(Bloomberg) — While the world looks to next month’s U.S. election for clues on the future of the standoff with Iran, candidates are preparing for another vote that may prove just as pivotal.
Next June, Iranians will also elect a new president, as the era of Hassan Rouhani, who staked his career on clinching the historic nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, comes to an end, his legacy upended by hardliners in the U.S. and at home.
As always, presidential hopefuls will be vetted by the powerful Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the field is set to be dominated by military men and stalwart conservatives whose influence has surged since 2018, when President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear accord Rouhani had pledged would be a ticket to international acceptance and economic prosperity.
Though Iran has rolled back compliance to key commitments in the deal, resuming enrichment beyond the agreed limits as Trump reinstated and tightened sanctions, it has not officially repudiated the agreement and has indicated its violations could be phased out if penalties are lifted. Tighter U.S. sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports to plummet. Crude production has halved since mid-2018 to less than 2 million barrels a day.
A hardliner will have little incentive to formally abandon an accord that could yet present a lifeline for Iran’s devastated economy, but may not return to the table on the same terms as before or be willing to simply reactivate the pact as is, even if Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 vote. Biden, vice president in the Obama administration when the agreement was reached, has indicated he would seek to revive it.
European nations, China, and Russia have clung to the accord, holding out for a change of heart or leadership in the U.S. And Iran is hedging its bets. Iranian moderates aren’t being entirely cast out because many, like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have technical skills and diplomatic experience that’ll be needed should talks resume.
“It’s likely that we will see hardline factions competing for the position and for them, victory for Donald Trump is an opportunity because it gives them an opportunity to consolidate power,” Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa Program said. “If Biden wins, the system is faced with a choice, you need someone who brings relief and gets a deal. You need someone who has relationships and knows the terrain.”
Here are some of the names dominating discussions about who might be Iran’s next president:
1. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf – Head of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly
A former police commander, veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and ex-mayor of Tehran, Ghalibaf is a pragmatic hardliner: he presents himself as a modernizer while keeping religious classes satisfied with conservative values. He’s been somewhat tarnished by corruption allegations and is disliked by pro-reform voters but broadly supported the nuclear deal and, as mayor, oversaw major projects involving foreign investment, mostly from China.
He’s an ambitious politician who’s already made three attempts at the top job and sought in recent years to fine-tune his image.
2. Hossein Dehghan – Aide to Khamenei and former minister of defense
Dehghan made the rare gesture of openly declaring his candidacy. It’s likely an effort to test the idea with voters and the political class, particularly circles surrounding Khamenei, whom he advises. The fact he’s been open about his plans so early on suggests he either has tacit approval from the Supreme Leader or knows he’ll get it.
A veteran of the IRGC and the Iran-Iraq war, Dehghan served both reformist and hardline presidents. His profile is conservative but his proximity to Rouhani and service under reformist president Mohammad Khatami lend him some credibility with moderate voters. He’s said he wants to “save the people from the current situation,” suggesting he wants to resolve Iran’s stand-off with the U.S.
3. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Former president
Iran’s president between 2005 and 2013, at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the country’s nuclear enrichment program, Ahmadinejad remains an outlier. His comeback attempt depends on the scrutiny of the Guardian Council which rejected his attempt to run a third time in 2017. Despite being shunned by the political establishment for his attacks on the judiciary, Ahmadinejad maintains a following of religious conservatives who see him as a bulwark against the elite political classes.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s relations with the U.S. and Europe would likely enter a more confrontational phase.
4. Saeed Mohammad – Commander of Khatam al-Anbia construction conglomerate
Mohammad is another IRGC veteran who runs its construction conglomerate. With hundreds of subsidiaries, for many Iranians Khatam al-Anbia symbolizes the Guard’s influence over the economy. Mohammad has made more efforts to engage with the media and make public appearances than his predecessors, suggesting an active effort to build a profile.
During his tenure, Khatam has been awarded more tenders by Iran’s oil ministry — mopping up contracts either abandoned by or no longer available to the foreign companies Rouhani’s government had hoped to attract. While he lacks political experience or charisma, as president, Mohammad may seek to further consolidate IRGC influence over Iran’s economy.
5. Ezzatollah Zarghami
Another former IRGC officer, Zarghami left the military to pursue a career in politics and media. He’s best known as the former head of the state broadcaster who oversaw a period of tighter censorship and an increase in religious and conservative output.
He’s a close ally of Ahmadinejad and is active on social media, wading into debates about social rights. A conservative, he reportedly clashed with Rouhani over laws on mandatory head coverings and Islamic dress for women.
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