There are several Iranian presidential candidates, but only one Khamenei might want

The June 28 presidential election in Iran will be the first of its kind. Since the 1988 constitutional reforms that abolished the prime minister’s office and elevated the presidency, this is the first time that the Islamic Republic is holding an election ahead of schedule.

There have been two key trends in the Islamic Republic’s elections. Inside Iran, one is known as shol kon, seft kon(loosen, tighten). It refers to eight-year intervals of conservative administration followed by eight years of a reformist or pragmatist one. For eight years, the regime increases domestic oppression and hostility toward the free world to rally its conservative base. For the next eight years, marginal social freedoms would give hope for gradual reform, and rhetorical softening of foreign policy would release foreign pressure, through sanctions relief. Until recently, this policy recovered the political capital the regime had spent at home and abroad during the previous eight years of conservative administrations.

This has been the norm since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader, with conservative Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) followed by reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), pragmatist Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), and conservative Ebrahim Raisi (2021-2024).

Raisi’s sudden death in a helicopter crash nearly three years into the job broke this trend. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic feels less of a need to play the same game. Domestically, reformists and moderates cannot rally the people any longer. On the international stage, it’s well-known that the presidency is not a policymaking office. Also, Democratic US administrations give the regime breathing room even if there is a conservative in office—the nuclear negotiations began when Barack Obama and Ahmadinejad were in office in March 2013—and Republicans will increase pressure even if a moderate governs—the Donald Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy began under Rouhani’s presidency in 2018.

Read the rest at the Atlantic Council’s Iran Source.

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