From L-R, Ghazizadeh, Pourmohammadi, Pezeshkian, Jalili, Ghalibaf and Zakani, six hand-picked candidates for Iran's presidential elections.

Who Are Iran's Presidential Candidates?

Monday, 06/10/2024

On Sunday, Iran announced the finalists for the presidency after the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash. The list represents Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s purge of the system with an eye towards his own succession.

Former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who has an extensive resume across different organs of the Iranian system, was disqualified for the second time since 2021. This represents another humiliation for Larijani and speaks to his family’s growing ostracization from power. His brother Sadegh Larijani, while chairman of the Expediency Council, was so disgusted by the Guardian Council’s decision to disapprove of Ali’s candidacy in 2021 that he resigned as a member. Among the concerns of the system is likely that Larijani’s daughter Fatemeh Ardeshir Larijani has been living in the United States for years and is now an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

In the end, the Guardian Council approved the candidacies of six men: Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Saeed Jalili, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Alireza Zakani, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, and Masoud Pezeshkian. All are conservative, aside from Pezeshkian, who is a ‘reformist.’ This is a similar dynamic to the seven 2021 presidential finalists, where the Guardian Council allowed one token reformist Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former vice president under Mohammad Khatami’s administration, to run as well as pragmatist former Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati in a heavily-choreographed win for Raisi, the system’s favored candidate.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf

An undated photo of Ghalibaf with Qassem Soleimani showing their close friendship.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has been preparing for the presidency for years. He has occupied multiple senior command positions in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including as deputy commander of the Basij, head of its Khatam Al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, and commander of the IRGC Air Force. During student protests in 1999, Ghalibaf signed onto a letter with other IRGC commanders threatening then-President Mohammad Khatami if more force was not used to suppress the demonstrations.

Later, Ghalibaf became head of Iran’s police, which is a position traditionally occupied by an IRGC commander. An audio recording emerged where Ghalibaf bragged to the Basij that he beat protesters with wooden sticks on the back of a motorbike in 1999 and that he ordered police to fire at protesters during campus demonstrations in 2003.

Afterwards, he became mayor of Tehran and rebranded himself as a technocratic manager. During his tenure, Ghalibaf hobnobbed with world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008. While there he told The New York Times, “We don’t need any atomic weapons or unconventional weapons” and was marketed as an “authoritarian modernizer.” He sought to distance himself from his old rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was then a firebrand president, by expressing a willingness for dialogue with the United States.

Ghalibaf has run unsuccessfully for president for years. When he campaigned for the office in 2005, leaked U.S. cables circulated about how the Supreme Leader’s son Mojtaba Khamenei, who is now considered a contender to succeed his father as supreme leader, “was reportedly the backbone” of Ghalibaf’s bids for political office. One indicated, “Mojtaba is said to help Ghalibaf as an advisor, financier, and provider of senior-level political support.” Although Mojtaba later convinced his father to switch his support to Ahmadinejad at the last minute, viewing him as more reliable—a prediction he would likely later regret given Ahmadinejad’s falling out with Khamenei.

But this shows Ghalibaf still enjoys a strong relationship with Khamenei’s inner circle, especially as he is reportedly a relative of the supreme leader. Both hail from Khorasan in the northeast, with Ghalibaf being born in Torqabeh near Mashhad, where Khamenei hails from.

In 2020, Ghalibaf became speaker of parliament. During his tenure, he presided over parliament’s passage—despite President Hassan Rouhani’s objections—of the Strategic Action Law to Lift Sanctions and Safeguard the National Interests of Iran, which mandated aggressive steps to accelerate Iran’s nuclear program and restrict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring.

He has been implicated over the years in spectacular corruption scandals. An audio recording emerged in 2022 of Ghalibaf being engaged in a cover-up of embezzlement during his time as mayor of Tehran of around $3 billion. Ghalibaf suggested signing a fake contract to conceal its disappearance. Photos also emerged in 2022 of Ghalibaf’s family returning from a shopping trip in Turkey with a large layette set which generated controversy given his previous criticisms of a candidate for president of buying baby clothes in Italy and at a time when Iranians were struggling under crushing economic mismanagement. Ghalibaf’s son Es’haq was also denied a permanent residency application in Canada. Leaked documents emerged which showcased hundreds of thousands of dollars in his bank accounts abroad. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf himself has been sanctioned by Canada.

Thus far in this cycle, powerful elements in the IRGC are promoting Ghalibaf’s candidacy, with Tasnim, an IRGC-affiliated outlet, defending him. Journalists who revealed Ghalibaf’s corruption were also conveniently arrested this week as Ghalibaf entered the presidential contest. If successful, Ghalibaf would be the first president under Khamenei to have served as a senior career commander of the IRGC. Having Ghalibaf in the presidency would thus ensure IRGC equities are protected in a succession process should Khamenei, at 85 years old, pass away during his tenure.

Saeed Jalili

Jalili meeting Fidel Castro in Havana in 2005

Saeed Jalili has been nicknamed “a living martyr” after losing one of his legs during the Iran-Iraq War as a member of the Basij. Like Khamenei, he was born in Mashhad, and holds a Ph.D. from Imam Sadegh University, an ideological training ground for the regime. His dissertation was entitled “The Foundation of Islamic Political Thought in the Quran.”

Jalili has held a series of positions spanning the Office of the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Foreign Ministry, and on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). They include head of Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s Inspection Office, head of the Foreign Ministry’s US Affairs Office, a senior director in Khamenei’s office, deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs, secretary of the SNSC, and later the supreme leader’s personal representative on the SNSC.

