Iran's President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran. Photo: Reuters
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran. Photo: Reuters

Iran’s presidential elections, the 12th since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are scheduled to be held next month, and local elections will be held alongside them.

Pundits, the press and Iran-watchers are indulging in horserace analysis of the elections. Observers are wondering whether the so-called moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, will retain his position, or be defeated by his likely contender, the hardline mullah Ebrahim Raisi, who is known for his key role in the 1988 massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners.

Any distinction between “extremists” and “moderates” in Iran’s political establishment is false, as both remain loyal to the theocracy. For example, President Rouhani is considered a moderate, but it’s a well-documented fact that more than 3,000 Iranians have been executed for “crimes” such as “insulting Islam” during his time in office.

Furthermore, Iran became involved in wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the regime’s semi-official Mehr news agency said the Rouhani government has done more to advance strategic weapons development recently than was achieved in the past decade. This clearly demonstrates that President Rouhani doesn’t have influence over state policy; he just implements policies formulated at the office of the supreme leader. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections, there will be no shift in Tehran’s core aims of regional hegemony and the development of nuclear weapons.

The presidential election is unlikely to disrupt Iranian foreign policy in a fundamental way, given that the supreme leader is the ultimate decision maker. Iran is in the truest sense an Islamic theocracy, where one man, the supreme leader, exerts ideological and political control over a system dominated by clerics who shadow every major function of the state. The regime’s own high-ranking officials have time and again acknowledged that these so-called polls have no legitimacy.

The regime is founded on the velayat-e faqih, the absolute rule of the clergy, and a mere glimpse at this system makes it clear to observers that no change is possible. The supreme leader is the ultimate power, and the presidency can be accurately described as a symbolic post.

In Iran’s velayat-e faqih system there can be no genuine democratic election.

In Iran’s velayat-e faqih system there can be no genuine democratic election. It is more a selection process carried out under the watchful eye of the supreme leader. There are no democratic political parties in this establishment, only various factions that are completely loyal to the system, pursuing their own goals within the establishment.

 Article 110 of Iran’s constitution defines the most important aspects of the supreme leader’s powers and authority. As the commander-in-chief, Ali Khamenei has the authority to launch wars and declare peace, and order the mobilization of the armed forces. He confirms the president after the people’s vote, and can sack him if he believes it serves the state’s interests. He has the authority to appoint, sack and accept the resignations of members of the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics that he directly and indirectly selects. He also appoints and sacks senior judiciary officials, heads of the state TV and radio services, the chairman of the armed forces joint chiefs of staff, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, and senior military and security commanders.

Neither Iran’s foreign policy, nor its geo-strategic posture will dramati­cally change because of the outcome of any election process. Although the president is the human face and representative of the Islamic regime in Tehran, he is not the top executive decision maker. Rather, his authority lies in the domestic arena, particularly in managing the economy and framing the moral debate, and communicating Iran’s messages to the world. The supreme leader sets the broad parameters of Iranian foreign policy and strategy, leaving the president with limited room to manoeuver in determining the country’s international relations.

So why are elections even held if they are just a window-dressing exercise? There are two main objectives in holding elections. The first is to give the people a sense of having a role in the affairs of state; the second is to misuse the “people” and “elections” as a tool to provide legitimacy for an absolute dictatorship in order to silence dissidents by assuming a democratic posture. But this status quo of theocratic dominance in Iranian politics can’t continue indefinitely: 70% of the Iranian population is under the age of 35, and they are keenly interested in seeing political change in the future.

The vast majority of Iranians really miss legitimate, representative, accountable, transparent and secular democracy. The establishment of this kind of democracy requires a clear separation of religion from the state.

Historical and current circumstances suggest Iranians eventually will succeed in separating faith from politics. They will not reject Shiism, but return it to its appropriate place in society.

The leaders and people of other nations should vigorously assist Iranians striving to liberate themselves from the current structure. A transition from a Shiite theocracy to a democratic system of governance would greatly benefit the Iranian people and be conducive to stability, peace and security, both regionally and globally.

Manish Rai

Manish Rai is a columnist specializing on the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround. He can be reached at

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