top of page


Jun 17, 2024



Iran’s “election circus” — as it is known in Farsi — is in full swing with a total of six candidates being approved by the supreme leader-controlled vetting body, the Guardian Council. These six have not held back in backstabbing each other, and the knives will be on full display in the coming weeks.

Indeed, this circus is being tacitly encouraged by the regime in order to give create the illusion of political competition in their authoritarian system. But behind the scenes, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already laid out his expectations.

And of the six candidates, only two have the characteristics and relationships that meet Khamenei’s criteria: Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

Jalili and Ghalibaf both belong to the hardline inner core of the regime. Jalili was the former hardline nuclear negotiator and is the current representative of the supreme leader in the Supreme National Security Council — the most important foreign and security policymaking body. Jalili built his reputation as uncompromising and unapologetically ideological in his approach to the regime’s nuclear program.

Ghalibaf rose to power as a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and former head of the Islamic Republic’s police force. He has been a key cog in the domestic suppressive machinery throughout successive anti-regime protests in Iran.

The former mayor of Tehran is best known for the numerous corruption scandals he and his family have been involved in. Ghalibaf, who currently serves as the speaker of the Iranian parliament, owes has political survival to the Office of Supreme Leader, which has, until now, always intervened to save his face from corruption scandals.

For Khamenei, both Jalili and Ghalibaf are two sides of the same coin. Both can be trusted and controlled to implement the supreme leader’s longer-term plan, which is ultimately what the new president’s purpose will be.


The Second Phase

Five years ago, Khamenei set the 45-year-old Islamic Republic on course for the “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution.” At the heart of this project, laid out in a manifesto of the same name, is Khamenei’s goal to completely personalize power across every branch of the Islamic Republic, from political institutions to the military and bureaucracy. This, he anticipates, will consolidate the ayatollah’s elites and deliver a smooth and orderly succession, ensuring Khamenei’s ideology outlives him.

In the past five years, Khamenei has instigated a “purifying” process by installing a new generation of Khamenei absolutists — the so-called “Javan va hezbollahi” (young and ideologically hardline) class. Ebrahim Raisi’s de facto appointment as president in June 2021 was part of this project. This cleansing process even forced out regime loyalists — including former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and former president Hassan Rouhani — from the inner core of the regime.

This manifesto — which has not received sufficient attention in the West — has been at the front and center of Khamenei’s mind in the past five years despite all the other internal and external pressures on his regime. And he has invested a significant amount of time, resources, and political capital to realize it.

As Khamenei has repeatedly asserted, the Islamic Republic has a determined “railway track” (railgozari) that cannot be altered. That predestined journey is precisely the “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” manifesto. And it is an agenda that senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders — not least the security and intelligence agents responsible for neutralizing elite disobedience — have wholeheartedly committed to. From Khamenei’s perspective, the recent death of Raisi simply means the train conductor is dead. The railway track has not been disrupted.

This is not to say the president’s death was insignificant: Khamenei had spent decades grooming and investing in his loyal protégé as a potential successor. Now, the 85-year-old ayatollah urgently needs another “safe” pair of hands to continue the journey. The presidential elections on June 28 will, in reality, be a direct selection by the supreme leader to advance the path of his “Second Phase” manifesto. In this regard, we can be almost certain that the next president will belong to Khamenei’s “young and hardline” cult of personality.

Khamenei’s Headache

This rules out the idea of a “political opening,” which some observers have speculated about. Still, the coming weeks will be a headache for Khamenei.

Even after establishing his cult of personality, the aging ayatollah had worked tirelessly to consolidate his elites and avoid potential jostling for influence. But until the new president is selected this is inevitable. Like sharks that smell blood, the various Khamenei-controlled oligarchic clans have already started tearing into each other.

But the ayatollah needs someone with identical characteristics as the late puppet president Raisi: ideologically committed enough to guarantee the implementation of his manifesto, but weak enough to be completely controlled by himself and his office (the bayt-e rahbari).

In other words, there are certain boxes candidates will have to tick in order to gain Khamenei’s blessing. And, in the past few days, those in the inner circle of the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have shed light on the specifics.

First and foremost, according to hardline cleric Abdollah Haji-Sadeghi — the supreme leader’s representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — that person, like Raisi, needs to display “blind obedience” (tabod dar velayat) to Khamenei without challenging him or his policies. This seems to rule out the self-proclaimed “reformist” Masoud Pezeshkian, a current member of parliament who has gained endorsement from so-called “reformist” elites, the likes of former foreign minister Javad Zarif.

