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Khamenei’s Track Record of Knocking Back Presidential Candidates

April 14, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
5 min read
Hassan Khomeini is said to have withdrawn from the presidential race after consulting with Ayatollah Khamenei
Hassan Khomeini is said to have withdrawn from the presidential race after consulting with Ayatollah Khamenei
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has a history of blocking presidential hopefuls on the quiet
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has a history of blocking presidential hopefuls on the quiet

Yasser Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, recently told Jamaran website that his brother, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, withdrew his candidacy from the presidential election after a meeting with Ali Khamenei.

The current Supreme Leader, Yasser said, had warned his brother that standing would not be “prudent” at the present time.

This is not the first time Ali Khamenei has acted to prevent someone from running for president. His interference in Iranian elections is multifaceted and not limited to the presidential races, either. This report examines some key incidents in which Ali Khamenei acted to block people standing for election.


Yasser Khomeini has declared the candidacy of his brother Hassan Khomeini in the upcoming presidential election is no more, due to the opposition of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

Based on previous, similar exchanges, Yasser’s decision to reveal this information might be an indicator of the grandchildren of Ruhollah Khomeini’s displeasure with the present order of Ayatollah Khamenei.

According to Yasser, his brother Hassan was granted formal permission from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic to announce his candidacy, but Khamenei is reluctant to make such decisions public and nonetheless discouraged him from running.

Discouragement and a Ban are the Same Thing

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic has a history of blocking presidential hopefuls on the quiet. For instance, in 2009, he had stopped Mohammad Baqher Ghalibaf and various other principalists from running against Ahmadinejad.

At the time, then-MP and staunch Ahmadinejad critic Ali Motahari had demanded reformists not be allowed to take part in the election, saying that hardliners such as Ghalibaf or Ali Akbar Velayati should compete against Ahmadinejad instead. But in the end, none of the figures he put forward ended up standing.

It was not until years later that Hamid Rasaei, a member of the eighth Iranian parliament, said publicly that the advice of the Supreme Leader had been behind Ghalibaf’s non-candidacy.

It also came after a previous failed attempt by Ghalibaf in 2005 to persuade Mehdi Karroubi and Hashemi Rafsanjani to stand down so that he could compete against Ahmadinejad alone. The plans were thwarted, again partly due to the Supreme Leader’s objection.

These instances, however, were not made public knowledge at the time. The only time the Supreme Leader’s opposition to a presidential candidate was made public was in 2017, over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s would-be candidacy.

This discussion was first revealed by a group of principalists, including veteran MP Mohammad Reza Bahonar, and denied by people close to Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Leader finally relented and confirmed it himself.

“Yes,” he said, “a gentleman came to me, and I told him that in the name of his wellbeing and the wellbeing of the country, he should not participate... We do not consider it appropriate.

“This has become a matter of dispute between believers. One says something, another says something else, and some say, why I did not say it openly? Well, I am saying it openly now."

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad tried to run despite this “recommendation” and was eventually disqualified.

Two Decades of “Recommendations”

In the 1990s, it was not uncommon for people to directly seek permission from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic to run for president. At that time, too, Khamenei “asked” some of those who questioned him not to run.

In his diary entry for May 1, 1997, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote that Mohsen Rezaei, the then-commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had wanted to run for president, but Khamenei had not allowed him to do so.

Some people have speculated that he also stopped Hassan Rouhani from standing in that same contest. Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the 10th Iranian parliament, has said that Khamenei made public comments on the upcoming elections that Rouhani had interpreted as opposition to his running.

Hashemi Rafsanjani, however, took a different view. He had written in his memoirs on September 28, 1996: "Hassan Rouhani ... reported on his talks with the Leader and concluded that his acceptance was not explicit, although he had not opposed it. With my clarification, he was convinced the Leader did not oppose his candidacy.

“But he feels that if the Militant Clergy Association and the Qom Seminary Lecturers Association both support the rival, it will be to his detriment. For this reason, he is still in doubt."

Despite the tradition of asking the Supreme Leader’s permission among officials of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has also said himself that he ran in the 2005 elections without even trying to obtain Khamenei’s blessing.

"If I go to the Leader,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and raise the issue of my candidacy, and he says no, I will not run. Then, if there are problems in the country, they will be the responsibility of the Leader, which is not good. Or he may permit me to run, which is a move away from the principle that the Leader should not interfere in elections in favor of a particular candidate. Or he may keep silent, and say nothing, which again is not appropriate in our relationship."

In 2013, Hashemi Rafsanjani postponed discussing the issue of his candidacy with the Supreme Leader right up until the last day, when Khamenei replied that it would be possible to discuss the issue over the phone. Eventually he was nominated, then disqualified.

Weighing in on the Parliamentary Vote

The Supreme Leader has also been known to interfere in parliamentary matters. In 1997, for instance, the parliamentary election fell just days after the presidential race had ended. Between the two votes, Khamenei warned the reformist politician Abdollah Nouri not to run for the position of speaker of parliament, precisely so that the cleric Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri could remain speaker, having just failed to become president. This advice upset Nouri so much that he disclosed it publicly.

In the seventh parliamentary elections in 2005, in which the principalists particularly wanted to field new candidates, the leader of the Islamic Republic told the leaders of the Mo'talefeh [Islamic Coalition] Party not to run that year.

Now, in the run-up to another election, Khamenei has once again acted to prevent a so-called reformist from running. Despite this, there remains much talk among reformists about Hassan Khomeini's candidacy, and opinions continue to differ on his chances of victory.

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