Q&A: Iran’s presidential election 2017

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The presidential election in Iran is scheduled for 19 May 2017. Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has regularly organised parliamentary and presidential elections, but these polls have regularly failed to meet international standards to be free, fair, and credible. This Q&A document seeks to answer some of the most pressing questions related to the upcoming election.

1. Who oversees the election process?

2. Who has the right to vote?

3. Can anyone run for President?

4. Who are the approved candidates in the 19 May presidential election?

5. What is the human rights record of the six main candidates?

6. Will observers be allowed monitor the election?

7. Has there been an election campaign?

8. How decisive is the role of the President?

Who oversees the election process?

The overall authority to interpret election laws, vet candidates, oversee the electoral process, receive and adjudicate complaints over alleged irregularities, confirm the election results, and notify and direct the Ministry of Interior to announce the results is vested with the 12-member Guardian Council of the Constitution. The Guardian Council also appoints a Central Board for Supervision of Elections (CBSE) and supervision boards or supervisors at local levels.
The Guardian Council is composed of six senior clerical members appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and six jurist members who are appointed by Parliament. The six clerical members effectively control the Council’s decisions on the election process. The Ministry of Interior organises the voting, counting of votes, and other executive aspects of the election under the supervision of Central Executive Board of Election (CEBE) [1]. Local administrative Executive Boards are also established.

Who has the right to vote?

The law does not specifically bar anybody from voting. All Iranian citizens have the right to vote if they are 18 years old, are not declared mentally ill, and possess an official ID card (or passport, if residing abroad). Prisoners are also permitted to vote, but in their case, in practice, the ID card requirement is not strictly enforced. However, it must be noted that Afghans who have lived in Iran for nearly four decades and their children, who were born and grew up in Iran, are barred from voting because there are no laws that allow them to apply for citizenship.

Can anyone run for President?

No. Article 35 of the Presidential Election Law, directly quoted from Article 115 of the Constitution, is discriminatory and inconsistent with international standards for election. It states that presidential candidates must “be political and religious rejal” [2], and “faithful and adherent to the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the official religion of the country.” This provision effectively prevents all members of the political opposition, government critics, women, and non-Shiites from standing as candidates.

Women candidates have consistently registered as candidates in all 12 presidential elections in Iran since 1979, but the Guardian Council of the Constitution has disqualified them.

Members of the political opposition do not even take the risk to stand as candidates. The last time any candidate associated with the opposition registered, and withdrew before the election, was in the first presidential election in 1980. Some critics who register occasionally are disqualified.

Official Religion: Under the Constitution, the ‘official religion of the country’ is the Twelve-imam Ja’fari school of the Shi’a. Hence, not only followers of the three ‘officially recognised’ [3] non-Islamic religions but even all non-Shiite Muslims, including Sunni Muslims are expressly barred from standing for President. Consequently, the majority of Iranian Kurds, Baloch, Turkmen, and a portion of the Arab population, who are Sunni Muslims, are also barred from standing for office.

In the run-up to the current elections, the Guardian Council of the Constitution disqualified all but six candidates (0.37%) out of 1,636 people who had registered as candidates for elections, including all the 137 women who had registered [4]. The disqualification of a large number of candidates and all female candidates has been a consistent trend. For example, in the 2009 presidential election, only four male candidates (0.84%) were approved out of the 476 persons who registered. All 42 women who registered were disqualified. In 2013, 686 people registered, but only eight men (1.25%) were approved. All 30 female candidates, who registered [5], were disqualified. In addition, a number of former and serving MPs and ministers, who registered in this and previous presidential elections, were all disqualified.

Who are the approved candidates in the 19 May presidential election?

The six approved candidates (all men) are:
1) Hassan Rouhani
2) Ebrahim Ra’eesi
3) Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf
4) Es’haq Jahangiri
5) Mostafa Mir-Salim
6) Mostafa Hashemi Taba
None of the six is critical of the Iranian state’s structure and overall policies and all of them have held various positions at the highest levels of the country’s political system. The two frontrunners are Rouhani and Ra’eesi.

Hassan Rouhani, 68, the incumbent president, has held numerous other high-ranking positions prior to the beginning of his first term as president in 2013. Past positions held include: five-term Member of Parliament from 1980 to 2000; member of the Assembly of Experts since 2000 [6]; member of Expediency Discernment Council since 1999; and, since 1989, member and secretary of the National Supreme Security Council (NSSC) and now its chair. Rouhani has taken credit for the agreement over the nuclear deal with the 5+1 powers in 2015, but his government has not been able to use the agreement to reap any economic benefits for the country for two major reasons. First, the power struggle within the establishment in Iran has discouraged western investors. Second, investors have been hesitant to do business in Iran for fear of possible US sanctions. Rouhani has been described as a former hard-liner who has moved toward ‘moderation’ and found backing among the ‘reformist’ groups, in addition to former President Khatami.

