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Who Are The Potential Reformist Candidates For Iran's 2021 Presidential Election?

The leader of Iran's Reformist coalition list for the 2016 parliamentary elections Mohammad Reza Aref (c) shows casting his ballot in Tehran, February 26, 2016. File Photo

Most assessments and predictions so far about Iran's next presidential elections have taken a conservative victory for granted.

Many media outlets have published lists of conservative candidates for the June 18, 2021 elections from among veteran politicians who have already held high offices, as well as younger neo-cons who entered the Iranian Parliament as recently as in May 2020.

However, there is much less discussion in the media about possible reform-minded candidates to run for President in 2021.

Unlike the conservative camp that has branched out into at least four different groups with varying conservative tendencies over the years, the combination of political forces in Iran's once-popular reform camp has remained more or less the same during the past two decades. Two centrist parties, the Executives of Construction and The Moderation and Development Party, as well as one major reformist party the Unity of Nation Party, and the remnants of the Participation Party and national Trust Party which are reminiscent of Iran's political parties in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s.

Conservatives control too many levers of power, from the parliament to religious institutions, election watchdogs and having the advantage of a close alliance with the Revolutionary Guard.

The spokesman for the Executives of Construction party Hossein Marashi has said in a mid-August interview with the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) that the party has plans for the presidential elections but did not name any candidate.

However, politicians close to the party have occasionally named Mohsen Hashemi, the head of the Tehran City Council and a son of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as someone who would be willing to run for president in 2021.

There was also talk of Hashemi's candidacy in 2017 but it was unlikely at the time that he would want to step in the presidential race while like-minded Hassan Rouhani and Es'haq Jahangiri were also competing for the post.

Even if Hashemi, a more or less popular figure, gets the go-ahead to run and his qualifications are endorsed by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, his kinship to President Rafsanjani is not likely to work in his favor considering the fact that Rafsanjani senior he had lost his popularity in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's inner circle.

However, it appears that both the party and Hashemi himself are currently assessing his electability by bringing him to the media spotlight on various occasions.

Close to the same party as an influential politician and one of the few reformists welcomed in Khamenei's household is current vice-president Es'haq Jahangiri. He has never concealed his interest in the post.

Nonetheless, during the past seven years not only he did not have any opportunity to shine in the Rouhani administration, but he has also lost some of his influence in the rivalry over power with Rouhani's Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi. Pointing out his powerlessness, Jahangiri said once that he did not even have the power to replace his secretary.

On the other hand, his biggest achievement, the government rate of exchange now known as "the Jahangiri rate" has been questioned by politicians and businessmen alike as the preferential rate for importing essential commodities was blamed as a source of financial corruption.

Meanwhile, the corruption case against Jahangiri's brother has adversely affected the vice-president's credibility and reputation.

He has also expressed support for a controversial businessman who has acquired industrial plants in Khuzestan Province from the government in questionable circumstances. The man has driven the once plants profitable to insolvency and thousands of his workers have been protesting for months as their wages remain unpaid.

Although Iranian voters are known for their short memory span, still such a track record for Jahangir is not likely to be forgotten easily.

Another reformist figure said to be a contestant in the 2021 presidential election is former vice-president and former MP Mohammad Reza Aref.

Recently he resigned his position as the chairman of the reformists umbrella organization following the state of indecision that left the camp entirely out of the competition in the Iranian parliamentary elections last winter.

Aref was also harshly criticized by reformists and other politicians as well as a range of Iranian analysts for his inaction in the reformist-dominated previous Majles. He said "silence" was his strategy, but the strategy does not appear to have led to anywhere.

His experience of the past four years at the Majles has overshadowed any possible political capital he might have accrued during his career as chancellor of Tehran University, the Minister of Science, President Mohammad Khatami's vice-president and finally the leader of the reform camp at the parliament.

Yet one more prominent reformist figure who might run for president in 2021 is Mostafa Moein, a former presidential candidate whose qualifications were endorsed by the Guardian Council only after Supreme Leader Khamenei intervened. Yet, he won just a few million votes in the 2005 election.

Moein was Iran's Science and Higher Education Minister under Khatami, but he resigned from his post after a major student unrest. One of the biggest criticisms of his performance is that his career is marked by several resignations that cast a shadow of doubt on his resilience as a politician.

Like most prospective candidates, Moein has said that he no plans to nominate himself for the presidential race, but he certainly has political ambitions. His latest effort was his candidacy for the Majles in 2016. But he was disqualified by the Guardian Council. A fate that might be awaiting him if he decides to run.

Looking at the uncertain political fortunes of potential reformist candidates, perhaps there is a reason why most assessments and predictions so far have taken for granted a conservative victory.

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    Behrouz Turani

    Behrouz Turani is a British-Iranian writer and journalist as well as a consultant on Iran's political dynamics and the Iranian media landscape.