On April 20, Iran’s Guardian Council announced the names of the six presidential candidates qualified to run in the election on May 19.

The six are:

1. Hassan Rouhani, current president;

2. Ebrahim Raeesi, Chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the biggest religious endowment in Iran;

3. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s Mayor;

4. Eshaq Jahangiri, First Vice President to Hassan Rouhani;

5. Mostafa Mir-Salim, a former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance; and

6. Mostafa Hashemitaba, President of the National Olympic Committee.

According to the Iranian constitution, the Guardian Council must vet and qualify all candidates. Out of 1,361 candidates who registered to vote, only six qualified.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not qualify — an outcome that was predicted. In September 2016, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had expressly advised him not to run. Khamenei was worried that Ahmadinejad’s candidacy would lead to deep polarization within Iran, and a repeat of the events that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election. But Ahmadinejad defied his advice and registered as a candidate on April 12.

The Guardian Council does not make public its reasons for qualifying or disqualifying candidates. But it seems certain that the decision on Ahmadinejad’s candidacy was directly related to Khamenei’s wishes. Unlike in 2009, the Supreme Leader does not want Ahmadinejad back in office. 

But even more telling was the fact that the Guardian Council also disqualified Hamid Baghaei, who Ahmadinejad supported. When Ahmadinejad was president, Baghaei was his deputy in executive affairs. In 2015, he spent 225 days in “temporary detention,” reportedly on charges of financial misconduct. He was released only after Khamenei ordered it directly.

Two for the Left

With Ahmadinejad out, it seems that Rouhani’s most important — or at least most notorious — rival has been eliminated. In the coming days Rouhani, who is resoundingly supported by reformists, will pair with his first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri and start campaigning. Jahangiri is what Iranians call a “cover candidate.” His job is to help Rouhani during the campaign and in debates, and then step down and put himself behind Rouhani.

But Rouhani and Jahangiri have two key competitors, Ebrahim Raeesi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, both of whom have considerable influence among Iran’s hardliner principlists.

Two for the Right

Ebrahim Raeesi is a newcomer to the world of politics. For the most part, Raeesi’s career since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been with the judiciary. But he is also linked to one of the most controversial chapters in Iran’s history: the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini assigned three people to sit on the so-called “death panel” that decided what would happen to thousands of prisoners — and Raeesi was one of them. In 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raeesi to be guardian of the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, a religious endowment that owns around $20 billion worth of land and benefits from the annual pilgrimage of around 25 million Shias from Iran and neighboring countries. Over the last few months, hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards have been actively supporting Raeesi, who is a critic of Rouhani’s economic and cultural policies.

Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is running for president for the third time. Recently, he has voiced harsh criticisms of President Rouhani’s economic policies. He has faced accusations of corruption and incompetence and there were calls for his resignation and even his impeachment following the Plasco Building disaster in Tehran.

Raeesi and Ghalibaf are not expected to directly criticize the nuclear agreement, Rouhani’s major diplomatic achievement. But there is no doubt they will criticize him for the nuclear agreement’s failure to boost the Iranian economy.

Hardliner principlists have announced that by the time election day comes, only one of the two will remain on the ballot. One or the other is expected to withdraw his candidacy following the presidential debates and throw his support behind the other in order to create a stronger campaign against Rouhani. At the moment, the polls show Ghalibaf to be more popular, but principlist political groups will favor Raeesi.

…And Two for Show

The last two of the six qualified candidates are not prominent figures. Mostafa Mir-Salim, who was Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a member of the Expediency Council, the body responsible for settling disputes among the three branches of the government, and a member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party. He enjoys the trust of the Supreme Leader and like other politicians on the right, is a critic of Rouhani’s economic and foreign policies. It is likely that at some point during the campaign, Mir-Salim will remove himself from the race and throw his support behind either Ebrahim Raeesi or Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

Mostafa Hashemitaba, the last candidate on the list and the head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, is a political amateur. He previously ran for president in 2001. He has a reputation for being a capable middle manager, mostly in sports. Like Mir-Salim, he has been absent from Iranian politics over the last decade, and is not well known to the international public, although he is well known within Iran. He has close ties to President Rouhani, and to reformists. 

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