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Iran: The Election That Never Was

Elections in Iran have neither been free nor fair. They have always been limited to the narrow confines of the Islamic Republic’s acceptable politics. However, even within this restricted spectrum, the elections have been considered competitive allowing fractional representation. That is, there existed room for variance in their domestic and international engagement across different leaders. It is not a totally gamed system but it is also not a level playing field.

Challenging these contemporary notions of Iran’s politics, this recent presidential election serves to be an inflection point.

An unprecedented level of disqualification had set the stage for Iran’s most uncompetitive election in its history. A large number of candidates – including women, moderates and reformists – had registered for the elections but were not qualified to compete by the Guardian Council, an influential body that vets the eligibility of those seeking office.

The prominent moderate and reformist candidates were thus strategically woven out of the picture, reducing the elections to a mere formality for placing a hardliner into power.

By eliminating any serious challengers, the presidential election was engineered to chart out a clear path of victory for Ebrahim Raisi, the Chief Justice of Iran, and a frontrunner from the hard-liner camp.

This result will significantly shape Iran’s near and long-term future.

Ebrahim Raisi (Source: BBC)

Why were the Elections Sanitized and What does it have to do with the Supreme Leader?

Back in 2019, Ebrahim Raisi was appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini as the Chief of the Judiciary, an important center of power. Over the years, Ebrahim Raisi has risen the ranks and it is widely speculated that he is being groomed to take over Khomeini as the next Supreme Leader of Iran. The impending succession for the Supreme Leader is believed to have influenced this presidential election.

In 2017, during the last presidential elections, Ebrahim Raisi was the main challenger to the incumbent Hassan Rouhani but failed to secure power. This defeat and his lack of experience in the executive branch had surfaced concerns over his credibility as the prospective Supreme Leader of Iran. To overturn this narrative, it was imperative for Ebrahim Raisi to win the 2021 presidential election and lay out the path for his bigger ambitions.

To that end, it is conjectured that the hardline and conservative institutions in Iran - the Guardian Council, the Judiciary, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - had sanitized the elections and eliminated any risk to his candidature. To elevate Raisi to the senior-most position in the Islamic Republic and enable a smooth transition, consolidation of power at this juncture was critical. This explains the mass disqualifications of candidates not just from the reformist camps but also those from the conservative camp that could have jeopardized his prospects of being elected.

Other Factors that Influenced the Election

The grim state of the reformist movement in Iran over the past decade under former President Hassan Rouhani has also moulded the current elections. The people in Iran had instilled confidence in Rouhani to reform the system thus allowing more freedom and rights, to recalibrate ties with the West, and to engage in domestic and foreign policy reform. The moderates formulated their campaign around and expended their political capital over negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States and others.

However, the American policy towards Iran had only deteriorated under former President Donald Trump’s policy of maximum pressure that altered the social class in Iran and undermined the efforts of the reformists.

The lack of any concrete action on the deal and the imposition of crippling sanctions impoverished the Iranian people prompting a humanitarian crisis in the country. This situation was exacerbated by the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic - on health and the economy, coupled with hyperinflation and mass unemployment. This allowed the hardliners to profile their reformist counterparts as naïve and incompetent while also blaming the reformists for all the economic ills plaguing the country.

Thus, the failure of the reformists has empowered the hardliners to consolidate their power across different branches of government. These gains also created a conducive environment for the election of Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran's Political System (Rapp, 2009)

Voter apathy was observed across Iran due to the failure of the reformists to improve the political system, crackdown on protests and the apparent lack of hope for any real change due to the hijacking of the State institutions by the hardliners had resulted in the lowest turnout since the revolution. Only 48% of all eligible voters cast their vote, a sharp dip from the recorded 73% in the 2017 presidential election and 72% in the 2013 presidential election.

This staggering shrink in participation is indicative of the frustration among the voters which led to a lack of enthusiasm towards participation, with some even boycotting the elections and shaming others for doing otherwise through intimidation tactics.

The deficiencies of the electoral process and the absence of credible candidates from the reformist camp had raised questions about the validity of the elections and demotivated the voters to cast their ballots.

The absence of participation by voters that could sway the outcome of the elections to the other side had also streamlined the process of victory for the hard-line candidate.

