Candidates in Iran’s presidential elections have always been strictly vetted, and those deemed insufficiently loyal to the Islamic Revolution were disqualified. Within those limits, contenders held differing views on easing domestic restrictions or dealing with the West, and sometimes the victor was even a surprise.
Now even minor differences that give voters some semblance of a choice appear to have been erased.
The candidates in the election scheduled for June 18 either espouse deeply conservative positions aligned with those of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or are little known, with no voter base and no chance to win.
And one candidate in particular is leading: Ebrahim Raisi, the current judiciary chief, appointed by Mr. Khamenei, who has a long history of involvement in human rights abuses, and who lost in 2013 in a surprise victory by the outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani.
With no credible challenger, Mr. Raisi is expected to win this time. Any serious competition has been winnowed from the race. Even some members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, known for their strong hostility to any political dissent, described the election as anti-democratic.
The Guardian Council, a 12-person body responsible for approving candidates, disqualified anyone who might shift the vote against Mr. Raisi, who, as a prosecutor and as a judge, has overseen the executions of minors and dissidents.
On Thursday, Mr. Khamenei publicly endorsed the Guardian Council’s final decision. He said council members had conducted their duty and called on the public to “not listen to anyone saying it’s useless, don’t go to the election polls, we won’t go.”
The council’s decision and Mr. Khamenei’s endorsement of it have rattled political circles. The reformist party announced for the first time that it has no candidate in the race.
Analysts say Mr. Raisi’s presidency would finalize a plan years in the making for conservatives to consolidate power, take over all branches of the government, marginalize any reform faction and severely restrict the internal power fights within the Islamic Republic.
“Today we are witnessing an unabashed attack on any semblance of republican principles in favor of the absolute power of the supreme leader,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
The appearance of an engineered victory for Mr. Raisi, 60, has prompted louder and wider calls for an election boycott and increased voter apathy among ordinary Iranians. Polls predict a low turnout. The most recent survey conducted this week by the Student Polling Agency, ISPA, showed only 37 percent of voters want to cast ballots.
With Mr. Khamenei’s allies already in control of the Parliament and judiciary, the takeover of the presidency could reshape the current negotiations on how to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement.
President Donald Trump renounced the pact three years ago, in what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign to squeeze more concessions from Iran, but his policy appears to have only strengthened the hard-liners.
President Biden wants to seek a wider agreement with Iran that would constrain not only its nuclear program, but also its missile development and its involvement in conflicts around the region. But Mr. Raisi and his faction oppose making concessions to the West.
What particularly astonished political circles in Iran was the Guardian Council’s disqualification of prominent political figures such as Ali Larijani, a centrist conservative and former speaker of the Parliament, and the current vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, considered a reformist most closely aligned with Mr. Rouhani.
Mr. Larijani belongs to a very prominent political family, and was appointed by Mr. Khamenei to lead negotiations for a 25-year economic deal between Iran and China. Mr. Larijani was seen as a candidate who could attract reformist votes.
While a former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a former government minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the leading reformist candidate, were also disqualified, their removal from the race came as little surprise. Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was once considered close to Mr. Khamenei, has increasingly taken the posture of an eccentric opposition figure. Mr. Tajzadeh, who was imprisoned for several years for his political activism, had called for a revision of the Constitution.
“This is an election coup,” Mr. Tajzadeh said on Wednesday in a virtual town hall he hosted on the Clubhouse communal chat site, attended by at least 12,000 Iranians. “We must all speak up and say people will not accept the legitimacy of the result. People will not participate in this theater.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad has also said he will not vote and has denounced the Guardian Council. “Why don’t you just take out the Republic altogether and say this regime is all ours and nobody has the right to even protest?” said Mr. Ahmadinejad in a live Instagram talk he hosted on Wednesday with an audience of thousands.
Even Mr. Raisi voiced some concern and said that he had lobbied with the Guardian Council to reinstate some of the candidates so that elections would be more competitive.
The council has not made public its reasons for disqualifying candidates and has only said that it approved those deemed suitable to lead the country in the current circumstances.
In early May the council announced new eligibility requirements to narrow the race, excluding anyone who holds dual citizenship, is younger than 40 or older than 75, has a detention record or lacks governing experience.
Kian Abdullahi, the editor in chief of the Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, criticized the Council’s final list of candidates on Twitter, a striking note of discord from a group that has long symbolized Iran’s power base.
He said candidates must be acceptable to the public and that “the people must decide.”
Elections in the Islamic Republic have never been considered democratic by Western definition. Government opponents cannot run, and the process of vetting candidates and counting ballots is not transparent. In 2009, the election result was widely seen as rigged and led to months of anti-government unrest.
But even so, in elections past candidates representing different factions and policies were on the ballot, and the victor was not a foregone conclusion — rivals campaigned and competed vigorously. The public was engaged. Celebrities and pop stars were even enlisted to endorse contenders.
The months leading to presidential elections in Iran typically brought a party-like atmosphere to cities where young people rallied in the streets at night carrying posters, chanting slogans and waving flags of their favorite candidate. The security apparatus tolerated these fleeting moments of open civic discourse, partly because they gave the appearance of a population that endorsed the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy and participated in its elections.
This time around, election fever appears extremely subdued — partly because of the pandemic but also from an underlying apathy. Tehran and most cities are quiet, campaign posters are scarce and rallies and town halls are held online. Iranians have struggled through a year of pandemic mismanagement, slow vaccine enrollment, a collapsing economy and social oppression.
“I don’t know anyone around me who is voting,” said Aliyar, a 44-year-old engineer who asked that his full name not to be used for fear of retribution. “Because it has proved over and over to us that nothing will change with us voting. It’s hopeless.”
Besides Mr. Raisi, the other candidates are Mohsen Rezaee, former commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards; Abdolnasser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s central bank; Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former governor of Isfahan Province; Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, a hard-line lawmaker; Alireza Zakani, a former hard-line lawmaker; and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line conservative and former nuclear negotiator.
Mr. Raisi, Mr. Rezaee and Mr. Jalili have run unsuccessfully for the presidency before. The other candidates are not widely known.
Abdullah Momeni, a Tehran-based political activist aligned with the reform faction, said the final list showed that the hard-line conservatives had strengthened power.
The Islamic Republic, he said, had “displayed a total disregard for public opinion and it’s doing it without paying any cost and crushing all potential chances of dissent.”