Ri Insights

Do the Iranian Presidential Elections Matter?

paul gadalla

by Paul Gadalla

Rai Insights Contributor

On May 19th Iranians will once again head to the polls to choose a president.  International audiences and top officials in America will definitely be wondering what will come of reformist President Rouhani who hammered out a deal on Iran’s nuclear program in hopes of lifting crippling sanctions off the country.   There is always a lot of speculation and kerfuffle in the American media about the Iranian president, especially after the infamous Ahmadinejad presidency.

But how much does the Iranian presidency really matter in a country where there is a seat of authority even higher than that of the president?

It turns out it does and does not.

To quote top Iranian expert Karim Sadjadpour in his paper for the Carnegie Endowment on the 2013 Iranian presidential elections:

“The election is far more important for Iranians than it is for the international community. It will impact Iranian lives more than it will impact Tehran’s nuclear and foreign policy principles.”

Sadjadpour sums it up eloquently. Although for years we heard populist President Ahmadinejad spew anti-American tirades in Farsi on TV, it is ultimately Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is pulling the strings.

Iran’s system of governance is a strange one in that democratically elected institutions such as the legislative and executive branches, and even the military barely run in parallel or hold little power compared to its religious institutions or the Revolutionary Guard.  Iran’s Supreme Leader, who is also the country’s top cleric, ultimately wields power in the Islamic Republic as he not only picks top cabinet portfolios but even who is eligible to run for president and parliament, and even serves for life!

A number of occasions the Supreme Leader, and the Islamic Guardian Council (a council of 12 Islamic jurists, half picked by the Supreme Leader and half nominated by the parliament) have intervened to sway elections, most recently in 2016 when most reformists (including the grandson of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei) were barred from running in the parliamentary elections although moderates were able to eek out a strong showing and much the same happened under reformist President Khatami in 2004.

Instead, as scholars have noted before, the elections will most likely be referendum on Rouhani’s presidency as Iranian presidents typically serve two terms. According to Carnegie’s poll tracker, Rouhani is still favored to win and candidates he has backed in parliament do hold a plurality.

All of this will most likely mean that so far Iran’s theocracy wants to keep Rouhani around. One of Rouhani’s contenders, the mayor of Tehran has dropped out of the race and even fiery ex-president Ahmadinejad has been banned from running.

As Sadjadpour mentioned, the election is more important to Iranians. It’s a referendum on how the regime is doing in the eyes of the people. Take for instance the election of Mohammad Khatami, who won by a major landslide after years of conservative rule and economic stagnation.  Then as the hawkish George W. Bush came to power so did the equally fiery Ahmadinejad and now reformist Rouhani has come and managed to create a more flexible face for Tehran. Iranians are happy to see the elimination of sanctions but are still desperate to see economic improvements from the Nuclear Agreement.

Trump, on the campaign trail vehemently opposed the 2015 Nuclear Agreement with Iran and openly said he’d renegotiate it, viewing Iran as an enemy state much like Bush. Thus far the Trump administration has been dogged by a number of scandals and has turned its hawkish eyes towards North Korea, so for now so it seems Iran is in not in Trump’s crosshairs.

Whatever candidates the Supreme Leader allows to run will be the frontrunners of the race. The Supreme Leader, along with the top clerics in the country, have often intervened when they felt reformists have made too many strides against the system. As mentioned earlier, Rouhani was most likely picked as people had become fed up with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and populism, which wrecked the economy and offers a softer face for the regime. It should be noted that Trump simply cannot tear up the Nuclear Agreement and as Rouhani has said, Iran wishes to see the agreement through meaning the regime does as well and that’s what Americans should be watching out for.


*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon


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