As Presidential Candidates Register in Iran, How Does Vetting Work?

May 11, 2021
Faramarz Davar
6 min read
In mid-May, the 12-member Guardian Council will spend five to 10 days selecting a handful of presidential candidates to run from the hundreds expected to apply this week
In mid-May, the 12-member Guardian Council will spend five to 10 days selecting a handful of presidential candidates to run from the hundreds expected to apply this week
The influence of the office of Ayatollah Khamenei on this "qualifying" period has become more overt each time
The influence of the office of Ayatollah Khamenei on this "qualifying" period has become more overt each time

Registration for candidates in the upcoming Iranian presidential election opens today, Tuesday, May 11. Five days from now, the Ministry of Interior will submit the names of would-be runners to the Secretariat of the Guardian Council to begin the process of reviewing their qualifications for the country’s top executive role. The Guardian Council is in turn expected to complete this work in five to 10 days, behind closed doors.

Who Can Register?

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that any "political man" with Iranian citizenship, who follows Twelver Shia Islam and has a “good” record, can run for president. Article 99 of the Constitution also stipulates that the Guardian Council will oversee the election as well as examining candidates’ eligibility.

Last week the Guardian Council broke with protocol by narrowing the conditions for registration without consulting parliament. Now, it says, only candidates aged between 40 and 75, with no criminal record at all, will be considered – and they must have at least four years’ experience serving as a minister, governor, mayor of a city of at least two million, military officer with the rank of major-general or above, director of a religious seminary or chair of the Islamic Azad University.

The heads of the three branches of power, members of the Expediency Council and members of the Supreme National Security Council are also automatically authorized to register. In other words, ahead of June, the Guardian Council has banned all but established regime insiders with a spotless record from running.  

These instructions were communicated to the Interior Ministry before registration opened. But outgoing President Hassan Rouhani has reminded the Ministry that it needs to act according to his instructions, not those of the Guardian Council. Hours before registration commenced, the legal situation was still unclear.

The Islamic Republic’s law on presidential elections has been revised and amended several times; in fact, almost every time an election has been imminent. The latest amendments were tabled by the 11th Iranian parliament late last year and also sought to impose a minimum age of 45 on would-be candidates, but the Expediency Council ultimately threw out the bill on the basis that it did not comply with the general policies as approved by Ayatollah Khamenei (who has expressed a desire for a “young revolutionary” candidate, and notably became president himself at the age of 43). The law was last successfully amended in 2013.

How Does the Guardian Council Review Qualifications in Five Days?

The Guardian Council is officially responsible for “overseeing” Iran's presidential election. Its interpretation of this is that it should examine and qualify candidates for election. A handful of the hundreds who apply will then be presented to Iranian citizens as their choices. No more than 10 people have ever been approved to run in a single presidential race.

The 12-member council consists of six members directly appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei and six appointed only with his tacit approval. These six’s intermediary with the parliament is the head of the judiciary, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader, and they are elected by a group of MPs  who have themselves been approved by the Guardian Council.

Hundreds upon hundreds of people are likely to register to run in Iran's presidential election. In the last round in 2017, more than 1,630 people applied, but the Guardian Council approved just six people and disqualified the rest. Among those disqualified was former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – despite the fact that he had received the green light in 2009 by all members of the Guardian Council, including its secretary Ahmad Jannati, its secretary, who had gone on to publicly support Ahmadinejad in Friday sermons contrary to Iranian law.

How Does the Selection Process Happen?

The Guardian Council has give to 10 days to review every single candidate’s eligibility. In 2017, members scrutinized an average of 136 candidates each. The first to be excised from the list are celebrities, followed by any individuals against whom cases have been filed by permanent oversight bodies set up throughout Iran.

It then contacts four official sources to enquire about the remaining individuals: the Ministry of Intelligence, the judiciary, the police and the National Civil Registration Organization. In recent years, however, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization is believed to have supplanted these four bodies in terms of its level of influence over candidate selection.

Those would-be candidates who do not receive a negative report back from these bodies are then examined individually by the Guardian Council. At this stage, from the point of view of the Guardian Council and its reading of the law, they are still not eligible to run, but rather it must  "qualify" them first. In other words, no-one has the right to run in the election unless the Guardian Council is satisfied that they do.

Another notable case of disqualification by the Guardian Council took place in 2001 and involved Reza Zavarei, a former member of the council himself, who had been approved to run in 1997. His candidacy was refused the second time around for unknown reasons and he died shortly afterward.

In practice, though, the qualification process has come to have less to do with the whims of the actual Guardian Council. With each round, the opinion of Ayatollah Khamenei is holding greater and greater sway.

What is Khamenei's Role in Verifying Candidates?

In the 32 years that Ayatollah Khamenei has been Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, eight presidential elections have taken place and with each one, Khamenei’s role in selecting candidates has become more direct, overt and discernible.

Although Ahmadinejad was allowed to stand in the 2005 and 2009 elections, he was barred from running again in 2017 by Ayatollah Khamenei himself. The same thing happened to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013.

Rafsanjani had previously given a detailed account in his diaries of how Khamenei’s office had a hand in candidate selection up until 1997. Since then, however, Khamenei has abandoned any attempt at disguising it. His influence on the Guardian Council’s final decision is now taken as such a given that candidates often visit him to test the waters before trying to register.

Earlier this year, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, dropped out of the race after meeting with Khamenei and being “discouraged” from running. He and his brother had no compunction with telling the Iranian public about this meeting in the aftermath, again reinforcing the notion that Khamenei’s influence on candidate selection is so strong there is no longer any need to conceal it.

It is now understood that after the Ministry of Interior’s registration process concludes, the office of Ayatollah Khamenei communicates its views on the “eligible” candidates to the Guardian Council. Before registration opened this year, Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei openly said that Ayatollah Khamenei's office had “not yet announced” its views about candidates to the Guardian Council.

How Can Registrants Find Out What Happened?

The Guardian Council must notify the Ministry of Interior of the final list of candidates no later than 10 days after registration ends. The council does not appear to be archiving its members' internal negotiations in any way that will be accessible to future historians.

The objective reasons for disqualification are not announced to others who registered, and they in turn have no means of finding out why they were found at fault beyond generalizations such as “non-adherence to the principle of Velayat-e Faqih". The council's approach to determining the final candidates remains a secret – albeit, in some ways, the worst-kept secret in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Related coverage:

Guardian Council Bypasses Parliament to Change Iran's Election Rules

Speaker of Parliament Implicated in Iran's Budget Manipulation Scandal

Khamenei.com: Disenfranchising the Parliament, Part Six

Khomeini’s Grandson Disqualified from Elections

IRGC Rivalries in the Open Ahead of Presidential Election



Fact Checking

Fact Check: Does the Islamic Republic Really Fight Corruption?

May 11, 2021
13 min read
Fact Check: Does the Islamic Republic Really Fight Corruption?