How this Election Could shift Iran’s Policies Towards the West and the Middle East

The recent presidential election held in Iran has resulted in a jolting paradigm shift for domestic politics and governance. The implications of which extend to regional and international spheres. The increase in the dominance of the hardliners in the parliament under Raisi is bound to change Iran’s interaction with the West as compared to when the moderates were in power.

The institutionalized enmity and misalignment of pro-diplomacy leaders in Tehran and Washington have led to a narrow window of engagement between the two. The hopes for a broader d’état between the United States and Iran under Joe Biden has been imperilled by the election of the Raisi. The unyielding approach adopted by Raisi to rule out constructive diplomatic engagement with the United States and the strong anti-American sentiment limits the extent of cooperation.

However, the continuity in approach and dialogue to return to the Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) will remain in motion, as it is a system-wide decision backed by the Supreme Leader Khomeini and the resulting waiving of sanctions is sorely needed for the recovery of the Iranian economy. However, the pursuit of a relationship outside the restoration of the JCPOA seems unlikely. That is to say, the baseline of Iran’s foreign policy will remain intact but how it is conducted will be modulated by President Raisi. This defensive posture creates difficulty for conducting Iran’s foreign policy abroad, deepening the tension between the US and Iran.

Further, Ebrahim Raisi is one with a controversial past. He has been accused of extrajudicial killings of political prisoners during the Iranian Revolution. And for these reasons, he has been placed under sanctions by the United States, and his candidature has drawn sharp condemnation from the West. These human rights abuses attached to his name are likely to motivate the United States and Europe to isolate Iran under Raisi.

Iran’s diplomatic turmoil with the West also impacts its relationship with American allies in the Middle Eastern region. The regional politics are fraught with challenges and age-old rivalries, and Iran’s change in leadership presents no new prospects of cementing these faultlines.

Source: Times of India

One of the most crucial of Iran’s relationships is with Saudi Arabia. This relationship has often been characterized as a destructive zero-sum game for decades where a gain for one means a loss for the other. Their bilateral ties have been severely strained to lead to the cessation of diplomatic relations between the two.

Among the religious and political differences, a main point of contention is the Nuclear Deal which could lead to the US-Iran rapprochement. This prospect could threaten the already tumultuous position of Saudi in America and weaken their relationship. This unfavourable outcome has fueled much of the Iran-Saudi rivalry. However, the change in Presidency and the emboldening of the anti-West sentiment could create an opportunity for long-sought-after collaboration and policy congruence between Saudi and Iran that could be mutually beneficial.

Another important player in the region is Israel, with whom Iran’s relationship has been on a downhill and is unlikely to improve under Raisi. Here as well, the US-Iran rapprochement on the Nuclear Deal is vociferously opposed by Israel and this posturing exacerbates the rivalry between the two.

Domestic Policy Implications

Under Ebrahim Raisi there also will be a shift in balance, even more so, towards the influence of theocratic bodies in the functioning of the State. These elements have been fighting with the forces that want to strengthen the republican elements, thus deepening the system’s political divide.

Through the resulting leap towards authoritarianism, Raisi is expected to impose further restrictions on the atmosphere, roll back the freedoms of the citizens and undo the measures that had been implemented by the former President Hassan Rouhani.

Many factions of the pluralist society are not represented under the current government. This marginalization coupled with the lack of mobilization of civil society groups under the insular and repressive government could invite domestic unrest and backlash against those who are pushing for greater rights and challenging the status quo established by Raisi.

The ostensible shift towards greater theocracy by the most reactionary elements of the Islamic Republic will not replace the need for institutional reform. The absence of liberal elements in Raisi’s constituency and bureaucratic inertia will make revamping the system difficult. But doing so is important as it is the link on which society’s stability and territorial integrity are hinged upon.


Through mass disqualification and a predetermined outcome, the unjust and uncompetitive elections in Iran have led to the victory of the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi. This has many regional and foreign policy implications. Among the myriad of changes, the most important ones are located in its domestic context. Raisi’s election victory is going to set the tone for the next few decades with his potential rise to the position of the Supreme Leader. Through his policy changes, he may undo many of the gains made by Iran under the pragmatist and former President Hassan Rouhani. How this may impact its international standing remains to unfurl.


A final year student at the Jindal School of International Affairs, Khushi Baldota’s interests include security studies, public policy and political philosophy. She can be reached at: or @khushiii_31


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