On June 16, two days ahead of Iran’s presidential election, the Iranian state media outlet Press TV published an article quoting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has delivered an address to the nation two days before polls open in Iran’s 13th presidential election, calling the forthcoming vote ‘decisive,’” the article stated.
The article detailed Khamenei’s complaints about how “American and English media” were covering the election and accused the foreign press of trying to “drive a wedge between the Iranian people and establishment by trying to discourage people from participating in the presidential election.”
It stated: “Ayatollah Khamenei said elections in the Islamic Republic have always been sound, and said the fact that presidents of sometimes divergent political viewpoints have been elected in the past has been proof.”
That is misleading.
In Iran’s system of government, the elected president is not the head of state. That role is filled by the Supreme Leader, in this case Ayatollah Khamenei, who has held the position since 1989. The Supreme Leader is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, a group of Islamic scholars.
The Supreme Leader is also commander-in-chief of the country’s military, and appoints members of the Guardian Council, the body that approves or rejects presidential candidates. The Supreme Leader also signs off on the presidential candidate who wins the election, thus inaugurating them as president after an election.
In theory, Khamenei could withhold that signature, in effect rejecting the winning candidate. Although the president of Iran does exercise influence over domestic and foreign policy, any initiative is subject to approval by the Supreme Leader.
People seeking to run for president are either approved or rejected by the Guardian Council, six of whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader.
In the latest election, nearly 600 people registered their candidacy, but only seven were accepted. The overwhelming winner was hardline conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who currently heads Iran’s judicial system. Raisi is believed to have strong ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary organization that wields great influence in the country and is answerable only to the Supreme Leader.
In 1988, Raisi served on a panel that handed down death sentences to thousands of dissidents after the Iran-Iraq War. His three opponents in the presidential election included a former IRGC commander, a former head of the country’s central bank, and the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament. Three other approved candidates had dropped out by June 16.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington D.C.-based research group, the lack of popularity of Raisi’s opponents has led some experts to conclude that the Guardian Council may have manipulated the election in favor of Raisi.
It is hard to consider the election “sound” given the many eligibility restrictions imposed on candidates.
For example, a candidate must be between 40 and 75 years old, and a Shiite Muslim, effectively barring religious minorities. Women are not explicitly barred from running, but all 40 women who registered as candidates in this election were rejected, like all other past female candidates.
Government control of the media also has a major influence on Iran’s elections.
These restrictions have led some Iranians to call for a boycott.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (a U.S. government-funded sister news agency to the Voice of America) reported that many Iranians feel their votes do not matter, due to corruption and the limited power of elected representatives.
The 2019 parliamentary elections saw record low turnout, and a pre-election survey by an Iranian state pollster estimated that turnout for the June 18 election might be as low as 40 percent. Previous presidential elections in Iran achieved over 50 percent turnout.
Sure enough, on election day the predictions came true: Raisi handily won with nearly 62 percent of the vote, but turnout was a record low at only 48.8 percent.
The news was greeted with condemnations from human rights groups like Amnesty International, which accused Raisi of involvement in "crimes against humanity" in the 1980s.
On June 21, The Associated Press reported that Raisi said he'd refuse to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss a broad range of topics, from Iran's nuclear program to its sponsorship of militias in Iraq and Syria.