Voter casts his ballot in Sarakhs

Not about to be overthrown

What will the presidential election mean when it comes to sanctions, corruption and the economic woes of the mass of the population? Yassamine Mather looks at the candidates and their rival factions

One of the advantages of presidential election debates in Iran’s Islamic Republic is that the ‘selected’ candidates (those who have managed to be approved as acceptable by the Council of Guardians) spare no details when it comes to exposing their opponent’s factional affiliations - and the current elections are no exception.

The best aspect is that the four conservative candidates on June 28 have used six live debates to tear into each other’s policies, with some criticising the administration of Ebrahim Raisi (Iran’s former president killed in an air accident in May), others damning the policies of previous conservative administrations, and all the conservatives tearing into the era of Hassan Rouhani (the president preceding Raisi). This was, they say, a period of unrealised hope for economic prosperity and relying on a nuclear deal that did not come.

At least four candidates from the more hard-line conservative factions align more closely with the anti-western rhetoric of those like the leader of the Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, who claims their ‘looking east’ strategy is the primary focus of their foreign policy. Of course, the ‘east’ was and is never their first choice: they all ‘look west’ when it comes to their own finances, their children’s main residency and their second homes. It is just that, as far as state-to-state relations are concerned, the west has committed itself to unconditional support for Israel and therefore does not deal with them, at least openly.


The leading conservative candidate is Saeed Jalili, who has served on the Supreme National Security Council since 2007 as the supreme leader’s representative. This council is viewed by supreme leader Ali Khamenei as a key institution, playing a crucial role in shaping overall policies. Jalili stepped aside in the last elections to support Raisi, but now it appears he does not think his government was sufficiently anti-western.

When this group talk of ‘looking east’, the problem is that they are trying to convince themselves of their own and the supreme leader’s propaganda: ‘The United States is in decline and China will soon become the new hegemon power’. As we have often said, this view of the world ignores the fact that decline can take decades, or even centuries. China remains the second global economic power, but despite its aspirations it has a long way to go in terms of diplomatic, military and financial power before becoming the world hegemon. Clearly it is not in a position to save Iran’s economy. Its banking system is not even risking being victimised for breaking US sanctions - the proposed 25-year deal with Iran is conditional on the removal of western sanctions.

Unlike the conservative candidates, who are full of empty slogans, the supreme leader clearly does not believe his own rhetoric and is well aware of the current geopolitical order. One assumes that is why he has allowed not so secret talks with the United States in Oman. In fact Ali Khamenei never puts all his eggs in one basket. He might talk of US decline, warn about not trusting western powers, but, when it comes to his own influence on day-to-day politics, including the presidential elections, he is rather pragmatic.

The ‘reformists’ are spreading a rumour that their candidate, Massoud Pezeshkian, together with one conservative (some say Jalili, others claim it is Baqer Qalibaf) are the supreme leader’s favourites. The rumours might be fiction, but if the polls are correct it could be true. For Khamenei it is very important that there is large participation in the election, and the fact that there is just one ‘reformist’ candidate, who has a chance of being elected, should increase participation, at least in the first round. In this respect there is relative success for the supreme leader. The younger generation have been almost completely absent from election meetings, but, with the daily support and help of former foreign secretary Mohammad Javad Zarif, support from former president Mohammad Khatami and the endorsement of the secular, semi-religious Nehzat-E Azadi (Freedom Movement), reformists have managed to hold large election meetings in Shiraz, Tabriz and Tehran, and it looks like participation will be slightly higher than in the last parliamentary elections.


If negotiations with the US over Gaza, Hezbollah and the nuclear deal continue, the supreme leader wants a more presentable head of government - or at least someone who has not been presented as a major player in the mass murder of political prisoners, as was the case with Raisi.

In fact, as some journalists have pointed out, by choosing four hard-line conservatives and only one ‘reformist’, the Council of Guardians has produced something positive for the reformists: at least they have been spared the kind of squabble currently heating up among the conservative and ultra-conservative factions about which candidate should withdraw to reduce Pezeshkian’s chances. Of course, the difference between these warring factions of the ultra-conservative side of the Islamic Republic government is so severe that it is very difficult for any candidate to withdraw.

During a debate on June 24, the differences between the candidates regarding their preferred foreign policy became clearer.

Mostafa Pourmohammadi has become one of the mysteries of this election. He is a fundamentalist, but he has expressed serious criticism of the policies of the government over the last three years, accusing it of radicalisation and limiting the freedoms of citizens. On foreign policy, Pourmohammadi disagreed with Jalili and emphasised the need to solve the problem of international isolation and negotiate with western countries.

Pourmohamdi’s problem is that he was a judge during the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 and, contrary to his claims, all those executed were not “members of Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an armed group”. Many of the leftwingers executed in this period were actually against the armed struggle strategy.

