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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Prestige Falls against the Background of the Iranian Presidential Elections

Filed under: Iran

Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Prestige Falls against the Background of the Iranian Presidential Elections
The seven candidates for Iran’s presidency participated in the first of three debates on June 5, 2021.

Two weeks before the presidential elections in Iran (June 18), which are marked by the sweeping disqualification by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council (GC) of most candidates – only seven out of 592 were approved –Iran witnessed a significant depreciation in the prestige of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In response to heavy pressure directed against him following the strict vetting process and in the shadow of escalating calls at home and abroad to boycott the elections, Khamenei was forced to issue a startling statement on June 4 that stated that “injustice and sin have been done against some of the candidates who have not received permission to join the election campaign.” The Supreme Leader’s remarks came only ten days after he himself expressed strong support for the Council’s decision and called on everyone to abide by it and not criticize the GC.

Without referring directly to the GC, Khamenei called for correcting the unforgivable “injustice and sin.” He did not name the disqualified candidates but strongly hinted that reinforced speculation that Khamenei desired the reinstatement of Ali Larijani, a pragmatist-conservative and a senior political figure in the regime who for 12 years headed parliament and served in other senior positions. Larijani was regarded as the main challenger to Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi. Larijani sent a letter to Khamenei after his announcement published on the KhabarOnline News Agency site.1

Ali Larijani
Speaker of Iran’s Parliament Ali Larijani. (ILNA)

President Hassan Rouhani, who is about to end his eight years in office, sent two letters of complaint to the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council and called for the addition of more names to the list of approved candidates. Rouhani, as well as many supporters of the “reform camp” and so-called “pragmatic conservatives,” expressed deep disappointment with the Council’s mass disqualifications decision and stressed – explicitly or indirectly – that the Council had effectively paved the way to the presidency for Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi.

Iranian cartoon
The Guardian Council blamed for paving the way for Raisi2

Astonishment in Iran: The Guardian Council Decided against the Supreme Leader’s Will

Abbasali Kadkhodai, spokesman for the Council for Guardians of the Constitution, said minutes after the Supreme Leader’s remarks about “injustice and sin” that the Council would issue a detailed statement to prove the “obedience” of its members to the Leader. Throughout Friday, there was speculation that the Council would publish a new list of presidential candidates.

The Guardian Council
The Guardian Council rejected the spirit of the Iranian leader’s remarks.

A few hours later, though, the Council issued an astounding statement insisting that there would be no change in the list of presidential candidates and that the disqualifications, apart from the approved seven, were unanimously accepted by the 12 members of the Council. The statement also mentioned that the decision was not based on “reports” by some organizations (referring to reports presented by the regime’s intelligence and security organizations about the candidates’ past and their families). In doing so, the GC publicly disapproved of Khamenei’s implicit announcement to reconsider its decisions. The Leader has not yet responded to the Council’s announcement.3

The Highest Judicial Authority

The Guardian Council is Iran’s constitutional “watchdog.” It is headed by 94-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. It is the role of the Council to examine whether legislation in parliament (Majles) is consistent with Islamic law and the Iranian Constitution, and the Council has veto power over Majles decisions. Another role held by the Council is the approval of candidates for the most senior state institutions’ positions – the parliament, the presidency, and the Assembly of Experts (which is responsible for electing the Leader and supervising his ongoing performance). The Council consists of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Muslim jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament.

Meanwhile, in the first televised debate held on Saturday, June 5, 2021, on the Iranian Broadcasting Authority news channel, the seven candidates revealed details of the regime’s corruption, numerous irregularities among the regime’s organizations, several embarrassing details about the competitors’ past, and some even explicitly threatened the lives of opponents.

The first of the three debates, which will take place on the regime’s television channels before the elections, was devoted to economic issues, but from its first minutes, the candidates strongly attacked one and other on a personal basis. However, all seven agreed that the harsh economic situation is unprecedented in Iran’s modern history.

Abdolnaser Hemmati, the lone non-conservative outlier competing in the 2021 presidential election campaign and who until two weeks ago served as governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the former head of Iran’s physical education organization, proved during the debate that both are pro-reform candidates, without explicitly mentioning it, and are trying to mobilize voters of the reform camp’s disillusioned voters.

Ali Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi shared tears at Qasem Soleimani’s funeral on January 7, 2020.

Ebrahim Raisi, who is widely believed to be the preferred candidate of the regime’s Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guards, and many other conservative bodies in the country, was revealed during the debate as the weakest candidate among the seven and had to defend himself constantly.

Reformist candidate Muhsin Mehralizadeh turned to “Ayatollah” Raisi and asked, “With all due respect to your religious degree, how can you solve the terrible mess of Iran’s economy while you only studied six classes in classic studies and then in religious seminaries? Do you even know economics? You are like a new driver who wants to drive on a mountainous road in the north. Would you like your family to be on a bus with a fresh driver careening into the abyss?” Mehralizadeh also accused him of wanting to use the presidency as a springboard for a loftier and more significant role – the Leader of Iran. He added, “If you’re really concerned about the economic situation, try to reform the Ministry of Justice first, which is conducted like that of the 19th century Qajar dynasty.” The ministry suffers from a chronic scandal of promising high-level jobs… Now you’re trying to run for president and beyond.” Mehralizadeh also praised the performance of former president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

A Raisi campaign poster shredded in the Bushehr province of Iran
A Raisi campaign poster shredded in the Bushehr province of Iran.4

Former banker Abdolnaser Hemmati charged that Raisi and the other conservative candidates had taken the livelihoods of the Iranian people captive to support aggressive policies toward the world. In response, Hemmati was attacked by five conservative candidates.

