An Iranian woman walks past an electoral poster depicting judiciary chief and presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi in the capital Tehran, on May 29, 2021. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

In less than 10 days, Iranians will go to polls to elect the country’s new president. Although a public mood of apathy dominates society and the most optimistic projections put the voter turnout at a trifling 40%, the lowest participation rate in any election since the 1979 revolution, the seven hopefuls allowed to run are bending over backwards to vitalize what many Iranians believe is a cosmetic, undemocratic competition.

The vetting Guardian Council disqualified scores of high-profile pro-reform and moderate politicians from standing as candidates, and Iran experts agree that the establishment has already decided that the hardline frontrunner, Ebrahim Raisi, should replace the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in the June 18 polls.

In the absence of serious contenders, Raisi is the sole aspirant with high chances of securing the sufficient majority to become Iran’s eighth president.

Former US president Donald Trump’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and imposition of draconian sanctions had the effect of monumentally eroding Iranian civil society and draining the reform movement Rouhani had attempted to enliven through engaging with the West and connecting Iran with the international community.

The economic strains that engulfed society have dashed the hopes of millions of Iranians about the prospects of reform and may persuade a plurality of them to shun the ballot box.

Sina Toossi (left) is a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). An observer of Iran’s politics and the developments of Iran-US relations, Toossi was previously a research specialist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

His writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, USA Today, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest and The Huffington Post.

Asia Times discussed with Sina Toossi how the wholesale disqualification of pro-reform candidates coupled with the economic and social grievances of the Iranian populace has precipitated their lukewarm reception to the campaign and how the future of Iran-West relations will look under a hardline president.

Kourosh Ziabari: Why do you think the Guardian Council disqualified a large number of prominent politicians and only permitted seven people to run in this year’s presidential election? In particular, how is it possible to explain the elimination of former parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and incumbent Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri from the race, considering that they have been establishment insiders and confidants of the Supreme Leader for a long time?

Sina Toossi: The disqualifications en masse of all prominent moderate and reformist candidates suggests that the main power centers in Iran do not want a serious challenge to Ebrahim Raisi in the race.

The hardline political forces in Tehran have been greatly empowered these past several years during America’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposition of severe economic sanctions debilitated the moderate President Rouhani and his allies.

Hardliners averse to negotiations with America viewed the Trump era as a historic opportunity to consolidate power and kick their moderate and reformist rivals out of the system. The disqualifications heading into this election show that they have grown emboldened enough to openly try to rig the election.

Raisi is their favored candidate, and it is widely speculated he is being groomed to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader.

KZ: Many observers of Iran say the disqualification of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not unexpected, but his reactions to the announcement that he was not eligible caught many Iranians off-guard, including his statement that he will not recognize the outcome of the polls and will not cast a ballot, either. Is Ahmadinejad emerging as an opposition figure on account of being excluded from the power competition?

ST: Ahmadinejad’s bellicose and populist brand of politics was very polarizing inside Iran and never caught on with much of Iran’s educated middle class. He has tried to rebrand himself as something of an opposition figure in recent years and despite his sharp criticisms of the system, he still largely operates freely.

While Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric still appeals to certain constituencies inside the country, it is not clear if he can mobilize broad-based support from which to make any power grab. The powers that be in Iran have banned him from seeking the presidency again, but otherwise seem comfortable in largely ignoring him and allowing him to grow increasingly irrelevant over time.

KZ: In what ways will the decision by the Guardian Council to dismiss noted personalities from the presidential race affect the turnout in the June 18 election? Is the government at all concerned about people possibly boycotting the polls as an indication of their discontent?

ST: Turnout was already set to be at record low levels in this election due to growing public discontent over the past several years.

A lower turnout typically benefits conservatives in Iranian elections. Whenever large numbers of Iran’s educated middle class turn out for elections, reformists and moderates typically win. The Guardian Council’s disqualifications seem explicitly aimed at ensuring a lower turnout for this election.

In the past, senior Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei, always emphasized the need for a high turnout. This rhetoric is not being heard that much this year. Instead, many senior officials have actually dismissed the need for a high turnout to prove the system’s legitimacy.

The main power centers in Iran do not seem concerned about a low turnout and seemingly view it as necessary for Raisi to win the election. The candidates who could have generated public excitement have all been disqualified or dissuaded from running, in the case of Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif.

KZ: Does the heavy-handed approach to the vetting process and the purging of a slate of prominent politicians from the presidential race portend a new period in the life of the Islamic Republic, which is characterized by crackdowns on dissent, increased restriction of civil society and even a metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic into an Islamic state? Is “Iranian democracy” set to die?

ST: The Islamic Republic during the maximum-pressure era has gone in the direction of becoming more insular, iron-fisted, and repressive. The most authoritarian hardline forces have consolidated power and are trying to kick their moderate and reformist rivals out of the system.

Some in the West hoped that maximum pressure would collapse the Iranian government. The impact maximum pressure ended up having on Iranian politics was contributing to the withering away of the republican institutions and the empowering of authoritarian and theocratic institutions.

KZ: Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi is widely expected to be the next Iranian president. Do you believe a new phase of confrontation and hostility between Iran and the international community, particularly the Western governments, is on the horizon?

ST: Raisi has a record of gross human-rights abuses that can exacerbate Iran’s isolation from the West. He is also surrounded by individuals from Iran’s most anti-American and anti-diplomacy factions.

However, he himself has voiced support for the nuclear deal in the past and has not openly opposed the current Vienna negotiations to restore the deal. A Raisi presidency may not lead to the end of the nuclear deal, but it may ensure that it will become the ceiling, not the floor, for Iran’s engagement with the West.

Another theory is that if the hardliners in Iran control all branches of government, they may pursue engagement with the United States on their own. The hardliner narrative in Iran was that Rouhani and Zarif were Gorbachev-like figures who could collapse the system from within if they presided over an opening with the US after decades.

There are structural factors that necessitate US-Iran cooperation, and hardliners may very well pursue it on their own terms if they control all centers of power.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Ziabari was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.