Pezeshkian, who faced sharp criticisms from four conservative candidates, spoke against Iran’s anti-western and aggressive foreign policy and said that, if he gets elected, he will try to renegotiate a nuclear deal, end sanctions and remove Iran from the Financial Action Task Force blacklist.

Regarding sanctions, Pezeshkian’s main ally, former foreign secretary Zarif, gave a fiery talk on June 24, accusing Iranians who support sanctions of being members of two groups, one being exiles abroad who are paid to do that. On this he is right - both the ‘left’ and right opposition get paid every time they speak in favour of sanctions. This applies to a large section of exiled ‘human rights’ and feminist activists, who favour regime change from above - many are paid by Zionist, or pro-US, think tanks and foundations. Zarif presented several graphs demonstrating that the nuclear deal of 2016 and the lifting of sanctions significantly boosted Iran’s economic growth in 2016-17. He further claimed that the hardliners’ boasts about increased oil sales since 2021 were solely a result of Joe Biden easing sanctions.

Inside Iran Zarif identifies the second group of beneficiaries from sanctions. The promoters of isolationism amongst the conservative factions of the regime, who make billions from the resulting black market. Of course, what should be added is that all factions of the Islamic Republic have benefited financially from sanctions, including many relatives and associates of the former ‘reformist’ president, Rouhani - not to mention associates of Mr Zarif himself. It is the poor who have paid the price of the crippling sanctions.

The debate does highlight the broader discourse within these elite circles about the best approach to handle international sanctions - whether through diplomatic engagement and reciprocal actions, as Qalibaf suggests, or through a focus on self-sufficiency and internal resilience, as advocated by Zakani, or by accepting the conditions proposed by the US and its allies, as Pezeshkian wants. These perspectives reflect underlying strategies that could shape Iran’s future policies in dealing with international pressures and sanctions. Yet throughout the debate, no one spoke about the limitations on the presidency in determining and implementing foreign policy. Irrespective of the differences between various factions, at the end of the day it will be the supreme leader who will make the final decision on rapprochement with the west or isolationism.

All six candidates claim to be pro-women, against use of force when it comes to demonstrations and protests, and speak adamantly against corruption. Given that the Islamic Republican Party and the numerous factions these gentlemen represent have been in power since 1979, one has to ask: who killed the protestors in 2009, 2019 and 2023? Who executed political prisoners? Who ordered the arrest of young women who did not adhere to wearing a full hijab? And how come there is so much corruption? According to Pezeshkian, Iran ranks 15th from the bottom on the UN’s least-to-worst list of global corruption.

There are personality differences between the candidates too. Qalibaf is clearly presenting himself as a ‘strong man’, Orbán style, while Pezeshkian is trying to be everyone’s best friend, but still remaining faithful to the supreme leader. Pourmohammadi is openly criticising state attempts to enforce the wearing of the hijab.

June 26 was the last day of campaigning, and the latest poll, by one of the more reliable organisations associated with the Research Centre of the Islamic Majles (parliament), shows 45.7% of those eligible confirming they will vote. According to the polls, the ‘reformist’, Pezeshkian, is in the lead with 23.5% of the vote. Followed by Qalibaf (16.9%) and Jalili (16.3%).

But 28.5% of respondents are undecided, and 3% say that they will vote blank or void in this election.

Regime change?

Almost every week since February 1979, leaders and cadres of the political organisations of the Iranian left have predicted the imminent overthrow of the Islamic Republic and in the last couple of weeks, during campaigning for the presidential election, we have seen the same predictions. Comrades on the British left joke that some exiled Iranian Marxists have already got their suitcases packed, so convinced are they that will be able to return to Iran in a very short time.

There are good reasons for the left to maintain an optimistic view during difficult times and, of course, the Islamic Republic has created terrible conditions for its political opponents. However, it is really difficult to take the repetition of such predictions seriously after 44 years.

No doubt, the Islamic regime is hated by the majority of people inside Iran - even those who might vote ‘reformist’ on June 28 will do so out of desperation: choosing a bad candidate against worse options. However, given the current war in Gaza and Israeli genocide, Iran’s Islamic Republic has managed to fool enough people, enough of the time with its rhetoric of ‘resistance’. The regime has also gained allies on the Arab street, making the supreme leader and his close associates much more confident than a year ago.

That is why I doubt very much that the regime will collapse in the next few weeks. Mediocre presidents come and go, one faction rises and another falls, but through controlling the state machine, not least the Revolutionary Guards and the basij, through oil revenues, through patronage and corruption it sustains a significant social base. Overthrow by the working class requires a strategy, a programme ... and mass organisation. That will not happen through wishful thinking.