The Iranian election – Khamenei’s strategy to maintain power

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

The Iranian people are being called to the polls again this year to pick their next president. Yet, despite the appearance of free choice and democracy by the regime and its Supreme Leader, the election itself is already rigged before the people even show up at the polls. How does the Iranian president get chosen? 

First, the candidates need to be approved by the Guardian Council. This council is chosen directly and indirectly by the current supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. The 12-member council has six clerics chosen by Khamenei and six jurists chosen by the Judiciary Chief, who is appointed by Khamenei. Once in place, the council routinely disqualifies numerous candidates, especially women, based upon the regime’s exclusionary electoral process and Khamenei’s approval. Only loyalist males who demonstrate their absolute allegiance to the Supreme Leader, as the sole indisputable source of the regime’s power, are permitted to run. 

Then those candidates are put up in front of the Iranian people, where ballots are fixed to put the president into place. Khamenei’s first choice does not always make it, simply because of the need to maintain the internal balance of power within the factions of the regime itself. 

In 2013 and 2017, the Council disqualified two-term presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, based on their falling out with Khamenei, even though they were deemed qualified to run and serve as President in previous terms. 

In March 2021, Khamenei set out several criteria for the incoming president. One of the biggest points he stressed was the incoming president’s level of faith. “One cannot trust the faithless,” said Khamenei. He described a faithless person as one selling off the country, even though that is just what the regime has done. Khamenei also called for the Iranian nation to come together and let the elections be a source of unity, instead of a symbol of divisions and schisms. 

Despite all the effort put into choosing the president, the truth is that the role is mostly a figurehead position. It is deemed to be ineffectual with no impact on domestic or foreign policies. All policies are set out by the Supreme Leader through various agencies, and the executive branch is challenged by parallel IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] controlled power centers. The Supreme Leader is the vicegerent of God on earth, seen to answer only to the Almighty, having total power and zero accountability. Even the president, supposedly elected by popular vote, must be confirmed by Khamenei. 

The presidency and the electoral process are strictures that were forced upon Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of absolute rule by a theocratic leader, due to domestic pressure when the regime took power. Since then, the Supreme Leader has focused on reducing the power of the president. Yet, factions have given the presidency an ability to connect with the corrupt aspects of the regime to benefit financially and tap into the wealth generated from Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. 

With that financial incentive, the factions fight to achieve the goal of getting their candidate into the winner’s circle, even if it means bending to Khamenei. Elections in Iran are a farce. Since Khamenei succeeded Khomeini in 1989, the Supreme Leader position was weakened. Thus, factions grew louder, and they started to vie for the presidency so they can profit their beneficiaries. 

Plus, the factions are also trying to pretend to be for the Iranian people, when in truth, the regime has funneled the wealth of the people away to its elite, destroying the Iranian middle class. Election results tend to reflect the balance of power among the regime’s factions, not reflecting the will of the people. The process of electoral “engineering” involves both factions trying to outmaneuver each other with various schemes, including vote-buying, intimidation, and ballot-box stuffing. 

The Iranian people are disgusted by the schemes and oppression of the regime and its leadership, as the protests and uprisings in recent years have demonstrated. Their apathy has made the regime concerned that voter turnout will be at an all-time low. According to recent poll results, about 78% of people over the age of 19 have indicated that they are not planning on voting in the upcoming election. Therefore, the presidential election in Iran becomes even more of a farce, because the president has even less legitimacy on the international scene. With the negotiations regarding their nuclear program on tap, Khamenei is focused on making the regime appear powerful and masking any weaknesses during the election. 

The question, who will emerge from this presidential election, will depend on the regime’s internal balance of power and whether Khamenei can withstand a brewing internal insurrection and international isolation. A wrong turn would lead to even more protests and uprisings, more ferocious in scope and more widespread in scale, than what has already been seen.


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Hamid Enayat
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