Ebrahim Ra’eesi, 56, a cleric politically close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his disciple for 14 years, was appointed by the Supreme Leader to head a very wealthy and powerful foundation in Khorassan province in early 2016. The foundation does not pay any taxes and Mr. Ra’eesi is accountable only to Khamenei. He has held various judicial positions since his early 20s. Ra’eesi is known as a hard-liner, openly backed by hardl-ine clerical figures and organisations, hard-line newspapers, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). Even some members of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, who must be neutral under the law, take part in his rallies. Many cohorts of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are involved in his campaign. Although the Supreme Leader has not, and will not publicly take sides, the line-up of Mr. Ra’eesi’s backers and their public pronouncements point to the Supreme Leader’s preference. This is particularly significant as Mr. Ra’eesi has been mentioned as a favourite to succeed the 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is rumoured to be ill.

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, withdrew from the race on 15 May 2017 in favour of Ra’eesi. As mayor of Tehran, Qalibaf has been involved in various financial and political scandals.

Es’haq Jahangiri withdrew from the race on 16 May 2017 in Rouhani’s favour. Currently vice-president under Mr. Rouhani, he is known as a ‘reformist’. It is believed that he registered as a backup candidate for Rouhani just in case the hard-liners managed to disqualify the incumbent President from running.

Mostafa Mir-Salim, a former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the 1980s, is not a serious threat to the two leading candidates. He is the only candidate officially nominated by a political party – the Islamic Coalition Party – which is widely referred to as the ‘bazaar’s party,’ i.e. the trading sector. Mir-Salim and his party are politically close to high-ranking clerics and the Supreme Leader, but, unlike the 1980s, they do not have much political clout. On 17 May 2017, the Islamic Coalition Party announced that Mir-Salim had withdrawn from the race and the party would support Ra’eesi. Mir-Salim denied he had withdrawn.

Mostafa Hashemi Taba, former director of Physical Education Organisation and head of the National Olympic Committee, is not a serious contender and has already said that he would vote for Rouhani.

What is the human rights record of the six main candidates?

Hassan Rouhani’s record on human rights does not offer much to be proud of. In particular, as head of the National Supreme Security Council (NSSC), he frequently decided on the detention of high-profile human rights activists and political dissidents. During his first term as President, Mr. Rouhani occasionally made a lukewarm push for a ‘Citizenship Rights Charter’, which has not become a law. Furthermore, the provisions of the ‘Charter’ do not differ from the existing provisions of the Constitution, many of which are highly undemocratic and discriminatory especially against women and minorities. Rouhani’s government has not taken any notable action to prevent the arbitrary arrest and detention of political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders or secure their release. His Ministry of Intelligence has been responsible for some of the arrests.

Ebrahim Ra’eesi, at the age of 21, was deputy prosecutor in the cities of Karaj and Hamedan, where many dissidents were executed. In his position as deputy prosecutor of Tehran (1985-89), he was a member of a Commission appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Commission, which has been famously referred to as the ‘Death Commission’, effectively acted as a court of last resort. In 1988, the Commission retried thousands of political prisoners already serving prison sentences in summary trials lasting only a few minutes [7]. As a result, several thousand were sentenced to death and executed in the span of a few months. Later, as deputy head of the Judiciary, Ra’eesi was influential in repressing, silencing, and executing protestors after the controversial 2009 presidential election.

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, was involved in suppressing various popular protests, most notably the students revolt in 1999, in his capacity as commander of Tehran Police Force.

Mostafa Mir-Salim, was very strict during his term of office as minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the 1980s, when the publishing and film industries were subjected to systematic government censorship.

Will observers be allowed monitor the election?

International observation is not provided for in the election laws. Candidates can send one representative to each polling station and report any irregularities to the Guardian Council of the Constitution.

Has there been an election campaign?

Presidential candidates could start campaigning from the date on which the Ministry of Interior announces their candidacy up to the morning of the day before the election. This year, televised debates were organised with all the six candidates taking part. The six candidates took part in three televised debates, in which Hassan Rouhani, Ebrahim Ra’eesi, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and Es’haq Jahangiri were accused by other candidates of corruption, profiteering, and nepotism. The accusations were particularly strong against Qalibaf.

In the current election, the domestic media are polarised between Rouhani and Ra’eesi. Depending on their inclinations, they have been campaigning in favour of one or the other candidate. The social media, in particular Facebook and Instagram, play a very important role in a candidate’s campaign strategy. In this regard, the leading candidates have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

The judiciary has blocked several pro-Rouhani channels on the popular app Telegram and arrested their administrators and at least one person who openly called for election boycott in the central city of Esfahan.

How decisive is the role of the President?

Political power is held by the real head of State and the Executive Branch, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under the Constitution, he has vast official powers of policymaking and policy endorsement. He supervises the implementation of policies and serves as the supreme commander of the armed forces. He appoints and dismisses clerical members of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, the head of the judiciary, the head of the national radio and TV, and the commanders of all armed forces. The Supreme Leader can dismiss the president after a decision of the Supreme Court or the Parliament. Unofficially, he determines the appointment of some of the ministers and policies of the government.

The post of president can become important after the current election if the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 77, dies during the president’s term of office. In that event, Article 111 of the Constitution states that a council consisting of the president, head of the judicial power, and a clerical member of the Guardian Council, to be chosen by the Expediency Discernment Council, shall temporarily take over all duties of the Supreme Leader until a new Supreme Leader is appointed. This has made the current election very significant for the major power brokers, including many top clerics and the IRGC, whose top commanders are closely affiliated with the hard-line faction and who have vast political and economic interests.

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