While Western journalists and politicians have a habit of treating the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential contest as a meaningful event that will shape the future of the country, it is in fact a competition among candidates hand-picked by the supreme leader for a largely symbolic position. Nevertheless, writes Michael Rubin, the outcome of the elections will suggest whom Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has chosen as a successor:
Normally, the incumbent wins re-election in Iran, and so, despite the theater of the campaign, this should mean Hassan Rouhani will win a second term. The question in this month’s election, however, revolves around the presence of Ebrahim Raisi, [a religious official] who many analysts believe could replace Khamenei, Iran’s aging and ailing supreme leader.
For Raisi to become president the ascending to the supreme leadership makes sense: after all, that’s the path Khamenei took to the supreme leadership. But, conversely, if Raisi is to lose, it seems unlikely that he could ever be supreme leader for the simple reason that the theological basis of the supreme leadership is that the occupant of that position acts as the deputy of the messiah on earth. For the deputy of an infallible imam to lose an election would be de-legitimizing for life.
This then raises the question: is Raisi really the supreme leader’s pick or is he just being promoted by Iranians falsely claiming Khamenei’s blessing? If the latter, then there is no better way to be rid of the ambitious challenger than by letting him run and delegitimize himself. Conversely, if he unseats Rouhani—the consummate regime loyalist—then that signals a relatively quick transition will be at hand for the true leadership. Make no mistake: when Iranians go to the polls this month, they may cast their ballots for a president, but the race is about anything but.