Iran’s Interior Ministry has announced the final seven candidates to run in Iran’s 2021 presidential election after vetting by the Guardian Council concluded.
Six political figures remain in the running alongside conservative frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi: Mohsen Rezaei, an ex-IRGC commander and secretary of the Expediency Council, former nuclear negotiator and Supreme National Security Council secretary Saeed Jalili, conservative MP Alireza Zakani, governor of the Central Bank of Iran Abdolnasser Hemmati, vice-speaker of parliament Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi and the reformist ex-governor of Isfahan Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh.
One of the more surprising elements of the final list announced on Tuesday was the Guardian Council’s elimination of Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament who planned to run on a “conservative reformist” ticket. Larijani has always tried to emanate former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who also once sat in the speaker’s chair, and has now followed in his footsteps again by being knocked out of the race.
Meanwhile, his brother Sadegh Amoli Larijani, an embattled former Chief Justice of Iran, has launched an extraordinary attack on the Guardian Council - on which he himself sits - for being allegedly compromised by false reports from the intelligence services.
Why Did Larijani's Candidacy Matter?
Ever since Ebrahim Raisi announced he was standing, gambling on his potential assumption of the role of Supreme Leader after Ali Khamenei, observers had perceived the 2021 vote as nothing more than a “show”: a prelude to Raisi’s easy presidency. Any other disrupting factor, they predicted, would be surgically removed using one or other of the bureaucratic tools available.
Ali Larijani's disqualification seems to support this theory. But some believe the game is not over yet and are waiting for a “leader’s decree” from Ali Khamenei to affirm or deny his competency. That said, even if the Guardian Council is ordered to reconsider his candidacy – as was the fate of reformist Mostafa Moin after he was knocked out in 2005 – it seems likely that Larijani will withdraw himself because of his previous public position against the use of leader’s decrees.
Meanwhile, Ebrahim Raisi himself joined other regime “elders” in calling for the candidates list to be made “more competitive” after learning of the results on Monday night.
Some believe Larijani’s disqualification by the Guardian Council has discredited Raisi as it suggests Larijani had a genuine chance at scooping some of his support base. In addition, it has been posited that even the current candidates could pose a threat to him if rival factions reach a consensus on how they will vote.
Mehdi Nasiri, a prominent hardline journalist who served as editor of Kayhan in the 1980s and now supports Rouhani, wrote of Tuesday’s outcome: “If we consider Ayatollah Raisi's entry into the elections as the result of a setup to discredit him in public opinion, this scenario has now been implemented by the engineering model of the Guardian Council. Goodbye Ebrahim."
Ex-Chief Justice Blasts Guardian Council Over ‘Compromised’ Decision-Making
In an extraordinary statement, Sadegh Amoli Larijani also publicly lambested the Guardian Council on Tuesday, claiming its decisions were being influenced by falsified intelligence reports.
Amoli Larijani, himself one of the six jurists of the Guardian Council, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, May 25: “It has been almost twenty years since my first appearance on the Guardian Council in 2001.
“Throughout this time, I have defended the Guardian Council, even during my years in the judiciary. But I have never found the decisions of the council so indefensible.”
He went on to define the cause as “the increasing involvement of the intelligence apparatus, through false reports, in the Guardian Council’s decision-making process –especially if the responsible member, who has to submit investigative reports about candidates to the council, deliberately adds something to the report!"
He added that he was concerned for the “dignity and credibility” of the Guardian Council, which supposedly acts on the advice of the Ministry of Intelligence. In his tweet, Amoli Larijani in all likelihood referring to the undue influence of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit on the process.
Sadegh Amoli Larijani's remarks about the Guardian Council were unprecedented and may have been compelled by the former Chief Justice of Iran’s growing concerns that his family is being excised from the power structure in the Islamic Republic.
Once talked of as a possible successor to Khamenei, Larijani was abruptly removed from post as head of the judiciary in 2019, two months earlier than scheduled. A corruption scandal then erupted around him and he was castigated by his former supporters in the conservative faction
A Fleeting Threat to Raisi’s Support Base
The Guardian Council’s disqualifications of figures like reformist ex-Health Minister Massoud Pezeshkian, and even vice-president Eshagh Jahangiri, were certainly more expected than that of Larijani. But since Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified in 2013, arguably anything has been possible.
Raisi’s supporters assumed that the low turnout would mean their candidate would have an easy win. But when Larijani signed up as a candidate on the last day of the registration period, it upset their calculations somewhat.
Many Raisi supporters regarded the dearth of serious reformist candidates as a cover for Larijani. Mohammad Atrianfar, a leading member of the reformist Kargozaran [Executives of Construction] Party, said Eshagh Jahangiri and Larijani's statuses were similar and that in "special circumstances" Larijani could be the reformists’ main choice.
The latter was also the preferred option of many moderates and had the apparent support of Hassan Rouhani's government. His registration thus changed the pre-electoral landscape and new equations were drawn up.
Last Saturday, May 15, important figures such as Eshagh Jahangiri and Massoud Pezeshkian entered the arena. But so too did a number of prominent principalists, from Mohsen Rezaei to Saeed Jalili and Alireza Zakani.
Meanwhile, conservative journalist Mohammad Mohajeri has claimed that after Larijani's registration, Haddad Adel, chairman of the principalists Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, contacted other members of this faction and asked them to attack the Interior Ministry and deny the news if it leaked out.
Hours later, the social media channels and webpages of Raisi fans launched a heavy and unsurprising offensive against Larijani. Some called him a "continuation of Rouhani" and his would-be administration a "third Rouhani government", while MPs such as hardline cleric Nasrollah Pejmanfar vowed to publish documents that would show Larijani's tenure in parliament "caused the current economic situation".
Perhaps the most extravagant attack came from Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, an MP and ex-military commander, who explicitly called Larijani a British agent and tweeted reproachfully at the Guardian Council: "You are the guardian of Islam and the independence of this enemy-ridden and infiltration-ridden country."
Early Barbs Traded by Candidates
Before the Guardian Council announced its decision on Monday, Larijani had also given signs that he might pose a real challenge to Raisi in pre-election debates. He had previously tweeted under the hashtag "neither key nor hammer", pointedly distancing himself from either Rouhani or Raisi, and had criticized the military candidates in his speech at the Ministry of Interior, saying: “The economic field is neither a barracks nor a court to be ruled by orders."
The IRGC’s candidates, Saeed Mohammad and Mohsen Rezaei, as well as conservative politician Alireza Zakani, had also been involved in early verbal scuffles with their unexpected rival. Asked about the record of the previous government, Rezaei replied: "The economy is not a barracks nor a court, but it is not a place for weaving philosophy either."
In turn, Saeed Mohammad also said: "I tell those who owe their identities to the barracks and courts that today is the beginning of the end of the family aristocracy."
Some channels, including Hassan Abbasi, even covered the story of Larijani's birth in Iraq, while the website Mashreq News, which is close to Iran’s security institutions, dubbed Larijani "Rouhani and Khatami's pawn."
In any event, despite all this minor turbulence, the atmosphere ahead of Iran’s 13th presidential election has been cold and soulless. It remained so on Tuesday. With the stage now seemingly set for June 21, short of an intervention by the Supreme Leader, large parts of the country are expected to boycott the vote and the only excitement or conflict it will inspire will be inside the country’s ruling circle.