Iran elections: Towards an ‘Islamic government’

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, views the June 18 presidential election as an opportunity to realise his vision for the future of the country.

This handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 4, 2021 shows him addressing the nation during a live TV appearance. In his speech, Khamenei urged voters to turn out for this month's presidential election, warning that staying away would mean doing the work of the "enemies of Islam". Iranians are set to elect a successor to President Hassan Rouhani on June 18 [Khamenei.IR/ via AFP]

Out of the 529 people who registered to take part in Iran’s June 18 presidential election, only seven have secured permission from the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council is responsible for vetting candidates and deciding who gets to run in most elections in Iran. It consists of six Islamic jurists, appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six lawyers, nominated by the judiciary’s head and selected by parliament.

Among the candidates the Guardian Council barred from running in the upcoming election are the former spokesperson of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

Five of the seven candidates who have been approved by the council are hardliners: Head of the judiciary Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi; former Supreme National Security Council secretary and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and MPs Alireza Zakani and Amirhossein Qazizadeh-Hashemi.

The other two candidates who will be on the ballot on June 18 are Abdolnaser Hemmati, a technocrat and the former governor of the Central Bank of Iran, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, head of Iran’s national sports organisation and former governor of Isfahan.

Among these seven candidates, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi is the leading contender. Many Iran observers expect him not only to be elected as Iran’s next president, but also eventually to become the country’s next supreme leader.

The Guardian Council has been carefully engineering elections to produce results that are acceptable to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei for decades. Nevertheless, the council’s decision to bar a high number of prominent and objectively qualified candidates from running in the upcoming election was still unprecedented.

The council increased the level of control it exerts on the candidate list because the Iranian establishment believes that the Islamic Republic is currently at a turning point and as a close ally of Khamenei, Mehdi Tayeb, recently said, there is a need to “purify the revolution”.

To understand what they mean by “purifying the revolution”, we need to look at Khamenei’s political ideology.

In the late 1990s, Khamenei outlined what he believes to be the five essential stages of a successful Islamic Revolution. The first stage is the Islamic Revolution itself. The second stage is the establishment of an Islamic regime, which should be followed by the establishment of an Islamic government. The fourth stage is the establishment of an Islamic society, which, he says, would pave the way for the establishment of an Islamic civilisation – one that could serve as a model and leader for all Muslim-majority countries across the world.

According to Khamenei, the first two links in this chain have been completed in Iran with the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the formation of the Islamic Republic. But Iran is yet to complete the third link: the establishment of an “Islamic government”.

So, currently, Khamenei’s leading political goal is to ensure that the country is led by a truly Islamic government that is loyal to him and his vision for the country.

To achieve this goal, he published a manifesto in 2019, and has since been working to rejuvenate the regime and prepare the optimum conditions for the establishment of an “Islamic government”. He stocked unelected but highly politically influential posts in the armed forces, judiciary, religious organisations and media with young and loyal hardliners. With the help of the Guardian Council, he also filled the Iranian parliament with his young and zealous supporters in the 2020 parliamentary election.

Next month’s presidential election, therefore, constitutes the final stage in Khamenei’s efforts to establish an ideal “Islamic government”.

Khamenei was elected as Iran’s supreme Leader in 1989. Since then, he worked with four administrations: The Rafsanjani administration (1989-1996), the Khatami administration (1997-2004), the Ahmadinejad administration (2005-2013) and the Rouhani administration (2013-2020).

Among these four governments, the one that was closest to Khamenei’s ideal of “Islamic government” was Ahmedinejad’s – at least during his first term in power. Ahmadinejad worked harmoniously with the Supreme Leader between 2005 and 2009, but the two eventually fell out during his second term as president due to political power struggles.

The Supreme Leader is now working to ensure the establishment of a new administration that would pursue similar policies and strategies to Ahmedinejad, but remain loyal and subservient to the Supreme Leader till the end.

And, indeed, the leading candidate Raisi’s election campaign is being run by veterans of the Ahmadinejad administration, such as Ali Nikzad, who served as the Minister of Transportation and Housing under Ahmedinejad between 2009-2011 and Reza Taghipour, who was his Minister of Communications between 2009-2012.

As was the case during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the political appointees of a future Raisi administration would also come from the most conservative sections of Iranian society, and specifically from the IRGC and the Oppressed Basij Organisation, a paramilitary group that works for the IRGC.

The IRGC and the Basij are not only the home for the most fervent supporters of the Islamic Revolution and its ideals, but they also serve as the largest and most influential support base for the Supreme Leader.

If Khamenei succeeds in guaranteeing the formation of a new administration that would fill most politically relevant posts in the country with hardliner members of the IRGC and the Basij, the ever closing gap between the Iranian government and the Iranian “deep state” controlled by the Supreme Leader will finally disappear. Such an administration, in the eyes of Khamenei, would represent a truly “Islamic government” and be more successful in implementing policies that would further the goals of the revolution.

According to Khamenei, once established, an Islamic government would work to complete the Islamisation of Iranian society – the fourth step in the Supreme Leader’s long term plan.

Since the revolution in 1979, Iranian society has experienced two waves of Islamisation – the first in 1980 triggered by the closure of universities and the second, in 2005, triggered by Ahmedinejad’s election as president. If an “Islamic government” loyal to the Supreme Leader is formed as expected on June 18, Iran will undoubtedly see a third wave of Islamisation.

As seen during the first two waves, the third wave of Islamisation in Iran will likely have three primary manifestations: Further embedment of Islamic culture and values in daily and political life, a more forceful fight against Western influences on Iranian society, and an increase in the Supreme Leader’s influence and control over all social and political groups in the country.

To achieve this, the new administration will have to use force, as today large segments of the Iranian population do not share the ideals and ambitions of the ruling regime. The new administration will repress those in Iran who try to resist regime-imposed restrictions on their lives and increase pressure over the youth and women – the main two groups that increasingly challenge the regime’s authority.

In terms of foreign policy, a new “Islamic government” will work to achieve all of the Islamic Republic’s long term goals, such as increasing Iran’s influence over the region and exporting the Islamic revolution to other countries by supporting militant groups.

If the new government ends up including many members of the IRGC and the Basij as expected, the cooperation between the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the IRGC will also strengthen, allowing the country to pursue its foreign policy agenda more efficiently.

Anti-Americanism will also be a defining characteristic of any future “Islamic government” supported by Khamenei.

Anti-Americanism is at the core of the Iranian regime and the Supreme Leader’s identity. So any new government supported by the Supreme Leader would likely continue to antagonise the US and its allies while moving closer to Russia and China. Forming better relationships with African and South American countries would also be a priority for the new administration for political and economic reasons.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 82 years old, wants his regime and ideals to outlive him. He wants not only the spirit of the 1979 revolution to live on, but also Iran to eventually become an Islamic powerhouse and a leader of the Muslim world. Only time will tell if the Supreme Leader will succeed in overseeing the formation of an ideal Islamic government that is crucial to the success of his long-term political agenda. But for now, it seems Khamenei is well positioned to move to the next stage of his revolutionary plan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.