The only thing that can explain the rationale behind Pezeshkian gaining approval as a candidate from the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council — which vets all candidates — is to increase political participation without actually challenging the supreme leader’s plan.

Khamenei’s circle likely calculated that Pezeshkian does not have a constituency and therefore does not pose a genuine challenge to the supreme leader’s preferred candidates. While a high turnout could potentially disrupt this engineered plan and work to Pezeshkian’s advantage, it is extremely unlikely. Moreover, such a result can always be undone by Khamenei, as seen in the rigging of the 2009 vote.

Khamenei needs the next president to be a rubber stamp — and his office has made this absolutely clear. Last week, Alireza Panahian, a senior member of the supreme leader’s office, asserted the president must be ready to “sacrifice themselves” for Khamenei and know that they are simply “the head of 300,000 bureaucrats.” In other words, the next president needs to be unambitious and know the limits of his authority.

Competing Candidates

With this criteria in mind, there are four candidates that fit this specification: Jalili, Ghalibaf, Alireza Zakani (the incumbent Guard-affiliated Tehran mayor), and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi (head of the Martyr’s Foundation). The competition between these four candidates will not only mobilize the very small social base of the Islamic Republic — creating the illusion of competition — but will provide the regime with a propaganda opportunity to “legitimize” itself in the eyes of the international community.

All of these candidates meet the supreme leader’s criteria. The key factor determining their fate will be their own relationships with the office of the supreme leader, including Khamenei’s power-hungry son and likely successor Mojtaba, and the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Out of the four names above, two have a close relationship with both the office of supreme leader and the guard: Ghalibaf and Jalili.

In other words, the main competition will be between these two candidates, both of whom hail from Khamenei’s home province of Khorasan. Ghalibaf has a closer relationship with the older cohort of the guard, while Jalili is much more popular amongst the group’s younger generation and the Islamist constituency.

Beyond his lack of social base within the small Islamist constituency of the regime, the main barrier for Ghalibaf to become the next president is his track record on corruption, which is widely criticized by the younger Islamist base of the regime.

That being said, having been among the top political elite in the past three decades, Ghalibaf is a more familiar face than Jalili among the wider public. This could work to his advantage, not least among uneducated Iranians in more rural areas, who only obtain their information from state-controlled state television and radio.

Against this backdrop, at least on paper, Jalili represents the closet manifestation of a Raisi 2.0 for Khamenei. He is a profoundly ideological figure with very little personality of his own. Whenever Jalili has suffered setbacks — including losing elections and even being disqualified — he has quietly accepted defeat and never called into question Khamenei’s policies.

He comes with significant bureaucratic experience and strong ties to the new cohort of indoctrinated technocrats — known as the Imam Sadeghis — who have packed out the bureaucracy as part of Khamenei’s purification process. The former nuclear negotiator also has very strong ties to Khamenei’s office and is in fact the supreme leader’s representative to the Supreme National Security Council — the highest foreign and security policymaking body in the Islamic Republic.

Jalili also has a very close relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and served in the guard’s domestic militia, the Basij. Ironically the only thing that works against the hardline zealot is the fact that some elites within the regime consider him too much of an Islamist extremist even for the standards of the Islamic Republic. For Khamenei, though, this may work in Jalili’s favor.

No matter who the aging ayatollah de facto appoints to succeed Raisi as president — be it Jalili or Ghalibaf — one thing is certain: Khamenei’s determined “railway track” will not be altered by the next president. If anything, the election result may reveal the supreme leader’s view on the performance of the young and hardline managerial class.

If Jalili wins, it indicates Khamenei’s complete satisfaction with Raisi’s bureaucratic administration, which enabled the rise of a new generation of indoctrinated technocrats. However, if Ghalibaf is victorious, the main takeaway will be that the supreme leader is not fully sold on the bureaucratic capabilities of his younger cult of personality and is instead leaning towards relying more on the older and more experienced guard cohort and traditional hardliners. Either way, there will only be one real winner in the upcoming “vote” — Khamenei himself.



Saeid Golkar is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran, and UC Foundation associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and a Writing Fellow at Middle East Forum.

Kasra Aarabi is director of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps research at United Against Nuclear Iran. He is working on a doctoral degree at the University of St Andrews, where his research focuses on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

bottom of page