Iran's presidential election: What does it mean for foreign policy?

An Iranian man displays his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot during the parliamentary election on 21 February, 2020. [Getty]
8 min read
Washington, DC
14 June, 2021

While Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - not the president - ultimately calls the shots on international issues, it would be a mistake to conclude that this Friday's presidential election will have no ramifications for Iran's relations with the US and its Arab neighbours.

Last month, Iran's Guardian Council disqualified former two-term president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, and other moderates and reformists, including Eshaq Jahangiri, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Ali Motahari, and Masoud Pezeshkian, from the race.

The remaining candidates

Ebrahim Raisi
Ebrahim Raisi. [Getty]

Following the disqualifications, Ebrahim Raisi, known for being an "ultra-conservative" "hardliner," has become the leading contender. As Khamenei's close confidant, Raisi has served as Chief Justice of Iran since March 2019 and has been tipped to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.

Despite Iran's media describing Raisi as the "unrivalled candidate," nothing is certain. His victory is by no means inevitable, there are other strong horses in the race.

Abdolnaser Hemmati
Abdolnaser Hemmati. [Getty]

Abdolnaser Hemmati, the moderate outgoing Central Bank governor, is Raisi's main "reformist" challenger. He is a member of Iran's Turkish-speaking minority who has campaigned for less "state interference" in the economy, an end to the censorship of Twitter, and more cooperation with the West.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh
Mohsen Mehralizadeh. [Getty]

Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the former governor of Isfahan Province, is a Turkish-speaking "reformist" calling for modernising agriculture, greater political transparency, and more affordable housing. He has been banned from running in presidential and parliamentary elections in the past by the Guardian Council.

Saeed Jalili
Saeed Jalili. [Getty]

Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2007 - 2013 and a member of the Supreme National Security Council, is a conservative with close ties to Khamenei who advocates developing stronger economic ties with neighbouring countries rather than the West.

Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi
Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi. [Getty]

Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, the First Vice-Speaker of Parliament, is a conservative promising a soft loan of around $17,000 as employment and marriage fund to the young, in an attempt to jumpstart the economy.

Mohsen Rezaei
Mohsen Rezaei. [Getty]

Mohsen Rezaei, a "perennial candidate" and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander-in-chief, is a conservative who proposes monthly financial aid to the Iranian population along with strengthening trade relations with neighbouring countries.

Alireza Zakani
Alireza Zakani. [Getty]

Alireza Zakani, a parliamentarian and owner of "hardline" media outlet Jahan News, is a conservative candidate who has vocally supported the Houthis in Yemen and advocated developing Iran's mining sector.

Nuclear stakes

As the world watches Iran's election, the first question on many outsiders' minds is what this race means for the ongoing talks in Vienna over the JCPOA.

In an interview with The New Arab, Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geopolitical analyst, explained that the trajectory of Tehran's approach toward the 2015 nuclear deal is "unlikely to be seriously challenged by a somewhat more conservative new President."

If the talks in Vienna finalise prior to the election, the next administration would likely implement whatever policies the current government negotiates in Austria.

If the negotiations must resume after Raisi or another candidate wins, the dialogue "may change in tone" and become "bumpier," depending on who the next administration appoints to lead Iran's foreign policy and handle negotiations, argued the International Crisis Group's Dr Dina Esfandiary. "It's likely to make things a little bit more difficult." 

A Raisi administration would probably be "far stricter on the specific details still outlying in the JCPOA talks, like [demanding the lifting of] sanctions on the IRGC or the Supreme Leader's office," argued Ahmadi.

"The potential benefits of lifted sanctions outweigh the perceived costs of appearing weak by negotiating the JCPOA's revival"

Perhaps the "reformist" and "moderate" hopefuls would be somewhat less rigid on these details and be easier to deal with from an American or European perspective. Those who desire greater diplomacy between Washington and Tehran, were pleased with Hemmati's recent statement that, if elected, he would be willing to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, noting that "America needs to send better and stronger signals" Tehran's way.

Nonetheless, regardless of who replaces President Hassan Rouhani, it is predicted that the next Iranian president will support some sort of a negotiated revival of the nuclear accord. Even if Raisi or Zakani, both of whom have passionately opposed the nuclear deal and expressed anti-American sentiment, win the election, the next administration is set to continue efforts aimed at reconstituting the JCPOA. 

