With less than a month until Iran’s presidential election, expectations are rising that a hardline candidate will succeed moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani, a political shift rife with implications for the Islamic Republic’s relations with the West.

Several high-profile politicians have registered as candidates, though the aspirants are unlikely to galvanize an unenthusiastic electorate disillusioned with politics amid Rouhani’s failure to deliver on his campaign vow to end Iran’s international isolation and get economic sanctions lifted.

Progress toward both goals unraveled with former US president Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015. With lukewarm support for moderates then the order of the day, the political pendulum is now swinging back toward the conservative camp.

Less than 40% of the eligible population is expected to vote in the June 18 presidential election, according to the latest Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) survey. That might be unnerving to authorities who have long contended that the legitimacy of the establishment is contingent upon huge crowds turning up in a show of Iranian democracy.

Other polls also portend a similarly low turnout. By comparison, a record 85% of the eligible voters cast their ballot in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, remembered as the most theatrical contest for power since the 1979 revolution.

Continued struggles with Covid-19 and the government’s botched handling of the pandemic could also mean many Iranians will stay home rather than go out to vote. Out of a population of nearly 85 million, only 0.4% have been fully vaccinated.

A reported 592 prospective candidates have so far submitted their bids for the presidency to the Ministry of Interior. The Guardian Council, the unelected body of clerics and lawyers tasked with sifting through nominees in every electoral process in the Islamic Republic, has until May 25 to review the applications and release the final list of candidates.

An unidentified man wears a protective face mask while attending the elections headquarters to register as a candidate for Iran’s June 18, presidential elections, May 15, 2021. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AFP

The criteria for candidacy in Iran’s presidential election are cryptically vague and misleading, which means ordinary citizens with no background in politics and statecraft can also register as candidates in hopes of at least winning some publicity and social media popularity.

According to Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the Guardian Council, only 40 candidates retain the credentials to be able to run as nominees, and their qualifications are now under review.

Hadi Tahan Nazif, a member of the Guardian Council, suggested in an interview last week that based on experience the final roster of candidates this year will comprise seven to 10 names.

The bulk of those who registered this month are conservatives allied with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Among them are six figures with military backgrounds, including five hailing from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s moderates, whose popularity sunk following violently crushed protests sparked by massive fuel price increases in November 2019, performed dismally in the February 2020 legislative elections, where hardliners swept 221 seats out of the parliament’s 290 seats.

Middle-class urban Iranians who usually back reformists may well boycott the polls. Despite that, 13 pro-reform figures, some of them indispensable heavyweights who in earlier circumstances would have had solid chances of emerging victorious at the polls, have chosen to stand as candidates.

One of the trailblazing names is Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy minister of interior and an ally of former president Mohammad Khatami. Analysts say he is one of the few with the potential to generate a campaign trail buzz and even win against a platoon of top-tier, powerful conservatives – but only if he is approved by the Guardian Council.

Tajzadeh was one of several political activists who fell prey to a crackdown on pro-reform figures that had questioned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009. He was accused, along with a slew of other progressive politicians, activists and journalists, of plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic by colluding with foreign governments.

Mostafa Tajzadeh holds a press conference after filing his nomination for the forthcoming presidential election, in Tehran, Iran on May 14, 2021. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via AFP

The former deputy minister stood trial, served seven years behind bars and was finally released in June 2016. Known for his vocal, sharp-tongued criticisms of hardliners and his open letters and tweets addressed to the Supreme Leader demanding official accountability and transparency as well as civil liberties, the Guardian Council can easily block his way to the presidency.

Of course, the most distinctive, if not eccentric, bid for the presidency at this year’s election was submitted by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a firebrand, anti-West demagogue who served two four-year terms from 2005 to 2013, an era many Iranians recall with bitterness.

Ahmadinejad steered Iran into unprecedented international isolation through his nuclear brinkmanship and foreign policy misadventures, suffocated his critics at home and engrained nepotism and corruption in the Islamic Republic’s bureaucracy.

He sought reelection in 2017, disregarding the advice of the Supreme Leader, who had warned him not to run because his reelection could “polarize the society” along political lines. He was eventually disqualified by the Guardian Council.

