Election posters in Iran. Photo credit: Flickr/Beshef (CC BY 2.0)

KEY FACTS
Freedom House Rating

Not Free
Government Type
Theocratic Republic
Population
83 million
UPCOMING ELECTIONS
Presidential and Local Elections
June 24, 2020
Legislative Elections
February 2024 (due)
PAST ELECTIONS
Legislative Elections
February 21, 2020 (Second round: September 11, 2020)
Presidential and Local Election
May 19, 2017

Iran has scheduled its next presidential election for June 18, 2021, with concurrent local elections.

Political Context

Since 1979, when revolutionaries removed the Shah and installed the ayatollahs, Iran has been a theocracy that suppresses dissent and manipulates elections. The country’s elected institutions – parliament and the presidency – have less power than the unelected Supreme Leader and other unelected institutions. In that vein, all potential candidates for elected office must obtain approval from the Guardian Council of clerics, which habitually rejects a large number of applicants.

Nonetheless, Iran holds regular elections. The most recent, the 2020 legislative elections, took place in the context of increased tension with the United States, plus anti-government protests, followed by a brutal crackdown, plus the outbreak of COVID-19. Consequently, the regime rigged these elections even more than usual, with more than half of the people who applied to be candidates rejected (including 90 incumbents). Thus turnout, at 42 percent, was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. The hardliners won the most seats, in a potential reversal of the 2016 elections, in which supposed reformers prevailed. 

Pro-Democracy Activists

Despite the regime’s heavy hand, activists continue to advocate for democracy in Iran. For instance, in 2009, the pro-democracy Green Movement protested the obviously-rigged re-election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Millions of Iranians took to the streets in defiance of the security services. However, by 2011, the regime had crushed the movement and put its leaders under house arrest, where they remain to this day.

Nonetheless, since 2017, Iran has been seeing increased protest against the regime. In addition to large demonstrations, groups use a variety of protest methods. For example, My Stealthy Freedom protests the mandatory hijab rule with its #WhiteWednesdays, in which women post photographs of themselves without headscarves. Its participants continue to defy the regime even under the threat of lengthy prison sentences.

Some posit that public trust in the regime is collapsing due to corruption and poor economic performance.

Iran’s 2021 Presidential Election

Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, characterized as a reformer, first won election in 2013, and won re-election in 2017. Due to term limits, he cannot run again in 2020.

A number of potential candidates could replace him, including a number who come from the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – all considered hardliners. Former defense minister Hossein Dehghan was the first person to declare his candidacy. Others include former commander Mohsen Rezaei, former oil minister Rostam Ghasemi, and former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Also, Saeed Mohammad, the relatively-young head of Khatam Al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters (KAA), IRGC’s engineering firm that is under U.S. sanctions, has been discussed.

Consequently, state news agency IRNA called this year’s field “the longest-ever list (of potential candidates) in a presidential election with a military background.”

There are several non-IRGC hardliners considering a run, including former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, one of the candidates who lost to Rouhani in 2017 who has since led a popular anti-corruption push.

In addition, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, considered a reformist, is also a potential candidate. A recently-leaked tape revealed him criticizing the IRGC.

The Guardian Council will decide who is and is not allowed to run (it has already effectively barred several potential candidates), and has said it will announce the final list on May 27.

Geopolitical Context

Tensions between Iran and the United States have been escalating since May 2018. As a result, much of the debate within Iranian politics has centered on to what extent – and whether – to re-engage with the United States following Joe Biden’s win.

Curated News and Analysis

Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell, AP (May 11, 2021): Registration opens for hopefuls in Iran’s presidential vote

AFP (May 10, 2021): Military candidates in Iran elections raise worry of further IRGC control

Thomas O. Falk, The New Arab (May 10, 2021): How the ‘Zarifgate tapes’ exposed Iran’s bitter power struggle ahead of decisive elections

Kareem Fahim, Washington Post (May 4, 2021): Iran’s hard-liners step up attacks on Rouhani government, sowing suspicion over nuclear talks

Kasra Naji, BBC (April 27, 2021): Iran’s Zarif criticises Revolutionary Guards’ influence in leaked tape

Christiane Amanpour, CNN (April 27, 2021 – video): What FM Zarif’s leaked tape reveals about Iran

Najmeh Bozorgmehr, Financial Times (April 26, 2021): Iran’s hardliners pin election hopes on popular justice chief

Campbell MacDiarmid, The Telegraph (April 17, 2021): Iran’s hit spy thriller is first shot in election culture war

Moziar Motamedi, Al Jazeera (April 7, 2021): Is Clubhouse boosting democracy in Iran?

Holly Dagres, Atlantic Council (March 30, 2021): An Iranian cleric, rights activist, and hacker entered a room—on Clubhouse

Kourosh Ziabari, Asia Times (March 29, 2021): Iran’s next hardline president coming into view

Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aresu Eqbali, Wall Street Journal (March 26, 2021): Iranian politicians divided on return to nuclear talks with the U.S.

Syed Zafar Mehdi, Andalou Agency (March 25, 2021): Surprise candidates enter fray in Iran’s presidential polls

Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL (March 11, 2021): Amid Nuclear Standoff, Who’s In The Running To Take The Reins In Iran?

Golnar Motevalli, Bloomberg (March 7, 2021): Head of Engineering Giant Owned by Iran’s Guard Eyes Presidency

Atlantic Council (March 5, 2021): Multiple elections could boost hardline victories in Iran

American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats (March 4, 2021): Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Reformists show signs of fracturing

Sarbas Nazari, Al-Monitor (March 4, 2021): Will Iran’s Reformists ‘hire’ a candidate for presidency?

Sina Azodi, Atlantic Council (March 1, 2021): Saeed Mohammad: The young face of the IRGC weighing his political options

Dominic Dudley, Forbes (February 24, 2021): Iran’s Next President Is Almost Certain To Be A Hardliner, Making Biden’s Outreach To Tehran Tougher

Sina Azodi, Atlantic Council (March 1, 2021): Saeed Mohammad: The young face of the IRGC weighing his political options

Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor (February 16, 2021): Nuclear deal? In Iran, a campaign over who can take credit

Patrick Wintour, The Guardian (February 11, 2021): Biden policies the same as Trump’s, says Iran’s only presidential candidate

Reza Haqiqatnezhad, Radio Farda (January 26, 2021): Iranian Rival Camps Lined Up to Gain from Biden’s Administration

Saeid Jafari, Atlantic Council (January 25, 2021): Iran’s hardliners think Biden might hurt their June presidential election strategy

Syed Zafar Mehdi, Andalou Agency (November 25, 2020): Iran’s top military figure announces presidential bid

Raz Zimmt, Atlantic Council (October 15, 2020): Will Iran let a woman run for president in 2021?

Sina Azodi, Atlantic Council (October 7, 2020): Hossein Dehghan and other military vets vie for Iran’s presidency

Behrouz Turani, Radio Farda (August 27, 2020): Who Are The Potential Reformist Candidates For Iran’s 2021 Presidential Election?

AP (August 24, 2020): Iran sets June 2021 date for presidential election to choose Rouhani successor

Holly Dagres, Atlantic Council (August 18, 2020): Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president turned ‘popstar,’ plans to run again

Behrouz Turani, Radio Farda (February 23, 2020): Iran’s Parliamentary Elections: Winners And Losers

21votes does not necessarily agree with all of the opinions expressed in the linked articles; rather, our goal is to curate a wide range of voices. Furthermore, none of the individuals or organizations referenced have reviewed 21votes’ content, and their inclusion should not be taken to imply that they endorse us in any way. More on our approach here.

Updated May 11, 2021

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