Elections in Iran: Former IRGC commander emerges as a top contender

In June, the Iranian people will head to the polls to elect a new president after Hassan Rouhani’s term in office comes to an end. Rouhani’s 2013 election had raised high hopes in Iran, as people believed that his moderate approach would improve the economic and social situation in the country, but since then they have been sorely disappointed with his failure to generate any positive change.

With the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left Iranians in a state of distress and struggling economically, Rouhani has lost his popularity. Now, as Rouhani continues to drop in the polls and Iran enters into a new chapter following the Vienna talks with the U.S., which stand a good chance at lifting some detrimental sanctions on particular Iranian financial sectors, the Iranian people are looking elsewhere for new and a promising leadership.

There are several intriguing candidates vying for the position of presidency, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is a well-known figure in the West, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Ghalibaf, and former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaee, who is currently the secretary of the regime’s Expediency Discernment Council.

Naturally, the candidates vary considerably with regard to their political, social, and economic agendas and their public support, and each man has a different relationship with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a man who has ruled the country for over three decades. Indeed, the results of the upcoming election are profusely important given the talks Europe is brokering between Iran and the U.S. regarding a return to the nuclear agreement, and the possibility of restructuring Iran’s economy.

For the West, the most obvious choice is Zarif, but he has yet to make an official announcement regarding his candidacy. Zarif is seen as a boon to the current regime by Iranian elites and leadership. This perception of him was further exacerbated by the leaked tapes, which highlighted Zarif’s true feelings about the Iranian regime and General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force who was killed in an American airstrike in January 2020.

While Zarif seems like the optimal choice to take over the presidency, his chances of being elected are low due to the fact that he does not have much public support and his relationship with the Supreme Leader is tense.

One candidate is coming out as a viable option for voters seeking pragmatic and dependable leadership. Unlike his rivals in the presidential race, Mohsen Rezaee has never been associated with corruption, and this is likely to increase his public support. Rezaee, a former commander of the IRGC and a seasoned politician, enjoys a close relationship with the Supreme Leader, which signals a dedication to help Iran flourish and not lose sight of the country’s deep-rooted religious roots. “Iran seeks the establishment, stability and consolidation of successes and the continued growth of the horizons of progress and independence of the country and right and justice”, said Rezaee.

Rezaee has affiliations with the Resistance Front of Islamic Iran, a prominent political organization in the country, and was previously the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps between 1980-1997. Prior to his joining the IRGC, he was a member of Mansouroun, an Islamist guerilla group, of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. Rezaee’s life-long service in the different ranks of the IRGC and various other national offices places him in a favorable position to lead these bodies in unison and overcome any existing rivalries, as attested to by the leaked tapes.

Indeed, unlike his fellow presidential candidates, Rezaee does not hesitate to express his opinions, even when they are not consistent with policies enacted by the regime. For example, in the context of the talks being held in Vienna regarding the possibility of returning to the nuclear agreement, Rezaee has said that in his view, Iran needs to be guided by the principle of measured progress with the West. In other words, Iran should agree to reverse the steps it has taken in its nuclear program, which are perceived by the West as a violation of the agreement, in return for the gradual lifting of U.S. sanctions.
This approach does not conform with the stance taken by the Supreme Leader, who demands that the American remove the sanctions immediately and without any preconditions before return to its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran Nuclear Deal that was signed in 2015.

This type of demonstrative leadership is sure to increase Rezaee’s popularity amongst Iranian voters. Notably, Rezaee’s increasing popularity is a positive signal to the West, as a more moderate candidate willing to deal with the Europeans and Americans, is certainly a step forward.

It appears as though the upcoming election, which is taking place at a critical intersection for the Iranian regime, has the potential to bring about real change for the Iranian people and country’s status in the international community. All of this depends on whether or not the Iranian people are in favor of constructive change or remain in stagnation under the same hard-line representatives that are keen to keep Iran in its current state.

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