Abdolnasser Hemmati
Outlier Abdolnasser Hemmati

Hemmati and Alizadeh repeatedly claimed that four conservative candidates were fig leaves, Raisi’s “cover candidates,” and therefore, they would not address the four’s remarks but would direct their comments to Raisi. Hemmati also demanded that the head of the judicial system give him a letter in advance to ensure that he would not be prosecuted after the election because of the criticism he voiced about the regime.

Soleimani Turned Iran into a Regional Power at the Cost of a Crumbling Economy

Abdolnasser Hemmati, who was clearly the leading and strongest candidate in the debate, also criticized the absence of women candidates in the elections, adding that he had come to defend the “republic” of the Iranian government. He also said that Qassem Soleimani had indeed turned Iran into a regional power, but that “it is a power with a crumbling economy that will have even more serious economic dangers if conservatives sit in the seat of the president of the country.”

He added that he had joined the government leadership to contribute to improving Iran’s economy. “I did not allow the Iranian economy to become Venezuela,” he declared. “I also joined the presidential election campaign so that the country’s economy would not resemble the North Korean situation. I don’t represent Hassan Rouhani, who did not know much about the economy either. I was fired from the central bank because of disagreements I had with him. However, I have to admit that Hassan Rouhani is a man who knows more about the issues of the big world; he is more meticulous and smarter than the five current (conservative) presidential candidates.”

He also told Mohsen Rezaee, Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council and a former Revolutionary Guards Commander: “You are among those who have stopped the economy. Enough already. Take your knees off the neck of the economy. If I win the election, I will declare you as a source in ruining the economy.”

The five conservative candidates strongly attacked Hemmati, saying he represented the government of Hassan Rouhani, which brought havoc on Iran’s economy.

Mohsen Rezaee also accused Hemmati and other members of Hassan Rouhani’s government of cooperating with the U.S. sanctions regime and threatened to prohibit them from leaving Iran if he won the elections. “As my first duty after forming the government, I would ban Hemmati and others in Rouhani’s government from leaving Iran. They will be handed over to the judiciary, and there I will prove what a treacherous role they played in costs to the nation.” According to the former Revolutionary Guard Commander, “The average economic growth in Rouhani’s government was zero … his government has been one of the darkest periods since the establishment of the Republic.” He used the term “useless key” as a common nickname in the conservative camp for Rouhani’s government, where Hemmati was a member until recently.

In response, Hemmati mocked Rezaee for wanting to take American soldiers captive for ransom to enrich the country’s coffers when he hinted that if the United States attacked Iran, American soldiers would be kidnapped. He also accused Rezaee of blocking the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) legislation on money laundering, a law that would have eased sanctions on Iran and allowed the flow of oil revenues. Hemmati said he would stop government intervention in setting prices and make Iran’s central bank independent. Rezaee dismissed Hemmati’s remarks on hostage-taking, saying that he was a soldier, and soldiers act to dissuade the enemy from attacking.

Alireza Zakani, head of the Majles Research Center, also criticized Hemmati for attacking others and “for reading articles instead of answering questions” and destroying the national currency.” Zakani, a senior Majles member, mockingly said that he deserved the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because he had turned Iranian money into something else (excrement), referring to the drastic drop in the value of the Iranian rial over the past eight years.

In light of the “accusations and lies” directed at the presidential contenders against the government, a government spokesman asked the Broadcasting Authority to allow the government to respond to their statements.

Three of the four polls conducted by Iranian news agencies following the debate placed Abdolnasser Hemmati in the lead. Khabar Online website said that he was in the lead with 64.1%, while hardline Ebrahim Raisi was second with 22.8% of the vote. On the Aftab News website, Hemmati leads with 48.63%, followed by Raisi’s 30.21%. Raisi was in the lead on the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency’s (ISNA) page, closely followed by Saeed Jalili.

ISNA poll
ISNA poll: Raisi leads the first “debate performance” poll, followed by Jalili.

According to the latest survey by the Iranian Political Science Association, the percentage of eligible voters who said they would “definitely vote” two days before the debate dropped to 34.1, which is lower than the day before the list of approved candidates was published.

Campaign for boycotting the elections

Whatever the turnout, the regime, supported by the powerful IRGC, is likely to ensure that the current Islamic revolutionary system will not be threatened by any (reformist) president pursuing reform. The GC mass disqualifications are expected to lead to a meager turnout and further erosion of people’s trust in the regime’s capability to ease economic pressures, even if sanctions are lifted. The opposition is currently campaigning for boycotting the elections.

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