Political Conflict in the Iranian Presidential Election

The Islamic Republic of Iran will vote in its new President on June 14th, and the race for office will be a highly contested one. Conservatism will hit reformism head on, in a battle between the bookies’ favourites. The first, a Dr Saeed Jalili, an Iraq-Iran War veteran, civil servant, and supposed favourite of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; the second, a Mr Akbar Rafsanjani, who served as President between 1989 and 1997. Dr Jalili represents Islamic political traditionalism, and vows to build on internal religious principles in order to build resistance to external threats – rhetoric similar to, but less intense than, that of the 1979 movement. Mr Rafsanjani, a self-proclaimed moderate and liberal, aims to go about the matter in a more internationally-cooperative way – tactics held in suspicion by some members of the Guardian Council, who have the ultimate say in the list of candidates. The theocratic foundations of Iranian politics may well be tested next month, as the matters of (a) how to handle economic sanctions, and (b) nuclear weapons, take precedence in election discourse.

Saeed Jalili

A favourite among the fundamentalists in Iranian politics, Jalili’s late arrival to the electoral scene has prompted some candidates to step down in his favour, suggesting that he is a suitable figurehead for the Islamist-theocratic loyalists. His corruption-free record and history as a civil servant will also keep his approval ratings high: he served in the military during the bitter war with Iraq, before working in the Foreign Ministry and then the offices of the Guardian Council. Most recently, Jalili has been fighting Iran’s nuclear cause as secretary to the Supreme National Security Council. His policies focus around fuelling progress and justice in domestic affairs, thus increasing resistance to foreign intervention, especially in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, towards which Jalili has a positive and liberal attitude.

Jalili is a member of the so-called ‘principalist’ faction loyal to Khamenei, and so will face little resistance from the Guardian Council. Nor will he find opposition among the fundamentalists or nationalists. It is whether or not the pragmatists, who are looking to reassert Iran’s international position as diplomatically as possible, will be able to accept a candidate such as Jalili, who intends to go about such reassertion in a confrontational manner, which may prove crucial to his campaign.

Akbar Rafsanjani

The pragmatists will almost certainly favour ex-President Rafsanjani, who submitted his candidacy with minutes to spare, endorsed by his 1997 presidential successor Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani is remembered for his focus on peace and development; he played a distinct role in encouraging Khamenei to end the war with Iraq in 1988, as well as rebuilding the post-war economy in the 1990s. He is thought to be one of the only front-running candidates that could strike a diplomatic deal with the West to lift economic sanctions and return full autonomy to the Iranian government. This may still allow Iran to pursue its own goals in matters such as nuclear technology, and would certainly be a more internationally-pleasing way of achieving such a goal than making an enemy of the West.

Rafsanjani’s candidacy, however, will almost certainly be held in suspicion by the Guardian Council, which reserves the power to veto runners. In true theocratic fashion, Khamenei may be doubtful of Rafsanjani on the basis of his, in the Supreme Leader’s eyes, debatable loyalty to absolute political Islam. The ex-President’s moderate position on international politics may make his popularity with the fundamentalists difficult to maintain, especially when a candidate such as Jalili is running the same race.

The West

International actors such as the US will be watching the election closely. This is understandable, as the winner may distinctly determine Iranian foreign policy over the next term. Jalili’s record as a diplomat has already irritated Western states; his focus on Iranian autonomy in all political and economic areas has frustrated some to the extent that they will actively hope that he doesn’t obtain more personal power. Rafsanjani’s more pragmatic stance will be more preferable to those such as the US, not to say that he will be manipulated, only that there will be more chance of international settlements and treaties should he win.


Should June 14th not produce a majority winner, a ‘second-round’ election will take place a week later on June 21st. The next stage is for the Guardian Council to whittle down the hundred or so applicants for candidacy to around a dozen; who is chosen will be an interesting matter indeed. If Rafsanjani can break through Khamenei’s vetting process, then the political battle that will ensue may change the face of Iranian politics for years to come. There are many actors with many stakes in these elections, and it is unlikely that any will want to compromise. Hence, the world should look forward to a fascinating clash of reformism and Islamic modernism.



Financial Times, ‘Leading Iranian presidential hopeful vows to resist West’. 17/05/2013

Economist, ‘Iran’s Election: A candidacy conundrum’. 18/05/2013


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