May 15, 2017 | Memo

Iranian Presidential Election Primer

FDD Research

Download the full memo here. 


Iranian presidential elections happen every four years and follow a strict sequence. The first phase is registration, which this year lasted from April 10 to 14. During that time, over 1,600 candidates formally registered. Yet only six candidates, all of them male, were approved to run by Iran’s Guardian Council, the organ that vets candidates for public office. The next phase – which we are currently in – is the campaign phase. This year’s campaign period lasts from April 28 to May 17, with campaigning not permitted on May 18, the day before the election. The final phase is election day, which is May 19. Should no candidate attain a majority of votes on election day, a runoff contest between the two frontrunners will be held a week later. 

Elections in Iran

While the Islamic Republic is both illiberal and autocratic, the country allows for narrow but competitive elections for select positions, like many authoritarian regimes. These contests serve different parts of the Iranian polity. For the establishment, they are an opportunity to flaunt “popular legitimacy” and remind domestic and international audiences that they remain the product of a social revolution. Hardline Iranian elites vehemently believe that the electoral process matters more than any personality the process can produce. For the Iranian people, however, elections have always been a choice between options that range from “bad to worse” since the Guardian Council determines who may run.

The Iranian Presidency

By constitutional decree, the president is the country’s second most powerful official. However, as an elected official, the president is checked by a host of unelected institutions, at the apex of which sits the supreme leader. The supreme leader retains the constitutional authority and power to override the president through formal and informal means, the latter of which consists of public rebuke or behind-the-scene maneuvers made relatively easy by the supreme leader’s vast shadow government. 

The Iranian president is not the commander-in-chief. In fact, Iran’s military command and control bypasses the office of the president in favor of the supreme leader. And in the realm of foreign policy, the president’s powers are now limited to rhetoric and the personnel he appoints to his cabinet. The president can amend the country’s tactics, not strategies.