Ultimately, the Supreme Leader made the decision for Iran to participate in the talks in Austria, which began in April 2021, and that decision will stand regardless of this election's outcome.

As Iranians grapple with a floundering economy, the potential benefits of lifted sanctions outweigh the perceived costs of appearing weak by negotiating the JCPOA's revival. Covid-19 has exacerbated an already weak economic situation, with inflation reaching almost 40% this year, up from 36.5% last year. The national unemployment rate is expected to reach 11.2% in 2021 and 11.7% in 2022 (up from 10.8% in 2020), according to the International Monetary Fund.  

The real question might not be how different candidates would approach the JCPOA, but which political factions in Iran will take credit for the lifting of US sanctions. 

If Iran re-enters the global economy (even in a limited fashion) after Raisi or another "hardliner" takes the presidency, it will further boost "hardliner" elements in Tehran that have been firmly opposed to Rouhani's "pragmatist" foreign policy approach.

Therefore, according to some analysts, Khamenei has tried to drag out the Vienna talks to ensure that these sanctions are not lifted until after a "hardliner" becomes president, for the purpose of strengthening the Supreme Leader's political faction. Last month, one senior Iranian official told Reuters that "Iran's leader wants the US sanctions to be lifted. But he would not mind if the talks take a little longer."

Tehran's regional policies

In terms of non-nuclear issues in Iran's foreign policy, not too much should be expected to change due to this election. As Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC make key decisions on Tehran's sponsorship of non-state actors, a change in presidency is unlikely to drastically affect Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as Iranian-Saudi diplomatic engagement.

"Raisi's anticipated victory in the upcoming election will mostly affect Iran's domestic politics and won't cause any major shift in the country's foreign policy, especially in the region," Dr Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, explained to The New Arab

"The IRGC - in coordination with the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council - will continue to define Iran's regional policy in the coming years"

"When it comes to the Middle East, non-elected parts of the [Iranian] government, especially the IRGC, have already dominated the policymaking and policy implementation processes… As such, I think the IRGC - in coordination with the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council - will continue to define Iran's regional policy in the coming years."

In fact, during a recently leaked interview, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complained of this dynamic, claiming that it pitted diplomacy against military priorities.

As experts have noted, the dialogue in Baghdad between officials from Tehran and Riyadh has basically been between the Iranian and Saudi "Deep States." Therefore, there is hardly any reason to think that this month's presidential election would impact such dialogue. 

"There's also no downside on the Iranian side from continuing [the talks with Saudi Arabia]," said Dr Esfandiary. "Previous opposition to dialogue with the Gulfies that had kind of emerged in Iran as a result of the assassination of Sheikh Nimr in 2016, [has] died down somewhat and again Iranians are more focused on their internal affairs than animosity with the Gulf Arab states."

It is important to note, however, that a Hemmati victory could bode well for relations between Tehran and GCC members, at least to some extent. At the 12 June debate, he specifically stated that his administration would not view the Saudis and Emiratis as Iran's enemies.

IRGC empowerment

With a new president who sees the world in ways that are more in tune with the IRGC's thinking, such as Raisi, Jalili, or Rezaei, Iran's internal tensions and divisions could ease with a union of "hardline" officials in both the IRGC as well as the new administration. 

"If Raisi wins, the differences within Iran's main decision-making bodies on foreign policy will likely decrease," Sina Toossi, a Senior Research Analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told The New Arab

"The school of thought represented by Rouhani, Zarif, and their allies, which prioritised engagement with the West, will be greatly diminished. The more conservative school of thought, embodied in security forces like the IRGC, will gain dominance." Therefore, it is easy to understand why the IRGC is backing "hardliner" candidates.

However, it is important to consider that the IRGC itself is not fully unified. Sometimes, within the institution, there are groups competing for influence. 

"At the current moment, although it seems that most of IRGC's influential institutions - especially its intelligence branch - support Raisi, there are signs that two other candidates, Saeed Jalili and Mohsen Rezaei, also enjoy a tangible support from parts of the IRGC," said Dr Azizi. 

"However, these differences are not expected to come to the surface and lead to a public rift between the IRGC factions or top commanders."

Polls will open on Friday, 18 June. The election is predicted to suffer low turnout due to Covid-19, the disqualification of many popular candidates, and public frustration with the state.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero