Iran’s Presidential Elections

Election and Implications

Iranians went to the polls on May 19, 2017, to vote for president and municipal officials countrywide amid tensions between Iran and the United States. With a 73% turnout of eligible voters, Iran's Interior Ministry declared the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani the winner late on May 19, winning 57% of the vote to that of his strongest competitor, Ibrahim Raisi, who garnered 38% of the vote. Remaining candidates and invalid votes accounted for the remainder.

In 2013, Rouhani received 50.7% of the votes, narrowly avoiding a run-off in a divided field that included several hardline candidates. In contrast to his 2013 victory, Rouhani faced a unified hardline field. Responding to calls from hardliners seeking to improve Raisi's chances, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, the other hardliner approved to run, exited the race on May 15. The four other candidates approved to run subsequently either dropped out, or remained in the race but endorsed one of the two top candidates. Iranian polls indicated that Rouhani was likely to prevail, but polling in Iran is widely considered to be unreliable. Rouhani warned against the state apparatus working on behalf of Raisi, including tasking the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Basij militia to transport Raisi voters to the polls or try to intimidate voters in cities where Rouhani supporters are prevalent.

Rouhani's victory virtually ensures that Iran will continue to adhere to the multilateral nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). However, it is less certain whether he will be able to implement campaign promises to loosen restrictions on free expression or engage the United States on a broader range of issues than the JCPOA. Because Iran's national security policy is primarily within the purview of the Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i (who is Commander-in-Chief of Iran's armed forces), Rouhani is unlikely to be able to alter Iran's regional activities that the Trump Administration has termed provocative, including missile tests and support for regional allies that act against U.S. interests or allies.

The Trump Administration has already taken several steps against Iran. On April 19, the Trump Administration certified to Congress, pursuant to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA, P.L. 114-17), that Iran is complying with the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (the JCPOA). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated, however, that the JCPOA "only delays [Iran's] goal of becoming a nuclear state" and has failed to curb Iran's objectionable regional behavior. He announced that the United States' Iran policy—including the JCPOA—is under review. In recent weeks, the Trump Administration has imposed sanctions on additional entities allegedly supporting Iran's missile program and has launched strikes on Iran's key regional ally, Syria, for its use of chemical weapons. Additional sanctions on Iran's missile program and on the IRGC, such as S. 722 in the Senate, are under consideration. During his late May trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, President Donald Trump firmly aligned the United States with those two countries' efforts to counter Iran's regional influence and gave little, if any, indication of intent to engage Iran diplomatically.

Election Background

Iran holds presidential elections every four years. The post of president is subordinate to that of Supreme Leader, but Iran's president has significant influence on economic policy and government operations. Iran's elections are characterized by the State Department as "falling short of international standards for free, fair elections," primarily because a 12-member appointed body called the Council of Guardians vets all election candidates. Approximately 1,600 persons filed to run, including incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. On April 27, the Council of Guardians approved the candidacy of Rouhani and five others—a winnowing of the field that was consistent with past elections. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a run-off between the two top finishers is to be held less than two weeks later. Aside from Rouhani and Raisi, the other candidates approved to run were Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, Tehran mayor and a stalwart of the IRGC; Mostafa Mirsalim, the centrist former culture minister; and two moderate candidates, Rouhani's first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Mostafa Hashemitaba.

Rouhani emphasized to his mainly urban, young, and intellectual supporters that he delivered sanctions relief under the JCPOA and ended Iran's international isolation. But according to a substantial number of reports, many Iranians are not benefitting significantly from sanctions relief.

Rouhani's victory was particularly significant in that Raisi is said to be Khamenei's favorite to succeed him as Supreme Leader. In mid-2016, Khamene'i appointed Raisi, a longtime state prosecutor and judicial official, as head of the large economic conglomerate (Astan-e-Qods Razavi Foundation) centered on the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Raisi based his campaign on an appeal to rural and working-class voters, many of whom benefit from regime largesse such as that provided by state-linked foundations and support the Supreme Leader. In addition, Khamene'i's recent speeches had criticized Rouhani for failing to advance the "resistance economy"—the hardline concept of building up Iran's domestic industries and reducing reliance on imports. On April 30, 2017, Khamene'i, referring to the JCPOA, stated that "it is not correct" when Rouhani says that since he took office, "the shadow of war has been faded away." Despite Khamene'i's apparent backing, Raisi's long prior service in the judiciary was widely viewed as harming his prospects—candidates who come from the judiciary and the security apparatus, including the IRGC, have tended to fare poorly in elections. Raisi was part of the judiciary apparatus that allegedly approved the 1988 execution of a significant number of Iranian prisoners. The other hardliner approved to run, Qalibaf, had previously run twice and lost, although he generally received praise for his performance as Tehran's mayor.