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A Guide To Iran's Presidential Election

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's vote will have a major say in who wins the upcoming presidential election.
Millions of Iranians will head to the polls on June 14 to determine Iran's next president. As the campaign officially kicks off, RFE/RL has compiled this guide to Iran's rival factions, prominent campaign issues, and the intricacies of the Islamic republic's electoral system.


In Iran, the president is the second-highest ranking official after the supreme leader, who has the final say in all major state affairs. However, the president's powers are limited by the clerics in the country's power structure and by the authority of the supreme leader. It is the supreme leader -- not the elected president -- who controls Iran's armed forces and makes decisions on security, defense, and key foreign-policy issues.

The president represents Iran in many high-profile international forums and talks. He also sets the country's economic policies, social and education programs, and some public projects. In addition to this, the president has some say in the level of media freedom and political openness. However, he can be overruled by the clerical establishment via the judiciary or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Presidents serve four-year terms and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. The June 14 vote will determine the successor to outgoing two-term President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

To win, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to claim victory. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff will be held a week later between the two candidates with the most votes in the first round.


Iran's electoral system is centered on Islamic order by "popular will," with leaders elected directly or indirectly by popular vote. But there are signs that managed elections, which traditionally included members from across the political spectrum in order to at least give the appearance of an open electoral process, are turning toward "unipolar" elections that do not include reformists or those close to Ahmadinejad.

The authorities in Iran are seeking to avoid any possibility of a repeat of the disputed 2009 election. The mass protests that followed Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed victory were the largest seen since the establishment of the Islamic regime in 1979. And the establishment was embarrassed by the international criticism of the harsh government crackdown against the protests that saw thousands of protesters and members of the country's opposition Green Movement detained, with hundreds killed or injured.

Since the 2009 election, the establishment has taken a number of steps to ensure the fallout from that election is not repeated. Security measures have been tightened, reformist parties banned, and the Internet slowed. Moreover, the media -- both foreign and domestic -- have been suppressed. These repressive measures have included the imprisonment of journalists.

Changes have also been made to the country's electoral law that effectively diminish the powers of the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Ahmadinejad, to oversee the elections. The 2013 vote will mark the debut of the Central Election Board, which will oversee the June 14 vote and whose members appear to be close to the supreme leader.


Virtually all adult Iranians are eligible to register to run in presidential election. Eligibility is based on tangible criteria such as education qualifications, political experience, and age. Candidates must be at least 18 years old, and an upper age limit has not been set.

Nearly 700 people filed their nominations with the Interior Ministry during the May 7-11 registration period.

However, as is frequently the case, very few entrants passed the vetting process overseen by Iran's powerful Guardians Council. The council comprises 12 members, all of them directly or indirectly elected by the supreme leader. During this process, more controversial and intangible criteria such as a candidate's devotion to Shi'ite Islam, the state religion, and their belief in the principles of the Islamic republic are factored into the equation.

According to Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Britain's Birmingham University and editor of the EA World View website, the Guardians Council's decisions are based more on political loyalties than the credentials of the candidates.

"The official answer is that it's based on the qualifications of the candidates and their suitability under an Islamic system," he says. "But what we have previously seen is candidates saying, 'Look, I'm suitable to run,' but their critics saying they're not suitable to run. So, with the council's decision there's no published record of how they reach decisions. They simply declare that these are the people who can go forward."

Lucas says that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's influence over the council almost certainly means he had the ultimate say on who made the short list of official candidates.


The list of official candidates chosen by the Guardians Council, and announced by the Interior Ministry, is made up of the following eight names (strikethroughs indicate subsequent withdrawal):

Chief nuclear negotiator Said Jalili
Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati
Senior IRGC commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf
Expediency Council Secretary and former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai
Former parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel
Former Vice President and university professor Mohammad Reza Aref
Cleric and former top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani
Former Oil and Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Gharazi

Profiles of the eight men are available here.

Iran's approved presidential candidates: (top left to right) Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezai, Mohammad Gharazi, Said Jalili, (bottom left to right) Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Hassan Rohani, Mohammad Reza Aref, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
Iran's approved presidential candidates: (top left to right) Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezai, Mohammad Gharazi, Said Jalili, (bottom left to right) Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Hassan Rohani, Mohammad Reza Aref, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

Notable figures missing from the list include:
-- former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the establishment who gave some support to the opposition camp after the 2009 election;
-- Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, an aide to outgoing President Ahmadinejad;
-- Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, leaders of the opposition who ran for president in 2009 but are currently under house arrest;
-- representatives of the reformist camp or the opposition Green Movement.


Iran has a population of approximately 79 million, and there are about 50 million eligible voters.