After stepping down as president in 2013, Ahmadinejad remained devoted to his aspiration of projecting himself as a leader of global caliber. He is now reasserting himself as a reformer and in a recent interview even called himself a “liberal democrat.”

In a press conference on the day of registering as a presidential nominee, Ahmadinejad delivered unprecedented remarks, threatening that he will not recognize the outcome of the election if he is disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Experts agree that the populist former president, once a darling of the establishment, is now a thorn in its side and seen as a disruptive force by both hardliners and moderates.

Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to the press after registering his candidacy for Iran’s presidential elections in Tehran, Iran on May 12, 2021. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via AFP

“[Ahmadinejad] has been a problem for the establishment ever since he left power. He never complied with the establishment guidelines… The former president simply has a taste for power and money, and sees an opportunity in the current context,” said Anicee Van Engeland, an associate professor of international security and law at Cranfield University.

Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi is a conservative favorite and one of the key names to watch as the slate of candidates is whittled down. In 2017, he was President Rouhani’s rival but lost in what was a competitive referendum that effectively pitted hardline policies versus reform. This time, however, Raisi seems to have an easier job of galvanizing religious traditionalists and conservatives into supporting him. 

Raisi’s main opponent, who is unlikely to be handicapped by the Guardian Council, is Ali Larijani, a former Majlis Speaker. He once had the reputation of a centrist conservative, but gradually walked away from the right-wingers and cozied up to the Rouhani administration. He is known to have supported Rouhani’s efforts to seal the Iran nuclear deal.

Larijani is now seen as a pragmatist and many social media users in Iran tout him as one of the few seasoned politicians who can block Raisi’s path to the presidency.

Analysts say although the establishment may have concluded that a conservative or military icon is best suited to replace Rouhani, there is also an understanding that the incoming administration should be able to interact with the outside world, including over the JCPOA.

If so, then pragmatism may yet outweigh ideology in the looming electoral contest.

“The establishment is anything but a monolith, and what most factions do realize is that they need a presidential administration that can deal with the world and one that the world can do business with. This is all the more important given the US-led international efforts to return to some version of the 2015 JCPOA,” said Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Newlines Institute.

“The regime needs sanctions relief and needs an executive team capable of conducting those negotiations. Therefore, it could be that the next president will have conservative credentials of a clerical or military nature but adopts a pragmatic approach,” he added.

Bokhari, also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute, believes people might vote in larger numbers than anticipated to prevent their living conditions from deteriorating with the election of a new hardline president.

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani addresses a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart after their meeting in Damascus on February 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Louai Beshara

“Since we do not have opinion polls through which we can gauge the public mood, it is very difficult to tell what the turnout will look like… [People] know that the hardliners will likely pursue policies that will make their lives even more difficult. So, it could be [they] vote in an effort to try and prevent the situation from going from bad to worse,” he told Asia Times.

Mahmoud Pargoo, a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Forum at Alfred Deakin Institute in Australia, echoes that view, noting that a penchant for tension and hostility is waning among Iranian hardliners as well as Iran’s international partners and traditional adversaries.

“Neither the new administration in Washington nor Iranian hardliners are interested in escalation and thus a temporary sanctions relief and agreement would be on the table on both sides. I do not expect dramatic escalation under conservatives as there are no incentives to do so on both sides,” he said.

In some ways, analysts say having a hardliner as president could even provide political cover for elements of the next government which support a resumption of the JCPOA.

“The new, hardliner president could oversee a return to the deal without constant accusations of undermining the sovereignty or dignity of the nation by engaging with the United States because his nationalist credentials would be above that kind of public scrutiny,” said Sahar Razavi, director of Iranian and Middle Eastern Studies Center at the California State University, Sacramento.

“At the same time, the comprehensive strategic partnership that was recently announced between Iran and China changes the calculus a little bit. The partnership could mitigate the isolation and economic hardship that would otherwise be an urgent concern in the event of a hardliner being elected and in the absence of a return to the JCPOA,” she told Asia Times.