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Firebrands, 'Rentals' and Has-Beens on Reformists' 2021 Candidate List

May 17, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
6 min read
“The city will fall to the mafia if citizens do not vote,” announced Eshagh Jahangiri, Rouhani’s first vice president, after registering as a presidential candidate
“The city will fall to the mafia if citizens do not vote,” announced Eshagh Jahangiri, Rouhani’s first vice president, after registering as a presidential candidate
Ex-health minister Masoud Pezeshkian, who has broad appeal among Iran's ethnic minorities, has registered as a candidate for the first time
Ex-health minister Masoud Pezeshkian, who has broad appeal among Iran's ethnic minorities, has registered as a candidate for the first time

Saturday, May 15 was the fifth and last day for presidential hopefuls in Iran to register as candidates. Three prominent reformist figures, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, Eshagh Jahangiri and Masoud Pezeshkian, put their names down on the day.

Out of 14 people on the reformists’ unofficial shortlist, three have already withdrawn. Vetting by the Guardian Council is now under way and it is not yet clear which of these people will make it onto the ballot paper. But in the meantime, what do the reformist-backed candidates have to say about their hopes to stand for Iran’s top executive role?


During registration, Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and president of Tehran City Council, said that he had consulted Eshagh Jahangiri, Rouhani’s first vice president, and been encouraged by him to register. A few hours later, though, Jahangiri himself also registered as a candidate.

Mohsen Hashemi is well-known among the electorate because of his own and his father’s political records. But he still enjoys relatively little popular backing. After signing up at the Ministry of Interior on Saturday, he compared the current situation to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, seemingly implying that like his father, who assumed the presidency after the war ended in 1989, he, too, could bring about peace and rebuild the country.

Eshagh Jahangiri, meanwhile, was the last well-known reformist figure to register on Saturday. His first attempt at pre-election publicity was joining in a Clubhouse room in which he dramatically warned that if citizens did not vote, “the city will fall to the mafia”.

Around the same time, however, it was reported that his brother Mehdi Jahangiri had been arrested and brought in to begin serving a two-year prison sentence for economic corruption. This led, unsurprisingly, to speculation about the timing, and whether the arrest was an attempt to pressure Eshagh Jahangiri to withdraw from the presidential race.

Eshagh Jahangiri’s candidacy was not widely seen as a serious prospect until Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave up any designs on the presidency after the leak of his damaging interview tape last month. But a day before registration ended, pro-reformist media outlets reported that ex-president Mohammad Khatami, detained politician Mehdi Karroubi and ex-Expediency Council member Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha had spoken to Jahangiri on the phone – after which, seemingly on these clerics’ prompting, he entered the race.

Just as in the past, however, neither Eshagh Jahangiri nor Mohsen Hashemi can count on the majority of reformists for support. The Guardian Council is likely to disqualify a number of candidates of all political stripes, and while Iran’s conservatives have broadly accepted Ebrahim Raeesi as their preferred candidate, the reformists are still awaiting a clearer picture from the Guardian Council or the Supreme Leader.

The candidacy of Ali Larijani, former speaker of the Iranian parliament, has made the situation even more complicated. For some time now Larijani has been described as a “rental candidate” for supporters of Rouhani’s government and some reformists, and could divert votes away from any other candidate this camp chooses to back.

Appeal to Ethnic Groups

Masoud Pezeshkian, an MP, heart surgeon and former minister of health under President Khatami, is a comparatively fresh face who also signed up on Saturday. He has certain traits that might give him an edge in gaining votes, including his broad appeal to Iran’s ethnic minority communities.

Turkish is the native language of three Iranian northwestern provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Ardebil and spoken by millions of Iranians as a first language. In a speech in parliament in 2016, Pezeshkian defended the position of Turkish in Iranian public life and added: “I thank God that I was created a Turk.”

Back in 2009, he also delivered a speech in Kurdish at a gathering in the predominantly Kurdish town of Bukan, emphasizing the importance of pluralism and protecting the most vulnerable in Iran: “Those who live in Kurdistan, those who live in Baluchistan, those who live in Khuzestan, those who live in Azerbaijan, all belong to one country.”

After the 2005 presidential election, many observers believed that Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, a vice president under Khatami, had ended up ranking first in the three provinces of Iranian Azerbaijan because he was an ethnic Turk. Mehr Alizadeh has registered as a candidate in this year’s election as well but does not enjoy the same level of support among reformist parties as Masoud Pezeshkian.

Pezeshkian’s support base among Iran’s large population of ethnic Turks, and his rhetorical mastery, give him a strong chance in the election: so much so that the journalist and political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi believes he would be a “tough competitor” to Ebrahim Raeesi.

Other Reformists on Shakier Ground

In the past few days, three other figures close to reformists – former MP Mahmoud SadeghiMostafa Tajzadeh, who served as acting interior minister under President Khatami, and Ali Motahari, the controversial former deputy speaker of parliament – also registered their intention to stand, but there is a good chance the Guardian Council will disqualify all three.

After registering on May 14, Tajzadeh read out a statement in which he sharply criticized the regime and its “reduction” of the constitution down to the principle of Velayat-e Faqih, or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist: essentially, handing power to the Supreme Leader.

Immediately afterwards, without naming Tajzadeh, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the Guardian Council who was at the election headquarters that day, told a reporter: “The Islamic Republic offers people many platforms free of charge. But if the Guardian Council learns something false has been announced on these platforms, it will take this into account when qualifying [candidates].”

Ali Motahari has no institutional links with the reformists, so his name was not on the bloc’s initial list of candidates despite his close political affiliations with them. He has been an outspoken critic of the house arrests of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates who stood in the disputed 2009 presidential election. This gives him a good chance of winning a few votes from those able to stomach his sexist and misogynistic views.

Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, a former Minister of Roads and Urban Development under President Rouhani, also put his name down on the last day of registration. He said his greatest concern was the “dimming light” of “Iran and its millennia-old civilization” due to sluggish development and “social erosion”.

In 2018, Akhoundi left Rouhani’s cabinet under a cloud after his quarrels with the government reached such a pitch that he was removed from consideration for the role of mayor of Tehran. In general, he is not a big player on the political scene.

For now at least, the 2021 presidential election is shaping up to be similar to 2005 in terms of the excess of candidates. But Iranians will only get a better picture of its likely course after the Guardian Council has pruned the list down in 10 days’ time.

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