Tehran, Iran – When the polling stations for the presidential elections in Iran open on Friday, there will be five men on the ballot, but one has a clear lead over the others.
Observers predict that the eighth president of Iran will be elected with a very low turnout amid public disillusionment and widespread disqualification of reformist and pragmatic candidates by the Council of Guardians, a twelve-person constitutional oversight body.
Here are the men standing in the powerful race for a presidency that could influence how Iran will approach its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, United States sanctions, and an ailing economy marked by rampant inflation.
Ebrahim Raisi, the current chief judge in Iran, is by far the front runner. He enjoys broad support from conservative and hard-line politicians and political groups and has led polls by a wide margin. Like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi wears a black turban, suggesting that he is a Sayyid – a descendant of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
The 60-year-old cleric is also seen as the most likely candidate to replace 82-year-old Khamenei upon his death, a point raised by an opponent in televised presidential debates as something that could lead him to take the presidency give up if he wins it.
Raisi grew up in the northeastern city of Mashhad, an important religious center for Shiite Muslims, where Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam, is buried. He attended the seminary in Qom and studied with some of the most famous clergy in Iran. His education was a point of contention in the debates in which he said he had a doctorate in law and denied having only six grades.
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, a young Raisi joined the prosecutor’s office in Masjed Soleyman in southwestern Iran and later became a prosecutor for several jurisdictions. After being appointed Deputy Public Prosecutor, he moved to the capital Tehran in 1985.
He is believed to have played a role in the mass execution of political prisoners that took place in 1988 shortly after the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. He has never publicly addressed the allegations. For 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 Deputy Chief Justice.
The Supreme Leader named Raisi head of Astan-e Quds Razavi, the influential shrine of Imam Reza, in March 2016. The leadership of one of Iran’s largest bonyads, or charity foundations, gave Raisi control over billions of dollars worth of assets 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 and received 38 percent of the vote, or almost 16 million votes. Khamenei named Raisi head of justice in 2019, and he has sought to strengthen his position as an anti-corruption champion by targeting insiders and holding public trials, while effectively starting his presidential campaign early by traveling to almost all of Iran’s 32 provinces . Raisi has branded himself a “rival against corruption, inefficiency and aristocracy” and has declared that he will maintain the nuclear deal as a state agreement, but believes that a “strong” government is needed to steer it in the right direction.
One unlikely candidate, the moderate Abdolnaser Hemmati, has tried to portray himself as a realist. He became governor of the Iranian central bank in a turbulent time in 2018, shortly after US President Donald Trump broke the nuclear deal and imposed harsh sanctions that eventually spread to the entire Iranian economy.
The 64-year-old was ousted by Rouhani earlier this month for running for president, but his opponents have tried to portray him as one of the characters behind the current dire economic situation.
A former state television journalist and a veteran of Iran’s banking and insurance sectors, Hemmati has tried to defy some of the candidates’ more outlandish promises by saying they cannot be kept as the country continues to struggle against sanctions and governments run massive budget deficits exhibit. But he has also promised to significantly increase monthly cash spending on low-income families and bring inflation back to single digits.
Hemmati has spoken out in favor of restoring the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions in an electoral cycle that sparsely mentioned the follow-up problems after the top leader said foreign policy was not a “people’s priority”. He has also suggested that he be open to meeting US President Joe Biden if such a meeting falls within the framework of the Iranian establishment.
Hardliner Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is now the senior leader’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council, a high-level body currently responsible for the nuclear issue.
In the 2013 elections, which Rouhani won in his first term, he ran unsuccessfully and came third with around 11 percent of the vote. Jalili is a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal and the financial transparency laws necessary to finalize Iran’s action plan with the Intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF). He has promised to “lift” the sanctions by increasing local production so that Iranian rivals have no choice but to lift the sanctions.
The 55-year-old was born in Mashhad, did a PhD in political science, and later served as a Basij volunteer during the war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s. He was badly wounded in the fighting and lost the lower part of his right leg.
Jalili worked as a university lecturer after the war, then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and rose to become a member of the National Security Council. In 2007 he was promoted to Secretary of the Council as he became a central figure in the international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. His term ended in 2013, but he still has a seat on the council and is also a member of another influential body, the Advisory Board.
Mohsen Rezaei, known as a “permanent candidate” for years of trying to become president, has headed the Advisory Board since 1997.
The hard-line politician and military man comes from a religious Bakhtiyari family and is also a veteran of the war with Iraq. He joined the rising corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), became its chief of intelligence and played a key role in the expansion of the elite troops. In 1981 Rezaei was appointed Commander in Chief of the IRGC by then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and held that position for 16 years.
The 66-year-old is also among those who have been resisting the implementation of laws to satisfy the FATF for years, as they harm the country and prevent Iran from circumventing US sanctions. Rezaei, who previously proposed taking US citizens hostage, is also an opponent of the nuclear deal and has supported the lifting of the sanctions “to pity the enemy” he sanctioned with Iran.
He has promised to top up the ailing national currency, identify and redirect tens of billions of dollars of missed budget, increase cash subsidies tenfold, and heavily involve youth, women and marginalized Iranians in his plans for the future.
Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi
Another candidate with extremely low poll numbers, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, is the youngest presidential candidate at 50. He has been a lawmaker and ENT doctor (ear, nose and throat specialist) for many years.
The conservative from Fariman in Khorasan Razavi has been the Mashhad People’s Member of the Iranian Parliament for four consecutive terms. Ghazizadeh was deputy parliamentary speaker for hardliner Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf in the first year of the current parliament, which came to power in February 2020 due to widespread disqualifications by reformists and low voter turnout. He was replaced earlier this month and is now a Member of Parliament.
During the three presidential debates, he attempted to play the adult in the room, largely avoiding personal stitches, and sticking to the state television host’s questions while others barged-barred exchanges.
Ghazizadeh, a cousin of former Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi and current lawmaker Ehsan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, has promised to form a young government to lead the revolution in its second phase on the orders of the Supreme Leader.