Iranian Elections, a crucial piece in the Middle Eastern mosaic

It has been acknowledged by many experts that the upcoming Iranian Presidential elections, to be held the 19th of May, will be crucial for the future of the country. The significance of this vote cannot be simply calculated in long-term geopolitical consequences, but it fits into a broader picture: the Middle Eastern region’s stability.

The results of the vote could shape direction of the Iranian foreign policy given the precarious health of the Supreme Leader Ali Khatami. Should the leader die or be replaced, the new President of the Republic would play an influential role in the interim-government and could remain in office for quite a long time, shaping the internal and external balance of power. The following analysis, therefore, is predicted on the idea that, though it is true that the role of President of the Republic is highly limited by the functions of the Supreme Leader, these elections may be in case of the death of Khamenei.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been increasingly marginalized in Iranian domestic politics since the elections of the religious moderate, President Hassan Rouhaniin 2013[1]. The IRGC is the branch of the Iranian Armed Forces constitutionally mandated to protect the Islamic nature of the country, and have had a crucial and influential role during past precedencies, especially during the Ahmadinejad’s government from 2005 to 2012.

The importance of Rouhani’s shift of external policies has been overall acknowledged, and has led to the signing of the Lausanne’s agreements. Thus, a second mandate of the incumbent president would represent a continuation of the current Iranian foreign policy, which has been characterised by a rapprochement toward the Western World. However, the Presidential role is highly limited by the influence of the Supreme Leader, who has the last word on the major political decisions. Notwithstanding this, the re-election of Rouhani would demonstrate his popular support and his conception of Iranian foreign policy; a less aggressive attitude towards the Europeans and Americans, along with a more compliant stance in the free market, in exchange for international reconciliation.

The influence of the Supreme Leader could always represent an insurmountable obstacle, given the delicate asset of Teheran. Two people have held this position since its institution in 1979: Ayatollah Khomeini, which held office until his death in 1989, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The position of the Supreme Leader is one of the unelected roles in the current Iranian political system, nominated by the Assembly of Experts, a deliberative empowered political body directly elected by a general vote held every 8 years. The duties of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic are of utmost importance, especially as far as the foreign policy is concerned.

Although the President of the Republic chairs the Supreme Court for the National Security, all the final decisions lie with the Supreme Leader, along with the possibility to directly control the army, the Pashdaran’s militias, and the local police. The Supreme Leader’s jurisdictions over televisions and radio channels, and the Guardian Court are also of fundamental importance. Crucially, the Guardian Court supervises and accepts the applications for the Presidential Elections, allowing the Supreme Leader the power to tacitly refuse those who have expressed hostile political views. Thus, the President of the Islamic Republic will always be forced to ask the blessing of the Supreme Leader in order to pass any laws or approve any domestic or external policies, and so is often considered politically ineffectual.

However, the office of the Supreme Leader is a lifetime position. It is difficult to replace it; decision which would have to be taken by the Assembly of Experts, directly appointed by the Supreme Leader itself, and that would occur just in case of non-fulfilment of constitutional duties. According to the Iranian Constitution however, the death of the Supreme Leader would lead to the creation of an interim body which would be composed by the President of the Republic and two more figures, who would take over the position and hold control over it until a new Leader is appointed. This temporary ruling council has, technically, no tenure constraint and could, therefore, remain in power for the time necessary to shape the domestic and foreign assets of the country. Thus, the President of the Republic, in the event of the death of the Supreme Leader’s death, may prove to be a decisive position.

The conservative cores of Iran have suffered from internal disunity over the last few years; especially after the election of Rouhani in 2013. A victory of the moderate Rouhani’s party seems highly possible, even according the most recent polls. Nonetheless, the situation should not be underestimated. A conservative success would jeopardize the efforts to repair the precarious situation in the Middle East, and may destroy the mutual trust, which brought Iran and the International Community to the table for the first time in years. Thus, the elections of Raeisi, the most influential conservative candidate, could represent a threat to the stability of the region if not just in the short-term, definitely in the event of the death of Supreme Leader Khamenei.


[1] Golkar. S (2017) Iran’s elections: It’s not about moderates or hardliners, Al Jazeera


Francesco Pisanò. Postgraduate Student at the University of Glasgow in International Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies, graduated at the Catholic University of Milan with a dissertation in the role of the Islamic State in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry. With a strong interest and academic background in Geopolitics and International Relations, he has been collaborating since 2017 with the Alpha Institute of Geopolitics and Intelligence and the Intelligence Fusion group.