May 09, 2017

BPP’s Nasser Boladai’s Outlook on the 2017 Presidential Elections in Iran

In an op-ed piece on the upcoming Presidential Election, current UNPO President and Spokesperson for the Balochistan People’s Party (BPP), Mr Nasser Boladai, takes an expert look at the internal dynamics at play in preparation for Iran’s elections in May. He comes to the conclusion that – regardless of who wins this year’s competition – the situation for the country’s various non-Persian nationalities is not very likely to improve, partly because considerable power lies in the hands of the country’s religious leader.


Find below an article published by Nasser Boladai (UNPO, BPP):

Iran’s political system discriminates against its citizen based on a variety of criteria, such as gender, religious affiliation, and linguistic and ethnic/national background. In Article 12 of the Iranian constitution it says that “the official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelve Ja’fari School of Thought and this principle shall remain eternally immutable”. This explicit endorsement of a school of Shia Islam alienates the majority of Kurds, Turkmen and Baloch, who are predominantly Sunni, as well as Ahwazi Arabs the majority of which also adheres to a Sunni strand of Islam.

Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution excludes non-Shias and women from holding the office of the President of the country. In effect, this provision in the Constitution bars half of the population from even applying for the position of President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This affects not only women and Sunni Muslims – who already make up more than 20 percent of the population – but also religious minorities like Bahai’s, Jews, Christians, and the Yarsan or Ahl-e Haqq, which together constitute another 3 percent of the Iranian population. Iran’s Constitution thus excludes more than 60 percent of its citizenry from the two most powerful positions in the country, that of the President and of Supreme Leader.

To ensure that the system is not challenged by those groups who are systematically marginalized by the Iranian state, Iran’s political and government system contains mechanisms which hinder the career of those individuals who belong to any of these groups. By way of the Constitution, the Iranian political elite has institutionalized discrimination against non-Shiite and non-Persian sections of the general population.

A widely-used mechanism used to discriminate against ethnic Sunnis is the Gozinesh selection process. Gozinesh is an ideological test requiring candidates for some government jobs to demonstrate allegiance to Shia Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran, including to the concept of Vilayat-e Faghih (“governance of religious jurist”), a concept which is not part of Sunni Islam. Following the Gozinesh procedure de facto excludes Ahwaz, Baloch, Turkmen and Kurds from employment in the government and, in some cases, even from working in the private sector. Some applicants to universities are also subjected to the Gozinesh selection criteria.

During election time, candidates usually to make lofty promises to non-Persian nationalities, such as giving them more freedoms in the cultural, linguistic and economic sphere. Sadly, however, whoever wins the election tends to “forget” about ever having made such promises.

Meanwhile, participation in national and parliamentary elections in Balochistan is particularly low, mostly due to the lack of representation of Baloch people in the central government and administration processes.  Those Baloch who do participate in those elections usually cast their vote for candidates who are not close to the Supreme Leader’s thinking.

Rouhani’s Presidency

The transition of power from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hassan Rouhani has not led to any positive changes on the ground for the people of Balochistan or other marginalized regions. Rather, there has been an increase in extra-judicial killings, executions, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances. Coming from a clerical and security background and having been a member of the National Security Council as representative of the Supreme Leader Khamenei for more than 15 years, the intensification of human rights violations under Rouhani is consistent with his background and hardly comes at a surprise.

In the government, Rouhani to a large extent represents the interests of Iran’s clergy and security forces. His administration is thus dominated by people from Iran’s security agencies and the country’s intelligence service.

The Iranian army as such is non-political and has no economic or political power. In the course of this article, whenever the military and its involvement in politic is mentioned, I refer to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC has a firm grip on areas such as nuclear and missile technologies and also to a large extent controls the economy and Iran’s foreign policy. Khomeini had created the IRGC as a military political-religious force with the aim of “exporting the revolution” in 1979. 

In his 2012 election campaign, Rouhani had promised to implement some of the articles of the Iranian Constitution which aim at benefitting national minorities. He had also stressed the importance of ethnic and religious minority rights and stated that he would include representatives of national and ethnic minorities in his cabinet.

Based on his election promises, people in regions like Balochistan and Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly for Rouhani. In Balochistan, 73 percent of the electorate voted for him, which is 20 percent more than the national average according to the election results published by the regime.

Some had hoped that – for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s 35 years of existence – there would be a minister from a national or religious minority group. But soon after Rouhani had put together his cabinet, it became clear to non-Persian national groups and religious minorities that, once again, they would have no representation at all. Rouhani had furthermore promised that he would give more power to national and religious minorities in their respective provinces. However, in Balochistan even local appointments, such as the position of governor, were not given to people hailing from those regions, but to functionaries from other provinces. In the case of Balochistan, for instance, the individual appointed to the position of provincial governor is a man who is completely unknown in the province and whose name the Baloch first heard off when he Rouhani introduced him as his pick for the position of governor of Balochistan.

After the election, Rouhani’s administration announced that it would hire hundreds of new employees. For the local population, this was another opportunity for Rouhani to stick to his word. If the position of governor and other security appointments had not gone to the Baloch, they at least hoped that Baloch youth could compete for those other jobs. Again, their hopes were disappointed as 98 percent of the people who got hired were non-locals – another disappointment, especially for young Baloch.

