The on-coming 11th Iranian presidential election (June 14, 2013) represents probably one of the most important events of 2013 for the Middle East in terms of the future configuration of regional power relations and of shaping Islamic Republic’s international approach on the one hand and for the evolution of the domestic issues for the next four years on the other hand.
To better understand the functioning of the electoral process and the role of the president in the complex political and religious landscape of Iran and in the republic’s foreign affairs, we have to analyze the formal political system and its decision making actors defined by the constitutional framework and the informal ties set between the president, the Supreme Leader and the other institutions and bodies.
Keywords: presidential election, velayat-e faqih, power structure, political factions, Constitution, regime legitimacy
The formal political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran has its own particular features, as interfusion of classic democratic/republican institutions legitimized by citizens through elections (the Parliament, the president) and powerful Sharia-inspired state bodies constituting the velayat-e faqih that approve each and every candidate running for a public service.
Furthermore, since 1987 in the Iranian power structure there were no official parties – despite the fact that the Islamic Republic Constitution stipulates the existence of political parties as well as the formation of “political groups and associations (anjomanha)”– but only rival factions of different elite groups engaged in a dynamic contest for power, each one having its own ideology and socio-politic, economic, cultural, and foreign policy related agenda and interests.
The main three factions that define the basic feature of Iranian political landscape are:
- the fundamentalist/traditionalist, composed of clerics with a totalitarian approach both in domestic and foreign affairs that control the structural power within the state;
- the pragmatist, with bureaucratic authoritarian tendencies, focused on economic modernization from above, supported by the technocrat elite;
- the modernizing reformist, that promote democratic assets and practices and peaceful foreign relations with the others actors of a globalized international system, enjoying a broad popular support as could be seen during the 2009 post presidential elections protests.
According to Iranian politics analysts, in the 2000’s, after a long period of time, an incipient fragile equilibrium of power emerged between fundamentalists and reformists, whereas the pragmatists were playing the balancing role, balance that Ahmadinejad did away with throughout his second presidency in the attempt to part with the clerical authority/establishment.
In these unique overlapping politically and clerically institutions and establishments of Iran political landscape, as can be seen in the figure above, the role of the president and implicitly his responsibilities would not fit into any pattern of any “classical”, pure regime, neither representative/pluralist democracy, nor authoritarianism/totalitarianism.
The Constitution of Islamic Republic states that the President – elected by the direct vote for a four-year term office, with only one consecutive term allowed – “shall be the highest official State authority who is responsible for the implementation of the Constitution and, as the Chief Executive, for the exercise of the executives powers, with exception of those matters that directly relate to the Leader”. If in the first round none of the candidates gathers the absolute majority of votes, the second one shall be held on the following Friday, with the participation of the two candidates with the highest scores.
The Guardian Council and, in some specific conditions, the Supervisory Council are the bodies in charge of supervising the whole presidential elections process. Moreover, the Guardian Council also drafts the credentials for the presidency candidates and submits it to the Leader, meaning that the Council gives the first official approval for the persons willing to stand as candidates (rejecting especially the ones with reformist attitude or supported by the reformist faction) and the Supreme Leader is the one that has the final say over this matter and over the result of elections. An eloquent example in this respect is the victory of M. Ahmadinejad in 2009 for his second term.
After the new president has been elected and confirmed by the Leader, he shall take the oath of office at the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) in a special session. Some of the most important deeds of the president are:
- assenting every legislation of the Majlis as well as the result of a referendum (of course after the review and amendment of the Guardian Council and sometimes of the Expediency Council);
- singing treaties, conventions, agreements and contacts concluded by the Government with representatives of other states;
- managing the domestic policy, being directly responsible for the national budget, the state plan, administrative and civil services issues;
- approving the ambassadors appointed by the foreign affairs minister and also assenting and receiving the credentials or Iranian and foreign ambassadors;
- heading the Council of Ministers (the Government), appointing each minister (that is responsible to the president and Parliament), presenting his Cabinet to the Majlis for a vote of confidence.
The constitutional framework sets the Islamic Republic president’s accountabilities and his formal power of decision making in domestic and foreign affairs but, in actual fact, his political control over these issues is strictly limited by the concentration of power in the hands of the Leader and the others unelected institutions. To prove the validity of this idea we shall reconsider one of the most relevant articles of the Iranian Constitution, art. 113, which postulate the subordinate role of the president towards the Supreme Leader: “after the office of the Leadership, the president is the highest official in the country. His is the responsibility […], except in matters directly concerned with the office of the Leadership”.
Despite this fact, a substantial participation in elections and especially in the presidential one, became a “must have” in order to guarantee and reiterate the legitimacy of the regime seriously damaged by the reelection of M.Ahmadinejad in 2009, event that caused what was considered by the most observers “the most tumultuous period of internal unrest the 34-year-old Islamic Republic has seen”.
