Iran’s Presidential Election: A Preview
Iran’s Presidential Election: A Preview
Presidential candidates ​attend an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran.
Presidential candidates ​attend an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran, June 17, 2024. Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Q&A / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Iran’s Presidential Election: A Preview

Iranians head to the polls on 28 June to choose a successor to the late president. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati look at the field of candidates and the immediate tasks awaiting the winner.

What is happening?

Iran will hold a presidential election on 28 June for a successor to Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. The Guardian Council, an unelected body that vets candidates for office in the Islamic Republic, approved six of the 80 people who had registered to run. (All six are men, though the pool of registrants included four women.) Voting is open to approximately 61 million Iranians who are eighteen years old and older, with the winner determined either by securing a majority or, barring that, in a second round between the two top finishers to be held on 5 July. Heading into the contest, there is no clear-cut front runner.

The winner will begin a four-year term as head of the Iranian executive branch at a time of deep socio-political discontent and economic woes at home, heightened tensions in the Middle East and strained relations with the West. Among the sources of friction with Western and other states is Tehran’s nuclear program, which has advanced steadily as international diplomacy aimed at limiting its progress drifts.

Who are the contenders?

Five of the six candidates who made it through the vetting gauntlet hail from the conservative-to-hardline end of the Iranian political spectrum, which Raisi also represented. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is on his fourth attempt to helm the executive branch. A veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a former Tehran mayor, Qalibaf retained his position as speaker of the conservative-dominated parliament following legislative elections in March. Also seeking the top job is Saeed Jalili, a hardline insider to Qalibaf’s ideological right who serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council. Though his experience and dogmatic views have embedded him in the circles of power, Jalili’s past efforts at securing elected office have yielded lacklustre results, including two failed runs for parliament, a third-place finish in the 2013 presidential race and a withdrawal from the 2021 contest. Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a vice president under Raisi, are also in the mix. Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who has served as a minister during both conservative and pragmatist presidencies, is the only cleric in contention. During a series of televised debates, he has been the most vocal critic of the status quo among the candidates.

The sixth man running, and the sole reformist candidate, is Massoud Pezeshkian, who was minister of health during the Mohammad Khatami administration (1997-2005) and has been a member of parliament since 2008. Pezeshkian registered for the 2021 presidential election but was disqualified. In the current race, he is backed by reformist and pragmatist elements that declined to mount organised campaigns in the last three national elections, mainly because of what they regarded as the Guardian Council’s exclusion of their preferred candidates. Among those who have endorsed Pezeshkian are the Reformist Front, comprising over 30 factions; former Presidents Khatami and Hassan Rouhani; and senior members of Rouhani’s administration, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Prominent moderates, reformists and even conservatives [were barred from competing in the Iranian elections].

Some notable figures were among those who were barred from competing. They include Ali Larijani, the longest-serving former speaker of parliament and adviser to the Supreme Leader, as well as Eshagh Jahangiri, vice president under Rouhani (both were disqualified in 2021 as well). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a two-term president who was excluded from the race in 2017 and 2021, was blocked once again, as were prominent moderates, reformists and even conservatives, including some members of Raisi’s cabinet.

Various surveys published in recent weeks suggest that the six candidates fall into two tiers in terms of popularity with the electorate. In the top one, Qalibaf, Jalili and Pezeshkian are attracting roughly even support among likely voters. The other three – Zakani, Ghazizadeh and Pourmohammadi – are each polling in the low single digits.

What are the key things to watch?

A notable trend in recent Iranian elections that will either be furthered or bucked in the coming polls is declining participation. The 2021 election won by Raisi was the first presidential race under the Islamic Republic in which less than half of the electorate (48.8 per cent) cast a ballot. Parliamentary elections in 2020 and March 2024 also set records for low turnout (42.57 and 41 per cent, respectively). Each of these contests also featured highly restrictive candidate vetting – even by the Islamic Republic’s exclusionary standards – that largely limited contestation to conservatives, thereby ensuring their dominance in all the main centres of power.

In the past, the government that has put great emphasis on participation to claim popular legitimacy as a republic with representative institutions. Against this backdrop, the decline in turnout over the last several years underscores the public’s growing disillusionment with the system. Many citizens have come to doubt that they can produce meaningful change through the ballot box. Notwithstanding renewed calls by Ayatollah Khamenei for “maximum participation”, a major reversal of that trend appears unlikely.

Pezeshkian’s candidacy has generated renewed activity among reformists and centrists.

That said, marginally improved turnout is possible, given the slightly more diverse pool of candidates than in recent contests. Most notably, Pezeshkian’s candidacy has generated renewed activity among reformists and centrists, who largely sat out the 2021 election. But even if his presence on the ballot draws higher numbers to the polls, it is unclear if his core supporters can mobilise sufficient voter engagement to propel him into the presidency.

At the same time, the conservative candidates are hardly a unified bloc. They are riven by factional and personal rivalries as well as disagreements on policy. While generally cut from the same ideological cloth as Raisi, espousing revolutionary values and preaching economic resilience, they vary in how strictly they adhere to these tenets, leading to divergences over policy. The two main contenders from this camp, Qalibaf and Jalili, differ over the importance of securing relief from U.S. sanctions as a means of bolstering trade and securing foreign investment; the former posits it as a necessity, while the latter emphasises improving domestic production and commerce with the so-called Global South. Qalibaf and his associates also face allegations of financial corruption, but they are known as experienced technocrats. Jalili, on the other hand, is viewed as untainted but lacking practical experience in governing.

What are the policy implications?

The role of the Iranian presidency can be both overstated and underestimated. The paramount authority in the Iranian system is not the president but the Supreme Leader, whose sprawling office constitutes a shadow government that wields ultimate influence in key foreign and domestic policy decisions. It checks the power of the presidency and the rest of the executive branch, which must also contend with the clout of elected and unelected state institutions, like parliament and the Revolutionary Guards.

Nevertheless, the presidency controls important levers within the Iranian state, including the power to appoint cabinet members, propose a budget and serve as the system’s public-facing messenger. The president also chairs and has significant appointment powers over various councils that inform decision-making, including the Supreme National Security Council, which is a consensus-building body that considers matters of national security, and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which sets social and cultural policy. Successive parliamentary and presidential elections since 2020 have increasingly consolidated conservative control of the various centres of power, but internal disputes, which tend to revolve around jockeying for personal position more than ideology, have surfaced in the absence of serious opposition from other political camps.

Whoever emerges as the Islamic Republic’s ninth president will face significant challenges from day one.

Whether confirmed after the 28 June vote or following a runoff, whoever emerges as the Islamic Republic’s ninth president will face significant challenges from day one. Social discontent, which has fuelled repeated protests, and the anaemic economy are the chief domestic concerns, while Iran’s contentious relations with Israel and the U.S., as well as the future of its nuclear program, top the foreign policy agenda.

Though they have been loath to directly chastise their recently deceased comrade Raisi, the aspirants have implied throughout the campaign that he was not entirely successful, to put it mildly, in addressing these challenges during his time in office. Pourmohammadi and Pezeshkian have been the most outspoken in their criticism. The result has been spirited sparring over issues like restrictions on social and cultural activities, the impact of Western sanctions and the uncertain returns of closer alignment with Russia and China. But the system writ large appears intent on maintaining its current path. Whatever debates or even acknowledgment of shortcomings the election may surface, these are still a far cry from a willingness or capacity to remedy them.


Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
Senior Analyst, Iran

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