The countdown is on for Iran’s June 18 presidential election and early projections suggest a hardliner close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will likely emerge on top.
At least two Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRCG) commanders have thrown their hats into the ring, both of whom would represent a hard turn from the “prudence and moderation” espoused by outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani’s approval rating now stands at a trifling 25% according to a Stasis agency poll, a huge dip from the 67% he enjoyed in February 2016 shortly after the implementation of the soon thereafter annulled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
Now, as US sanctions squeeze the economy, torpedo the rial and stoke hyperinflation, despondent Iranians are not expected to turn out in large numbers at the polls – particularly if Rouhani’s moderate camp boycotts the race altogether due to fears of a hardliner walkover.
Against this pre-election backdrop, three key players have emerged ahead of the soon-to-begin official campaign season. The most prominent of the three is Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, a former IRGC aerospace force commander who served as minister of defense in Rouhani’s first cabinet.
He is the first to have announced his candidacy and has since given interviews to foreign media and interacted with netizens on Twitter, despite the fact the platform is officially blocked in Iran.
His candidacy will raise eyebrows in the West. Dehghan is on the US Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list and was sanctioned by the Donald Trump administration in November 2019 for his close connections with Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom he serves as a military advisor.
In 1983, Dehghan was an IRGC commander in Lebanon and Syria. The US government has suggested he was involved in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, suspected to have been perpetrated by the Iran-allied Hezbollah militant group, which killed 241 American and 58 French military personnel.
The 64-year-old University of Tehran alumnus is a former director of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, a former deputy defense minister in the Mohammad Khatami administration and commander in charge of the IRGC’s operational units in Kurdistan.
He has also reportedly played a lead role in Iran’s quest to indigenously develop military equipment including missiles and naval, space, air and intelligence systems.
A close confidante of the assassinated commander of the Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani, Dehghan told CNN in a January 2020 interview that Iran’s retaliation for his death will “for sure be military” and that Tehran will directly target US “military sites.”
In the same interview, he showed a picture of slain commander while saying “all Iranians are Qasem Soleimani” and warmed Trump that his photo would not stop haunting him and the US.
Dehghan has said he is neither reformist nor hardliner, perhaps his attempt to stake out a vote-winning middle ground. But he is certainly not a moderate who will ease on civil liberty restrictions or pull punches in negotiations with the US and West on nuclear-related issues.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dehghan earlier this year took a swipe at President Joe Biden for retaining Trump’s policies and failing to lift economic sanctions on Iran.
He has also been unbending over the prospects of new nuclear talks with the US, conditioning any new engagement on Washington’s removal of all punitive measures against Iran and compensating the nation for losses incurred by sanctions.
Some already suggest his rise to the presidency would likely lead to a deeper militarization of Iran’s foreign policy, including in regional hotspots like Yemen and Syria.
Lesser known is Brigadier General Saeed Mohammad, a former commander of the IRGC’s construction and engineering conglomerate Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, which is tasked with financing and implementing engineering and infrastructure projects.
Mohammad resigned from his post in recent weeks to officially initiate his presidential campaign.
Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters has recently filled the foreign contractor vacuum caused by US sanctions and is now one of the highest-earning enterprises in the country. In 2018, Iran’s Oil Ministry awarded it ten projects in oil and petrochemicals worth an estimated US$22 billion.
In 2017, Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters employed as many as 250,000 engineers, technicians and workers, according to its officials. The Iran Open Data initiative estimates its annual revenues are at least $1 billion.
Mohammad, who holds a PhD in civil engineering and is not known for his battlefield experience, is among the IRGC’s more technocratic-minded commanders. He is seen as one of the key incubators of the IRGC’s economic development, which by some estimates now controls as much as 40% of Iran’s economy.
Mohammad, who usually appears in public in plainclothes, has scant international experience, and as a result, it is unclear what type of a foreign policy he would chart if elected. Some of his statements are typical of an IRGC commander, with an ingrained hostility to the US and West.
In his limited media appearances and public speeches, he hasn’t minced words on his opposition to engagement with the international community and advocacy for improved relations with the countries in the so-called “Axis of Resistance” Iran is believed to be spearheading.
In May 2020, Mohammad revealed that the oil tankers Iran dispatched to Venezuela in defiance of US sanctions against both countries carried supplies by Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters’ refineries. He also announced that the Headquarters’ plans to establish a “joint bank between Iran, Iraq and Syria” to circumvent US sanctions.
In February 2018, Mohamad said in remarks during Tehran Friday prayers that “sanctions have never been a threat, but an opportunity,” hinting at how the IRGC has benefited from the departure of foreign firms from Iran, leaving hundreds of billions of dollars of projects in transportation, housing and energy behind for Iran’s military-industrial complex.
An Atlantic Council analyst once called Mohammad “a rising star in the IRGC’s apparatus” while the Wall Street Journal once referred to him as the “commercial counterpart” of General Soleimani in a 2019 story.
He fits the criteria of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s preferred “young and pious government”, but as a relatively low-profile technocrat is not widely known to the Iranian public.
The third candidate is Ali Motahari, a former deputy speaker of the Majlis and son of Morteza Motahari, one of the Islamic Republic’s foremost ideologues and intellectual leaders.
Motahari has both pro-reform and conservative views and is popular among factions of Iran’s pro-reform youths as well as religious traditionalists. He represented Tehran in parliament from 2008 to 2020 and was an outspoken critic of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s adventurous foreign policies.
He has also challenged the Supreme Leader. Following the controversial 2009 presidential elections and the ensuing arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement, Motahari sided with the protesters and called for Ahmadinejad’s trial for instigating unrest through his incendiary remarks on the campaign trail and during the presidential debates.
In December 2014, in a speech at the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Motahari openly challenged the Supreme Leader’s decision to put the Green Movement’s leaders under house arrest. “From my viewpoint, this is against justice and I do not accept his view,” he said at the time.
Motahari has on different occasions raised the idea that the public should be free in criticizing the Supreme Leader, since he says this is an Islamic tradition rooted in the times of the Prophet Muhammad, and that Muslims openly contested and questioned the Prophet’s rulings without fear of reprisal at the time.
Geopolitically, Motahari hasn’t shied away from calling the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 a policy mistake, as opposed to the official and unapologetic narrative of Islamic Republic authorities who still regard the incident as a blow to US “imperialism.”
On cultural matters, however, Motahari is a proven hardliner. He has expressed opposition to women going to sports stadiums to watch games, called on authorities to impose compulsory hijab rules and asked the Rouhani administration to refuse entry to students who do not strictly observe hijab codes on university campuses.
Motahari was disqualified by the vetting Guardian Council from running in the February 2020 legislative elections; he was likely barred due to his explicit criticism of the Supreme Leader. However, some suggest he is now engaged in behind-the-scenes lobbying to convince the all-powerful council to allow him to run for the presidency.
Without a doubt, Motahari represents the best chance for re-engagement with the US and West, an electoral outcome that the hardliners next to the Supreme Leader may prefer but cannot publicly support for ideological and political reasons.
But if the current level of tensions with the US continues into June, an IRCG commander-cum-president would hardly signal Teheran is seeking a breakthrough.