The Supreme Leader addressed the Iranians to persuade them of the importance of going to the polls, saying that “elections are the manifestation of religious democracy” and that popular participation is “the religious and rational obligation…of anyone who is interested in strengthening the regime, Islam, and the Iranian nation”. So, voting become more than a civic and democratic practice, is on the one side a moral concern and on the other side a national strategic duty that must be fulfilled by every citizen.
The critical need for the regime of being legitimate “again” will probably undermine the freedom and fairness of the electoral process by pressuring the voters in more sophisticated ways than in the past. For the first time, in 2013 the presidential ballot is held simultaneous with the municipal and rural council elections that usually bring to the polls a larger number of citizens.
Furthermore, even if there are no regulations for a mandatory voting, voters don’t actually have the freedom to choose not to express their political option given the fact that getting a stamp in a national identification booklet would facilitate different professional permits and secure a job in a period of economical hardship. As there are no electoral registries or rolls, the citizens that have already turn 16 years old can go to vote all over Iran only by presenting their national ID booklet, shenasnameh, which is stamp with an inimitable ink seal for each election towards avoid any attempt to fraud.
This practice indeed allows voters to introduce into the special boxes blank or invalid ballots since there is impossible for officials to check who casts the vote or if there was written the name of an eligible candidate. So, the voters do their duty to the country and get the stamp that hopefully would smooth their way into the socio-professional fields. It will be quite interesting to observe the leadership’s approach in this regard counting that in the 2012s parliamentary elections the Prime Minister undertook an investigation over the large amount of the discarded ballots. Will there be any change in the voting law or practice, will there be implemented new ways to manipulate or pressure the voters? The on-coming presidential election would reveal the answers to all these questions.
The official electoral campaign starts once the names of the candidates are exposed to the public attention, probably on 13th May, after the whole procedure of registration (that will take five day beginning on 6th May) and approval. But unofficially it seems to have been launched along with the spring, marked in Iranian tradition by the Nowruz Holiday or the Persian New Year, so the domestic and international public already has an idea about the potential candidates for the 11th presidential elections.
The originality of the upcoming election consists of witnessing more than two political factions, namely the principlist conservatives, the radical reformist and the governmental associates. We shortly review the most important candidates of the three factions, following the official campaign and the results through the next article.
 Eva Patricia RAKEL, The Iranian political elite, state and society relations and foreign relations since the Islamic Revolution, 2008, p 23
 Said Amrir ARJOMAND, After Khomeini-Iran under his successors. Oxford University Press, 2009, p 65
 Hossein SEIFZADEH, “The landscape of factional politics in Iran”, Middle East Institute, August 2002, http://www.parstimes.com/history/factional_politics.html
 The Constitutional Executive Authority, article 113, 114, http://www.president.ir/en/president/functions
 Idem art 117
 Idem art 118
 *** Iran Data Portal, Princeton University, Presidential Electoral Law, Chapter 1 General Principles, art 2 https://www.princeton.edu/irandataportal/elections/pres/2009/law/Presidential_Electoral_Law.pdf
 The Constitutional Executive Authority, art 121
 Idem Iran data portal, Laws and Regulations https://www.princeton.edu/irandataportal/laws/
 Idem the Constitutional Authority, art 123-138
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 Chapter IX: The executive power, Section one. The presidency http://www.ivansahar.ir/executive-power-in-iranian-constitution.htm
 **“Iran presidential Election 2013: Khamenei will have tight grip on candidate filed after Ahmadinejad”, Huffington Post, 7th March 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/iran-presidential-election-2013-khamenei_n_2826304.html
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 Ali ALFONEH „Renewal of Allegiance: Presidential Elections in Iran” for Washington Institute for Near East, June 2009 http://www.aei.org/article/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/middle-east-and-north-africa/renewal-of-allegiance-presidential-elections-in-iran/
 Andres SOSA CLAVEl, The electoral system in Iran and the presidential elections for Mundo Electoral september 2009 http://www.mundoelectoral.com/html/index.php?id=358
 IRNA Islamic Republic News Agency, “Minister: Registration of candidates for next presidential elections to start May 6, 2013”, December15, 2012 http://irna.ir/en/News/80456854/Politic/Minister__Registration_of_candidates_for_next_presidential_elections_to_start_May_6,_2013
 Suzanne MALONEY, “Noruz and the Unofficial Start of the Iranian President Election” March 20, 013 for Brookings http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2013/03/20-iran-election-noruz-maloney
 Amir DABIRI MEHR, “Political array of Iranian presidential election” April 15, 2013 http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/04/15/298398/iran-election-political-arrangement/