CIA Director Bill Burns once described Jalili in his memoir as “stupefyingly opaque” and that he did not envy his students. Jalili in 2022 reportedly advocated for Iran increasing uranium enrichment to 90%, which is weapons-grade. He is an ideologue, steeped in the theocracy’s revolutionary ethos. Like Ghalibaf, Jalili is sanctioned by Canada. But Ghalibaf has reportedly been trying to sabotage Jalili’s chances—positioning himself as a more pragmatic hardliner.

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi

Ghazizadeh's official campaign poster from the 2021 presidential election.

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi is a physician by training. A former member of parliament, he served as a member of its presidium and first deputy speaker. He ran for the presidency in 2021 but lost. Ebrahim Raisi later named him as a vice president and head of the Martyrs and Veterans Affairs Foundation. This Iranian parastatal foundation is under sanctions for directing financial resources to terrorist organizations, particularly Hezbollah. It has numerous businesses, especially in Lebanon, which are directed by Hezbollah’s Executive Council, whose holdings across various sectors provide the terrorist organization with vital funding. Martyrs and Veterans Affairs Foundation officials also took part in Hezbollah operations against Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Alireza Zakani

Zakani appearing in a propaganda event dressed as a religious combatant. Undated

Alireza Zakani has held a series of posts in the Islamic Republic, including as head of the IRGC’s Student Basij Organization (SBO), a member of parliament, president of the Parliament’s Research Center, and currently mayor of Tehran. He is under UK sanctions for the commission of serious human rights abuses in Iran and generated controversy when he visited Brussels in 2023 given his record. When he was a legislator, Zakani headed a parliamentary commission on the nuclear deal, where he emerged as a leading critic of the negotiations with the P5+1. As mayor of Tehran, Zakani has spearheaded the Noor Plan to forcibly enforce the hijab on Iranian women. His tenure in Tehran has witnessed multiple scandals, including around $336 million missing. Zakani reportedly has multiple wives, with embarrassing personal revelations recently emerging on the subject. His decision to support construction of mosques in public parks also generated controversy.

Zakani ran unsuccessfully for president in 2021. Ahmadinejad rose from mayor of Tehran to become president in 2005. However, Zakani faces an uphill climb with more established conservatives like Ghalibaf and Jalili on the field. That is not to mention that Zakani, who was Ghalibaf’s campaign manager in his unsuccessful 2005 presidential bid, now running against his old boss will make for an awkward dynamic.

Mostafa Pourmohammadi

Pourmohammadi speaking during an event in 2018

Born in Qom, Mostafa Pourmohammadi is the sole cleric to be approved to run for the presidency in 2024. He attended the Haqqani Seminary and served in a series of positions including as revolutionary prosecutor in Masjed Soleyman, Hormozgan, and Khorasan; deputy intelligence minister and the Intelligence Ministry’s representative in Evin Prison; head of the social-political bureau in the Office of the Supreme Leader; and head of the General Inspectorate Organization. He later became interior minister in the conservative Ahmadinejad presidency and justice minister in the pragmatic Rouhani administration. Thus, Pourmohammadi has a considerable bureaucratic pedigree across political factions, Khamenei’s office, the judiciary, and executive branch. He shares career overlaps with Jalili, who also was a member of Khamenei’s staff and Ebrahim Raisi, who likewise served as head of the General Inspectorate Organization.

Pourmohammadi is notorious to Iranians given his service with Raisi on a Death Commission which greenlighted the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. He is cognizant, however, of waning public support for the Islamic Republic, admitting in 2023 that “popular satisfaction has declined” and that “the young generation has distanced itself from us.” Yet he was disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts, the chamber that will choose Khamenei’s successor, in 2024. This is despite Pourmohammadi having proved loyal to Khamenei in disclosing electoral irregularities to him without Ahmadinejad’s knowledge, prompting his dismissal as interior minister in 2008.

Masoud Pezeshkian

An undated photo of lawmaker and presidential candidate Pezeshkian

Masoud Pezeshkian is the sole ‘reformist’ permitted to run in this election. A heart surgeon by training, he previously served as health minister in the administration of Mohammad Khatami. In 2003, the parliament tried to impeach him unsuccessfully, citing incompetence in his appointments, inappropriate use of a loan, and other issues. His experience during this time tracked with other Khatami ministers who were targeted by conservatives for the reformist tendencies of his presidency. Later, Pezeshkian was elected to parliament and rose to become a deputy speaker.

He has been outspoken in criticizing the government over the issue of hijab enforcement. After the murder of Mahsa Amini in 2022, he told an interviewer that “we want our children to be modest, but if our behavior makes them hate our religion, we should at the very least refrain from continuing with this method.” He has been critical of parliament members chanting death to certain countries, arguing “we need to tolerate others and work and collaborate with the world.” He has also been a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal.

Yet Pezeshkian, while condemnatory of the Raisi administration as being incapable of solving Iran’s problems, has not crossed the line in publicly complaining about Khamenei. He has also championed core regime principles that the United States is the root cause of tension in the region and hailed cooperation with Russia as both countries are subject to sanctions.

Pezeshkian will make a bid to generate excitement and voter turnout given his ‘reformist’ roots—his campaign motto is already “For Iran,” which likely seeks to exploit the Shervin Hajipour song ‘Baraye’ that became the anthem of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. He is already copying gimmicks of Abdolnaser Hemmati, who lost the 2021 presidential race. Back then, Hemmati pledged to make Javad Zarif the first vice president or foreign minister again. During this cycle, Pezeshkian has hinted about his intention to include figures like Zarif in his administration if he wins. Zarif has in turn endorsed him. But the failed experience of Khatami’s presidency looms large in the memory of many Iranians, who believe the Islamic Republic must end, and that reformists and conservatives are two sides of the same corrupted, incompetent, and repressive coin.

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