By Pejman Tahoori
July 29, 2020
“If not a soldier of the regime, I consider myself an actor or a player on the regime bench who, if necessary, will one day go into the field and play.” These are the words of Ezatollah Zarghami, the former head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), when asked whether he planned to run for president in 2021.
Most Iranian politicians would probably take a similar view. As they make their promises to the people, whether as a hopeful parliamentarian or a presidential candidate, and pack their bags to head off around the country, they know their future most likely depends on presenting themselves as the Iranian regime’s foot soldiers.
So far, no one has officially announced their candidacy for the 2021 elections. Nonetheless, election campaigns are already underway, with prospective candidates building their support bases and chances for victory, including gaining favor with those who hold the pursestrings of the public treasury. Already, there is a solid number of hopefuls getting warmed up on the sidelines, hoping to be seen as a key player in the regime’s future.
So who are the men already setting their sights on the presidency?
1- Ebrahim Raeesi
Before Ebrahim Raeesi took over as head of the judiciary in 2019, he was the most viable candidate for the 2021 elections, able to gain the support of the principlist conservatives in the 2017 elections, as well as a wide support base among some parts of the electorate. However, when he became the head of the judiciary, his chances of being nominated decreased. The Supreme Leader appoints the judiciary chief, and it is not a job one can simply abandon in order to pursue a job in another branch of government.
Nevertheless, Raeesi makes his visits to the provinces a high priority, and regularly presents these trips as examples of how he is fighting corruption. In his latest election-focused trip, he traveled to Fars province in June 2020. Previously, as the head of Astan-e Quds Razavi, Iran’s largest and wealthiest foundation, one of his key agendas was the distribution of funds across different provinces, and he always maintained that these initiatives aimed to support Iran’s deprived and underprivileged people. While in his previous job, he did not hesitate to travel to provinces hit by natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes armed with bags full of money ready to hand out to the people.
2- Parviz Fattah
Parviz Fattah, the head of the Mostazafan Foundation, or the Foundation for the Oppressed, is also set to run as a candidate in the 2021 election. He has also regularly traveled to various provinces, posing for souvenir photographs with people suffering from economic hardship and promising them billions in aid. His most recent trip was to Sistan and Baluchistan province in the third week of July, where he once again posed for selfies with the locals. He holds very regular press conferences to get his ideas and policies across to the people, including a plan to release prisoners. Between press conferences, he pushes his image as a friend to the people and a humanitarian by claiming to make regular cash and non-cash donations to disadvantaged and disabled people, claims that have so far remained unproven. Being head of the Mostazafan Foundation has recently given Parviz Fattah an advantage over his rivals, in that he has been able to use the foundation’s wealth to benefit his campaign.
3- Mohammad Bagher Nobakht
Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the vice president and head of the country’s Management and Planning Organization, is less of a frontrunner as the other 2021 presidential candidates. However, he is determined to remain in the game, also boosting his profile in the provinces with regular visits and hefty financial promises. This week, Nobakht embarked on a trip to Zanjan province and announced that 6,646 billion tomans [US$332 million] would be allocated to the province’s production industry. He has denied that his trips outside the capital are politically motivated, saying: “Some of my provincial trips have been the basis for speculation about my plans to take part in the 2021 election. While rejecting it, I would like to remind you I have been traveling to the provinces continuously for the last two years, so the election motive is unfounded. Friendship with the people, the importance of which has always been emphasized by Imam [Khomeini] and the leader, will not be diminished by these baseless speculations.” But it is only natural that potential candidates would deny these trips have anything to do with the election since such an admission would leave them open to accusations of abuse of office and provide a sound reason for that individual to be disqualified from running.
4- Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the newly-elected speaker of the Iranian parliament, is another potential candidate for the 2021 election. Unlike the other potential candidates, he does not have a particularly strong excuse to travel to the provinces because his role in parliament is not an executive role. Yet, like the others, Ghalibaf is well aware of how key these trips are in advancing election prospects and campaigns, particularly from a financial perspective and in terms of gaining the trust of the taxpayers and those who allocate that money. He knows he cannot wait until the election season is officially underway to begin winning over voters outside Tehran. According to Karim Hosseini, Speaker of the House of Representatives of Khuzestan Province, Ghalibaf is due to travel to Khuzestan on his first provincial trip imminently. Prior to this, Member of Parliament Amirabadi Farahani announced the establishment of a provincial travel committee in parliament, adding that the “games should begin.”
Ghalibaf recently outlined his plans during a speech in the presence of the Supreme Leader and in a television interview to mark the fiftieth day of the eleventh parliament. Many people interpreted both appearances as election bids.
Other hopefuls have also embarked on thinly-disguised election tours, as have other members of government, parliamentarians, and judicial and institutional officials with their own political motives, albeit not to do with the presidency. For example, Eshagh Jahangiri, the first vice president, has a certain responsibility embedded in his role that make trips to the provinces a necessity.
For the moment, Raeesi, Fattah, Nobakht and Ghalibaf are the frontrunners, enjoying more opportunities to make an impression among the electorate, not least because they command considerable media attention.
Then there is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who showed an interest in running for president in the last election, and who has made noises about putting himself forward for 2021 too. Ahmadinejad also travels regularly, hosting meetings and briefing people about his plans.
Ezatullah Zarghami, the man who describes himself as a sportsman in the game of Iranian politics, is determined to be a contender, setting up a campaign headquarters for the project, and holding meetings with experts and others who might be able to help him advance.
As 2021 draws closer, politicians will increase these trips outside the capital and improve their strategies to gain support for the electorate throughout the country. But considering the economic devastation across the land, the handling of the coronavirus crisis and the fact that people in the provinces on the whole have tended to suffer the most, can these politicians persuade them to vote for them, or even to vote at all? After all, the country has become more and more disenchanted with Iran’s political and electoral system and processes. Many of these people may simply decide to stay clear of the ballot boxes altogether.