile and provides no value to Khamenei’s needs. Zakani is the typical supporting character who will be forgotten as a candidate, so a detailed look is unnecessary.

The last category is the known conservative. Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf is a former IRGC unit commander and mayor of Tehran, and is currently the speaker of parliament. He is always a feature of presidential elections, but never a threat. He is also uncharismatic and not particularly popular among the regime’s base. Ghalibaf’s extreme corruption came to light in recent years, which makes him unappealing among the regime’s populist base. But he clears one box: loyalty to Khamenei. He could even be credibly accused of competence, which the regime needs in a president more than ever. But he has been around for too long and is a known commodity—not something Khamenei typically wants. If Khamenei opts to support him, it will be due to the extraordinary circumstances under which this election is being held, and the fact that there has not been enough time to choose and elevate a lesser-known figure.

Saeed Jalili is the other member of the known-conservative category. A war veteran with a missing leg, and as ideologically rigid as they come, he has the bragging right that he did not give an inch when he was the nuclear negotiator. The base loves him already, but he is the one candidate who could be another Ahmadinejad. It is also a problem that his ideological rigidity comes at the cost of competence. His understanding of politics could be summarized as, “Everything will work out if people pray harder and believe more in the system.” Unlike Raisi, who had the wisdom to avoid fiery statements about foreign matters, Jalili carries the risk of public remarks that would jeopardize the current loosening of sanctions. Like Ahmadinejad, he is a candidate who comes with significant risks but potentially big rewards.

The last candidate is Mostafa Pourmohammadi. Raisi was infamous for the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, and Pourmohammadi was a key actor in it. Though Raisi kept somewhat of a low profile after 1988 until he ran for president in 2017, Pourmohammadi has been a feature of every oppression campaign as a member of the security apparatus with close ties to the IRGC. As Ahmadinejad’s interior minister responsible for law enforcement, he set up the morality police and enforced an extreme religious code in public, and occasionally in private. Ahmadinejad sacked him in 2008 for being Khamenei’s mole in his cabinet. He returned to the security apparatus and played a leading role in cracking down on the 2009 protests. As Rouhani’s justice minister, he oversaw a spike in executions. He might prove to be a better economic manager than Raisi, can rally the base, and is not a risk to abuse the bully pulpit against Khamenei or sabotage sanctions relief.

Pourmohammadi is the ideal candidate except for two issues. First, he is a known commodity, which Khamenei does not like. He has been a prominent figure within the system and is shrewd enough to get his way. Second, he is the only cleric in the field. So far, Khamenei’s only civilian president has been Ahmadinejad, which gives Pourmohammadi another advantage. However, a hardliner cleric could immediately become a contender for supreme leadership, which might raise objections from Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, who is allegedly gearing up for the position.

Pourmohammadi’s work at the security apparatus in intelligence, secret-police, law-enforcement, and prosecution capacities means that he is in a perfect position to challenge Khamenei from within, but this does not mean that he will. Unlike Ahmadinejad, the cautionary tale, Pourmohammadi has known Khamenei since the 1980s. This could mean that the supreme leader knows the candidate enough to trust him—or enough not to. But if the elder Khamenei finds him trustworthy, Pourmohammadi is his ideal president, even though the younger Khamenei might object.

The question of Iran’s next president has swung from one misunderstanding to another in Washington. Once upon a time, Americans hoped that a new president would effect reform and change. Now, they ignore elections as entirely irrelevant.

The president of Iran matters in two ways. First, like the US civil service, the Islamic Republic’s administrations cannot make policies, but they have nontrivial influence in implementing them. Whether due to incompetence, disagreement, or corruption, the president can become an obstacle to the permanent state. Second, who Khamenei wants to become president tells us about the internal state of the system and what Khamenei believes to be his regime’s vulnerabilities for a new president to address.

Many crises consume the Islamic Republic, and most of these candidates are a patch for some of these problems. Whoever becomes president will be a hint as to which of these crises Khamenei believes to be the most urgent. It also will tell us where he wants to take Iran next.

Shay Khatiri is the vice president of development and a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute.

Further reading

Image: Iranian presidential candidate Mostafa Pourmohammadi attends an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran June 20, 2024. Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS