Iran’s election: It’s not about moderates or hardliners


Presidential election is going to determine whether the rationalisation and normalisation of Iran is going to continue.Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran, Iran, April 14, 2017 [Reuters]Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran, Iran, April 14, 2017 [Reuters]

Saeid Golkar is a lecturer at the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University.

The upcoming presidential election in May 2017 will determine not only Iran’s policies in the short term but also the future direction of the Islamic Republic. Based on the result of this election, Iran can move towards either a more theocratic, militaristic regime or a more democratic, electoral one.

Many of Iran’s observers have analysed elections through the binary lens of moderates v hardliners. From this viewpoint, the primary candidates who can pass the filter of the Guardian Council, a conservative institution responsible for endorsing the final candidate list, belong to two groups: hardliners and moderates.

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Right now, three main candidates are running: incumbent President Hojatoleslam Hassan Rouhani from the moderate wing; and Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Ghalibaf, both hardliners.

Raisi is the national prosecutor-general and the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, while Ghalibaf is the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s national police, and current Mayor of Tehran.

However, the binary of moderates and hardliners is no longer a useful paradigm with which to understand Iranian politics. It cannot explain the difference among hardliner candidates; nor can it predict Iran’s political future.

To better understand Iran’s politics, it helps to examine which power bloc each candidate belonged to before running for office: the clergy, the technocrats, or the military/security forces.

Since 1979, these three blocs and the interactions between them have shaped Iranian policy. Three forms of alliances have arisen from the interactions between these groups: the clergy-military, the clergy-technocrats and the military-technocrats.


In the 1980s, the clergy-military alliance was the dominant axis, and the clergy had the upper hand therein. In the 1990s, power shifted in favour of the technocrats and against the Revolutionary Guard.

During the Hashemi Rafsanjani period (1989–1997), the clergy-technocrats alliance was dominant, and the clerics had more weight. However, during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), this alliance changed to a technocrat-clergy alliance in which the bureaucrats had the upper hand.

The power shifted again under Ahmadinejad as the IRGC-bureaucrats alliance became the most influential group and political base of his hardliner administration (2005-2012). Currently, under Rouhani’s presidency, technocrats have returned to power and are responsible for shaping government policy, while the IRGC has become marginalised, at least in the administration.

Using this framework, we can categorise the main presidential candidates in three categories: some are close to the clerical network (Howzeh), while others are close to the bureaucracy or military. For example, Hassan Rouhani represents the clergy-technocrat alliance; Raisi, the clergy-military/security alliance; and Ghalibaf – the security/military-technocrats alliance.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, is also closer to the alliance of the clergy and the military (IRGC). This explains his appointment of Raisi as the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine, the wealthiest conglomerate foundation in Mashhad. Raisi also has a good relationship with the IRGC and the Basij militia, as well as the Iranian judiciary.