As the June polls for Iran’s next president approach, prospective candidates are ramping up their campaign activities and messaging to the public. The election season moves further toward its climax and the nature of the race, as a battle between the hardliner and pragmatist camps, is becoming increasingly clear.
On the one side stands the likes of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, current Speaker of the Parliament and a well known figure amongst the conservatives. Ghalibaf rose through the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to become the head of its Air Force in the late 1990s.
He headed the country’s police force in the early 2000s before switching to politics to become Tehran’s mayor in 2005. Seen by many in the country as the perennial presidential candidate, he has run for the office no less than three times.
Still elements within the regime seem bent on pushing Ghalibaf’s candidacy forward, with IRGC officials attacking other formidable hardliners and even initiating efforts to disqualify some through Iran’s Guardian Council--the body responsible for approving nominees.
Another potential frontman for the hardline camp, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, maintains high levels of popularity among the public and deep connections to regime insiders including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The common denominator between presidential hopefuls such as Raisi, Ghalibaf, and other staunch conservatives is this: they all present effective tools for the IRGC and their loyalists to consolidate their network’s political influence in Iran by taking both the presidency and the Parliament Speaker position.
In contrast to these potential candidates stands the more pragmatists, long-time Iranian politicians who are seeking to move the country away from its ever increasing rouge-like behaviour in the region. Javad Zarif, Iran’s veteran Foreign Minister, is widely perceived as one such figure.
While Zarif’s job has been for many years to be the front man for Iran’s expansionist and aggressive policies, the Foreign Minister himself seems to harbour much more mellow views on how his country should be operating.
In a recently leaked audio recording of an interview by an Iranian journalist, Zarif bemoaned the fact that IRGC and radicals within have usurped nearly all the power in determining foreign policy, his own ministry being left powerless and even out of the informational loop.
Despite the scandalous circulation of the recording (Zarif even issued a public apology for statements he made during the interview), many assert Zarif likely leaked the audio on purpose as an attempt to make his more moderate position known to the public, and indeed the world.
In addition to Zarif, there is Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC general who currently holds the secretariat of the Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council.
Rezaee’s political journey is an interesting one. Firmly within the conservative spectrum of Iranian politics, he has for years been a close regime insider, embodying, as it is known in Iran, the "Revolution Generation", believing and representing the Revolution’s values and vision.
Already before entering politics, Rezaee developed a reputation for not being afraid to challenge regime orthodoxy. He first became known in the circles of Iran’s decision makers in the late 1980s, where as a commander in the Iran - Iraq War, he tirelessly advocated for diplomacy to resolve the conflict, making enemies with IRGC radicals who believed the only legitimate path was active conflict.
During the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he spoke out regularly against the president’s bigoted remarks, and repeatedly criticized his hardline policies both in regards to foreign and domestic issues.
More recently, Rezaee has been an avid supporter of reconciliation with the United States. In a departure from the more rigid demands of some of his colleagues, Rezaee has put forth the goal of resuming talks in return for a commitment from Washington to gradually lift sanctions.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Rezaee laid out his proposal, saying sanctions would have to be lifted monthly during talks, with priority given to financial transactions and oil exports. He proposed the US unfreeze billions of dollars of Iranian funds held in foreign banks as a confidence-building measure.
The former IRGC commander has also made known his opposition to advancing Iran’s nuclear activities, claiming they do a disservice to Iran’s interests, and will eventually force the hand of the international community.
These recent statements in particular by Rezaee are perhaps the most important, especially as far as European nuclear deal signatories are concerned. Rezaee is signalling his readiness to take the pragmatic route and engage with both the United States and the EU.
Furthermore, Rezaee’s more moderate stance seems to be already having an influence on Iranian politics at the highest levels. In Rezaee’s capacity as head of the Expediency Discernment Council, he is responsible for drawing up policies for approval by the Supreme Leader. It is likely Ayatollah Khamenei gave Rezaee his blessing for interviews of this nature, in the hopes that they will help Iran break diplomatic deadlock.
At the very least, Europe's leaders should begin to place Rezaee on their radar. This is a man whose political career has clearly moulded his views and allowed him to integrate a pragmatic approach to Iran’s relationships in the region and globally. Rezaee’s administration would likely be marked by re-engagement with the West and a tempering of hardliner’s expansionist agenda in the region. It could very well be the long awaited opportunity to bridge gaps with Iran severed by years of nuclear-deal conflict and a seemingly never ending slew of regional bouts.
Maja Nilsson is a Stockholm-based MENA consultant and advisor working with clients in the private sector