Rouhani has many faces, but, sadly, none of them represents justice. Under his regime, the securitization of the Baloch region has increased even further, with the continuation of the construction of a wall between the three parts of Balochistan (in Iran Pakistan and Afghanistan) even physically dividing the Baloch people.

Being an extended arm of the security forces, Rouhani’s administration finds the current situation of suppressing national minorities rather favourable. At a time when the regime was successful in creating an internationally positive atmosphere towards it as part of its presumably “moderate” behaviour regarding the negotiations around the nuclear accord, Tehran recognized that the international community will not criticize the Iranian administration for its human rights violations against national minorities. Already in the past, Iranian governments had been given a free hand by the international community to suppress and violate the Baloch peoples’ human rights in particular – without having to face any criticism or sanctions.

Current election

For this year’s presidential election, only six out of the 1636 who had registered for presidency were approved as candidates by the Guardian Council. The six candidates can be divided into two factions which – to an extent – are interconnected. On the one side, there are the reformists represented by Voice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, prudent conservatives like current President Hasan Rouhani and Mostafa Hashemitaba, as well as conservative functionaries, such as Ebrahim Raisi, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and head of Guards’ airforce and Mostafa Mirsalim, an ultra-conservative.

In the current government establishment, Rouhani represents the clergy and the security services. Rouhani’s administration is dominated by people from Iran’s security forces and the intelligence service.

Rouhani’s rival Ebrahim Raisi represents the clergy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), while Mr Gahalibaf has strong ties to the IRGC and the security agencies.

Some analysts consider the current election one of the most important presidential elections in Iran in recent history. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is 77 years-old and some predict that – given his age and health – his succession will occur during the mandate of the next president.  

Given its powerful position in the country, the president can play a major role in the selection process for a new Supreme Leader.

Some even draw parallels to 1989, when Khomeini passed away to then be replaced by Khamenei.

Others are of the opinion that the situation has changed since 1989, and that nowadays there are various solidified factions who will fight to secure for themselves the highest and most powerful position in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The next Supreme Leader determines the path the Islamic Republic will take after Khamenei. The faction that prevails in his selection will become dominant in Iranian politics for decades to come.

Khamenei has succeeded in playing different factions out against each other. It is not very likely that the next Supreme Leader would have the same power and respect from different factions. It is likely that the next Supreme Leader would be more loyal to its own political faction.

Most experts predict that the person replacing him will be from the conservative group, which is an ally of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and approved by them behind the scenes.

However, some analysts are of the opinion that Khamenei’s successor will not have the same power and authority Khamenei has. They predict that military groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will become more powerful. IRGC already controls the economy, the security and intelligence sector, as well as foreign policy. They predict that, after Khamenei, the clergy will lose the decision-making powers they have enjoyed since the 1979 Revolution.

However, given the overall situation in Iran and the region and the complexity of factionalism within the Islamic Republic of Iran, this time, the succession process could be much more complicated, potentially even violent.

Mr Hojjat al-Islam Ebrahim Raisi is one of the most likely candidates to succeed Khamenei. Reportedly, Mr Raisi is close to the IRGC, but his campaign team tries its best to deny this “rumour”. As candidate, he risks losing to incumbent president Rouhani. If that happens, he would lose the argument of being a popular person who can replace the Supreme Leader. In any case, Iran’s elections are tightly controlled and manipulated. It is thus possible that the regime makes Mr Raisi the winner, thereby paving the way for the succession of Raisi as Supreme Leader. Raisi is only 53-years-old. Some say that his youth works against him because the establishment (clergy, IRGC and intelligence services) do not want a young Supreme Leader who would potentially dominate for the coming 30 to 40 years. According to some experts, the establishment would prefer an old man, with less energy and most likely a shorter period as leader, all of which would give more power to their respective institution.

Political programs

For this election, the presidential candidates did not produce any political program or manifesto. When it comes to their views on national and religious minorities, they have simply not come up with any kind of solution to solve these groups’ grievances. They have not even given any indication that they would fully implement the Iranian Constitution which, in its Article 19, has a provision on teaching non-Persian languages as a school subject in their respective regions.

This time around, the candidates made promises, like wanting to create jobs, without telling the public of any plan on how they would want to do this.  Some, like Mr Raisi and Mr Ghalibaf, have promised to increase the State’s contribution to the poor, who are supposed to be given 45,000 Iranian Tuman, less than US$50 per month.


The next president’s ability to change Iran will be very limited. Anyone who wins on 19 May has to listen to the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is the highest political authority in Iran who coordinates the policymaking process together with the Revolutionary Guards rather than with the country’s executive. The Supreme Leader is the de facto executive office in Iran. Most likely, Iran’s policies will not change much and human rights violations, the country’s strategy of destabilizing the larger region and its interference in the internal affairs of countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will continue.

Most expert are of the opinion that, given the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, each president stays in office for two terms. This would mean that Rouhani will continue for the next 4 years. Still, we have to wait and see who the office of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC prefer this time. Given the age and health of leader Mr. Khamenei, this election is of utmost importance.