Tehran, Iran – When the polls open on Friday for Iran’s presidential election, four men will be on the ballot, but one enjoys a significant lead over the others.
Observers predict Iran’s eighth president will be elected with very low turnout amid public disillusionment and widespread disqualification of reformist and pragmatic candidates by the Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional vetting body.
On Wednesday, hardliner former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, lawmaker Alireza Zakani and reformist former vice president Mohsen Mehralizadeh withdrew their candidacies, leaving four men in the race.
Here is what you need to know about the men allowed to run in the impactful race for a presidency that could influence how Iran will tackle its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, United States sanctions and an ailing economy defined by rampant inflation.
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Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s current chief justice, is by far the frontrunner. He enjoys wide backing from conservative and hardline politicians and factions and has topped polls by a large margin. Like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi wears a black turban, indicating he is a sayyid – a descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The 60-year-old cleric is also seen as the most likely candidate to replace the 82-year-old Khamenei when he passes away, a point raised by an opponent in the televised presidential debates as something that may make him abandon the presidency if he wins it.
Raisi grew up in the northeastern city of Mashhad, an important religious centre for Shia Muslims where Imam Reza, the eighth Shia imam, is buried. He attended the seminary in Qom and studied under some of Iran’s most prominent clerics. His education was a point of contention in the debates, where he said he holds a doctorate in law and denied having only six grades of formal education.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, a young Raisi joined the prosecutor’s office in Masjed Soleyman in southwestern Iran, and later became the prosecutor for several jurisdictions. He moved to the capital, Tehran, in 1985 after being appointed deputy prosecutor.
He is purported to have played a role in the mass execution of political prisoners that took place in 1988, shortly after the eight-year Iran-Iraq War ended. He never publicly addressed the claims. Over the next three decades, he served as Tehran’s prosecutor, head of the General Inspection Organization, prosecutor general of the Special Court of the Clergy, and a deputy chief justice.
The supreme leader appointed Raisi head of the Astan-e Quds Razavi, the influential shrine of Imam Reza, in March 2016. Leading one of Iran’s largest bonyads, or charitable trusts, gave Raisi control of assets worth billions of dollars and cemented his position among the clerical and business elite in Mashhad.
Raisi ran unsuccessfully against outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election, garnering 38 percent of the vote, or just under 16 million votes. Khamenei appointed Raisi to head the judiciary in 2019, and he has tried to strengthen his position as a champion of fighting corruption by targeting insiders and holding public trials, while effectively beginning his presidential campaign early by travelling to nearly all of Iran’s 32 provinces. Raisi has branded himself a “rival to corruption, inefficiency and aristocracy” and has said he will uphold the nuclear deal as a state agreement, but believes a “strong” government is needed to steer it in the right direction.
An unlikely candidate, moderate Abdolnaser Hemmati has tried to portray himself as a realist. He became the governor of the Central Bank of Iran in 2018 during a tumultuous time, shortly after US President Donald Trump reneged on the nuclear deal and started imposing harsh sanctions that eventually engulfed the entire Iranian economy.
The 64-year-old was dismissed from his post by Rouhani earlier this month for running for president, but his opponents have tried to portray him as one of the figures behind the current dire economic situation.
A former journalist with state television and a veteran of Iran’s banking and insurance sectors, Hemmati has tried to oppose some of the more outlandish promises made by candidates, saying they cannot be done as the country continues to battle sanctions and governments run massive budget deficits. But he has also promised to significantly increase monthly cash handouts to low-income families and once more bring down inflation to single-digit territory.
Hemmati has explicitly supported restoring the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions in an election cycle where the consequential issues have been scantily mentioned after the supreme leader said foreign policy is not a “priority for the people”. He has also suggested he is open to meeting US President Joe Biden if such a meeting would fall within the frameworks of the Iranian establishment.
Dubbed the “perennial candidate” for his years of trying to become president, Mohsen Rezaei has headed the Expediency Council since 1997.
The hardline politician and military figure was born to a religious Bakhtiyari family and is also a veteran of the war with Iraq. He joined the nascent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), became its intelligence chief, and was instrumental in expanding the elite force. In 1981, Rezaei was appointed by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the commander-in-chief of the IRGC and kept that position for 16 years.
The 66-year-old is also among those who have for years resisted the implementation of legislation to satisfy the FATF, saying it will hurt the country and prevent Iran from circumventing US sanctions. Rezaei, who has previously suggested taking US citizens hostage for ransom, is also an opponent of the nuclear deal and has supported nullifying sanctions “to make the enemy sorry” it sanctioned Iran.
He has promised to boost the ailing national currency, identify and reroute tens of billions of dollars of misspent budget, increase cash subsidies by tenfold, and heavily include the youth, women, and marginalised Iranians in his plans for the future.
Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi
Another candidate polling extremely low numbers, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi is the youngest among the presidential candidates at 50. He is a longtime lawmaker and an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, throat specialist).
A conservative hailing from Fariman in Khorasan Razavi, he has been a representative of the people of Mashhad in the Iranian parliament for four consecutive terms. Ghazizadeh was deputy parliament speaker to hardliner Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf in the first year of the current parliament, which came to power amid widespread disqualification of reformists and low turnout in February 2020. He was replaced earlier this month and is now a member of parliament.
During the three presidential debates, he tried to play the adult in the room, largely refraining from personal jabs and sticking to questions posed by the state television moderator while others traded barbs.
Ghazizadeh, a cousin of former Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi and current lawmaker Ehsan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, has promised to form a young government to guide the revolution in its second phase as directed by the supreme leader.