A homeless man carries a garbage bag as he walks past an electoral banner for Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto Morteza Nikoubazl

Iran’s presidential election campaign has commenced in earnest, with seven Guardian Council-approved candidates vying to replace President Hassan Rouhani after his eight-year tenure.

The 12-member Guardian Council, tasked with vetting and filtering candidates in elections, eliminated 585 other aspirants, many of them seen as moderate and pro-reform, narrowing the field to a handful of known conservatives.

Chief among them is Ebrahim Raisi, the Islamic Republic’s Chief Justice known for his anti-Western views. He is widely viewed as the frontrunner in a field of candidates critics say has failed to capture the public’s imagination. Polling day is June 18.

Distinguished pragmatist figures who were disqualified include the former Majlis speaker Ali Larijani and incumbent Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, regarded as venerable establishment insiders with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Both political heavyweights were considered to be serious contenders to Raisi, who is rumored by many to be a potential successor to the 82-year-old Khamenei when he dies.

Polls had pointed in particular to a neck-and-neck competition between Larijani and Raisi, the former a pragmatist centrist with pro-reform proclivities, especially in foreign policy issues.

Raisi, on the other hand, is under US and EU sanctions for his role in human rights violations. He has indicated on multiple occasions his antipathy towards negotiations with the US. It is plausible that his likely win will multiply Iran’s skirmishes with the West.

Iranians walk under an electoral poster near a campaign center for candidate Ebrahim Raisi in southern Tehran. Few are expected to vote for him. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Morteza Nikoubazl

“On relations with the European Union and the United States, there is the risk of higher escalation in short term,” said Abdolrasool Divsallar, co-lead of Regional Security Initiative at the Middle East Directions of the European University Institute.

“However, on a regional level and mainly on talks with Arab states there might be chances of openings. This is because of a general advantage that Raisi team will have inside the Arab world but also due to more coordination with the deep state, the IRGC and others,” he told Asia Times.

“This mixed picture will be seriously impacted by the level of expertise of Raisi’s teams too, especially their previous experiences in talks with the West, which has been limited.”

Apart from Raisi, there are four other ultra-conservatives on the ticket, all underdogs who are capitalizing on the campaign period as a bully pulpit to make themselves better known and disseminate their ideology.

Saeed Jalili is a radical right-wing ideologue who had served as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was president. Mohsen Rezaee is a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, who, as a perennial candidate, has run for the presidency unsuccessfully three times.

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi is a conservative member of parliament who emerged as an outspoken detractor of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), when it was signed in 2015.

And, Alireza Zakani is also a former MP and the current president of the Majlis Research Center, who is known for his typically anti-Western views and his aversion to the JCPOA. The only two potential reformists in the race are mid-ranking politicians with no significant popular base.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh is a former head of the Physical Education Organization under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Abdolnaser Hemmati is a pro-reform economist and a former governor of the Central Bank of Iran who served in the vacancy for three years in the Rouhani administration.

Even though Hemmati has garnered some attention among Iranian youths in recent days by speaking out on issues pertaining to civil liberties, social freedoms, a mismanaged economy and the nation’s international isolation, it is very unlikely that he can mobilize enough support to present a threat to Raisi.

The Guardian Council, which never publicizes the grounds on which it disqualifies candidates, has thus virtually determined the outcome of the election before people go to polls on June 18 and rendered what could have been a spectacular face-off a fait accompli in favor of the hardliners.

One of the most significant, if not surprising, developments was the disqualification of ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was once an apostle of the hardliners and their ideological sweetheart.

The 94-year-old chairman of the Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati had called Ahmadinejad’s 2006 open letter to the then US President George W. Bush “an aspiration from God,” going so far as to claim that Ahmadinejad was a source of honor for Iran and Islam.

Ahmadinejad, believed to have worked in lockstep with Iran’s security apparatus to manipulate the results of the 2009 presidential election and secure a second term in office, had the unconditional support of the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and religious traditionalists who sometimes likened him to a newly arrived prophet.

Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to the press after registering his candidacy for the presidential elections. His candidacy was rejected. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency / Fatemeh Bahrami

But he fell from grace due to internal power struggles, and after being disqualified from the 2017 presidential election never recouped the cherished position the hardliners had conferred on him in early 2000s to become president. He has now cautioned the Islamic Republic that he will not recognize the outcome of the June 18 election and will not vote.

The former firebrand president’s announcement that he will boycott the election represents a striking episode of confrontation between Ahmadinejad and the establishment. Some analysts believe he is struggling to tout himself as an opposition figure.

Raisi, for his part, was routed at the last presidential polls in 2017, in a showdown with President Rouhani. The incumbent was re-elected in a landslide while Raisi garnered some 15.8 million popular votes, equalling 38.3% of the ballots. The turnout in that election stood at 73.3%.

Now, scholars and commentators expect the turnout in this year’s election to be abjectly lower, as the establishment’s priority is to ensure an easy victory for Raisi.

“The reason for disqualification of prominent insiders is that Khamenei did not want to leave anything to chance when it comes to the question of transition to the next Supreme Leader. He was worried that reformists might back up Larijani or Jahangiri and deprive his former student Raisi, whom he has been promoting rapidly over the last few years, of another win, just like in 2017,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

“I predict a voter turnout rate of around 37%, if not less. The regime is no longer much concerned about the participation rate as the political engineering I mentioned is of much more significance to them,” he added.

President Hassan Rouhani won by a landslide in 2017. Photo: AFP

The latest survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) revealed as of May 27 the turnout will be around 36%, the lowest participation rate in any election since the 1979 revolution.

“Voter turnout is a useful indicator of popular hopes and expectations for the future,” said Shahram Akbarzadeh, convenor of Middle East Studies Forum at Australia’s Deakin University.

“The Iranian leadership has been systematically calling for voter participations, and the Supreme Leader has called voting a patriotic duty and a slap in the face of the United States. Electoral participation is clearly seen as a vote of confidence in the regime as a whole.

“But the Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify so many loyal and high-ranking candidates has made a mockery of the election process, and the public is not blind. Many ask: why waste time and vote? The results will not change anything,” he told Asia Times.

Akbarzadeh, a research professor of Middle East and Central Asian politics argues that Iran represents a form of democracy that is “deceitful, misguided at best” and that “the notion of Iranian democracy has been a PR gimmick used to mock Iran’s arch regional rival, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which holds no elections.”

Luciano Zaccara, a research assistant professor in Gulf politics at Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center believes the lack of genuine electoral competition is something that even the hardline frontrunner Raisi is concerned about as his anticipated success might give the impression of a staged triumph.

“Lack of real competition and the absence of reformist and pragmatists will reduce the turnout considerably, and even Raisi is worried about winning with a very reduced number of votes and without opposition,” Zaccara said. “But now that the campaign started, nothing else can be done, and the government will have to assume the reduced turnout as well as they accepted the very low rate in 2020 legislative elections.”