Iranian officials have called for a high turnout, stressing that it would lend legitimacy to the presidential office and counter the embarrassment that the establishment suffered in the international arena as a result of the 2009 mass protests.

Analyst Scott Lucas suggests that Iranians will express what they think of the system not by voting but by how many of them do not vote.

"I don't think the legitimacy of the system means everyone's going to turn against the supreme leader or that we're going to have a repeat of 2009," he says. "But I think there is a question of how much faith Iranians still have in the system to represent them. We won't necessarily see that through who they vote for but what level of real turnout we get at the polls in June."

In an apparent attempt to boost turnout, elections for local councils and the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the performance of the supreme leader, will for the first time be held the same day as the presidential vote.

Some buzz was injected into the relatively lackluster campaign when former President Rafsanjani put his name forward as a potential candidate. However, Rafshanjani did not make the final cut, potentially paving the way for the supreme leader to install a loyalist as the next president.

Nearly 85 percent of eligible voters reportedly turned out to vote in the 2009 election; just over 62 percent in 2005; and nearly 67 percent in 2001.


The Deviant Current

Although Ahmadinejad, 56, is barred from running for a third-consecutive term in office, he was seen as attempting to preserve influence by backing a chosen successor, his controversial aide Mashaei.

Ahmadinejad entered office in 2005 as a loyalist to Khamenei, but their relationship soured after Ahmadnejad's 2009 reelection. Khamenei has been angered by challenges to his authority by Ahmadinejad and the president's allies, and by Ahmadinejad's support for Mashaei. Mashaei has stressed nationalist themes rather than Islamic ones, startling traditionalists who see any revival of nationalism as a threat to their clerical power.

For this, Ahmadinejad and his camp have been labeled by the establishment as a "deviant current" opposing Islamic rule. Some critics even claim he has used "witchcraft" to control Ahmadinejad's decisions.

Ahmadinejad previously threatened that he would leak compromising information against his rivals if Mashaei was not accepted as a candidate.

Mashaei was rejected, but Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, maintains that Ahmadinejad may think twice about playing the role of spoiler, knowing that authorities have brought serious corruption allegations against some of his close allies.

"Some important people in Iran are warning Ahmadinejad that if he carries through with his announced threat to reveal secrets of the elite, secrets about him will also be revealed," he says. "And he may not come out so good in that process."

The 'Principlists'

The "Principlists" are conservatives who exhibit absolute loyalty to the supreme leader. Many members of the Principlist camp are fierce critics of Ahmadinejad and, especially, to Mashaei and his nationalist leanings.

The final list contains many names who fit the Principlist mold, and Khamenei will most likely endorse the candidate he feels best suited to reduce the chances of future political rifts.

The risk Khamenei faces by taking this approach, as explained by Mardo Soghom, RFE/RL's regional director for Iran and Iraq, is that the supreme leader will not have the president to blame if Iran's dire economic situation fails to improve.

WATCH: RFE/RL's Mardo Soghom's Flash Analysis
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The Reformists

The reformists are expected to play a marginal role in the 2013 election. Since the disputed 2009 vote, the reformist camp has been severely marginalized and isolated, leaving supporters with the dilemma of whether to vote or not.

Many reformists have been put in prison, their publications suspended, and their lines of communication disrupted since 2009.

There were expectations that a relatively unknown and weak reformist candidate would be included in the final list of candidates as a way of preventing the reformists from boycotting and damaging the credibility of the vote.

Of the approved candidates, the closest to fit the mold of a reformist appeared to be Mohammad Reza Aref. The 61-year-old is a relative moderate who served as vice president under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami (but bowed out of the race less than a week before the first-round vote).


Ahmadinejad's successor will inherit a host of domestic and foreign challenges. Under Ahmadinejad's eight-year presidency, Iran has become increasingly isolated on the international stage and Tehran faces mounting pressure from the West to halt its controversial nuclear program.

Domestically, the Iranian economy is plummeting under biting international sanctions and economic mismanagement. Of these, the economy is the overwhelming issue for Iranians.

The country's deteriorating economic situation has been driven by tougher international sanctions and poor management by the government.

Sanctions, which have targeted Iran's financial and oil sectors, have cut the country's access to the international-finance system, making it hard for Tehran to sell and receive payment for its oil. A foreign-exchange crisis has also developed, with sanctions targeting Iran's foreign-exchange holdings by cutting off its access to hard currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro, and restricting its use of money-exchange houses.

Iran's economy has been mismanaged by the government for years, and the country suffers from rising inflation and high unemployment. At the same time, the value of the Iranian currency -- the rial -- has plummeted to record lows.

Quiz: Iranian Leaders -- Past And Present

Quiz: Iranian Leaders -- Past And Present

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.