Middle East

Iran presidential poll: Issues and divisions

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Image caption The candidates will be approved by the Guardian Council, appointed directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader

On 14 June, Iran will hold one of the most critical presidential elections in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The outcome of the last election in 2009 was hotly disputed, leading to mass protests against the results. Four years later, two of the candidates are still under house arrest, hundreds of political activists are in prison and hardly any of those behind the killing of dozens of protesters have faced investigation or trial.

On 23 May the Guardian Council, all 12 members of which have been either directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will announce which candidates have been permitted to run in this year's poll.

For the Islamic Republic, which is governed under a mixed clerical and parliamentary system, the elections are seen as key affirmation of the system's legitimacy, however flawed the process may be.


This is the first time in almost two decades that, instead of two main conservative and faction reformist faction, at least four factions will compete for the presidency.

Traditional conservatives: Members of this faction adhere most closely to the Supreme Leader's school of thought, and many of them have expressed an interest in running for president. If the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, the Supreme Leader's chief advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati or the mayor of Tehran were to run for president, they would representing the traditional conservatives. This faction controls most of the state institutions and constitutes the most powerful tendency within the establishment. President Ahmadinejad was believed to belong to this group until about two years ago, when differences in opinion between him and the Supreme Leader surfaced.

Image caption Ahmadinejad is hoping to send his aide to office

Right-wingers: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies now belong to this faction following the deterioration in his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei, caused by a dispute over Mr Ahmadinejad's attempt to dismiss one of his cabinet ministers. A populist with radical opinions, many think that President Ahmadinejad would try almost anything to hold on to power. He may attempt to persuade his right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to put himself forward as a presidential candidate in a move reminiscent of Russia's Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev alternating power-sharing scheme. But if Mr Mashaei were to fail to gain the required approval of the Guardian Council, the president would possibly opt for another ally such as Ali Nikzad, the minister of housing, who has supervised popular state-financed homebuilding projects.

Centrists: Members of this faction gather around former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are mainly technocrats who want an open economy and moderate foreign policies. In recent years they have moved closer to the reformists. Iran's former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani belongs to this group.

Reformists: Members of this faction believe that change should come from within the regime. The most prominent leader of this group is the former president, Mohammad Khatami. Reformists are typically more politically moderate than members of the other factions. Opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karoubi, both currently under house arrest, belong to this group. In recent weeks, a number of prominent reformists have been calling on Mr Khatami to run, but he has made no public statements one way or the other. If Mr Khatami were to decide against running, other lesser known members of this group would likely try their chances.

Foreign policy

Image caption The president's foreign policy has an impact on nuclear talks

Nuclear programme: Iran's nuclear policy, like any other national security policy, is determined not by the president but by the Supreme Leader. But the president's general foreign policy could have an impact upon the outcome of the negotiations with Western powers over Iran's nuclear programme. Some analysts believe that the failure of nuclear talks in the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan earlier this month was partly because of uncertainties over who the president will be in two months' time. A peaceful election with a high turnout will put the Supreme Leader in a much stronger position. If the winner comes from a different faction, the Supreme Leader will be more preoccupied with issues at home.

Negotiations with the US: After more than three decades of mistrust between the two countries, few believe the elections will lead to an improvement in diplomatic relations. Even if the next president were keen to initiate negotiations with the US, it is a decision beyond his authority and would require the blessing of the Leader.

Public Opinion

Public opinion is divided over the upcoming election. Commentators regularly refer to the following five groups, though it is difficult to know their proportions among the population:

Image caption More people say they will boycott this election than the last poll in 2009

Regime supporters: These are people who are either financially dependent or ideologically attached to the regime's ruling conservative faction. They regularly take part in state-organised marches and would typically vote for the Supreme Leader's preferred candidate.

Ahmadinejad supporters: People who would vote for Mr Ahmadinejad's chosen candidate because they appreciate his populist rhetoric and admire his boldness and willingness to stand up to the Supreme Leader.

Reformists: These are people who believe democratisation is possible under the current regime. They believe in political participation under any circumstances. They will vote for the candidate who carries the clearest hope for reform.

Boycotters: This group is expected to form a higher proportion of the electorate than before. Many of them voted for reformist candidates last time but accused the government of "stealing" their vote by rigging the elections. They say they would only vote if Mr Mousavi and Mr Karoubi are freed and a fair election is guaranteed.

Floating voters: By definition, anything that happens between now and 14 June can affect this group's decision as to whether they vote at all, and who they vote for.

However, it is clear that crippled by economic sanctions and political turmoil, Iran is heading towards one of the most important elections since the revolution in 1979.