The Evolution of the Presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Insights from Iran 1400 Project Contributors

The Evolution of the Presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Insights from Iran 1400 Project Contributors

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The evolution of the presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran reflects the country’s complex internal dynamics and evolving relationships with global powers. Following President Ibrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter accident on May 19, 2024, the Islamic Republic of Iran is set to hold elections for his successor on June 28, 2024. In anticipation of this event, this post compiles a variety of insights from Iran 1400 Project contributors about the presidency, with a particular focus on the democratic integrity of elections, power struggles with the supreme leader, and foreign policy approaches. The analysis reveals that Iranian presidential elections, while never fully democratic, have grown increasingly less so, with Ra’isi’s election marking “the first in decades to be truly non-competitive.” Furthermore, it underscores Khamenei’s growing influence over foreign policy and his tightening control over the presidency over time.


Who Elects the President?

While Iranian citizens can vote in presidential elections, their influence is constrained by the vetting process of candidates and the influence of the supreme leader. 
The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is characterized by two main pillars: the republican and theocratic. The republican pillar includes institutions like the parliament and a president elected directly by the people. In contrast, the theocratic pillar encompasses bodies such as the Guardian Council and the supreme leader, who wields significant, unchallenged authority. Despite the formal republican structure, the theocratic pillar often exerts dominance by vetting candidates and shaping electoral outcomes, limiting genuine democratic choice. Iranian elections exhibit some variability, but they typically present voters with a narrow spectrum of options: reformists (the lesser evil) versus conservatives and hardliners (the larger evil). The reformist faction, although officially part of the regime, has struggled to fulfill its promises and is perceived as ineffective in bringing about significant changes. This perception has fueled widespread public dissatisfaction, leading to protests that criticize not only the political system but also the reformists’ role within it.

The Raisi government, led by President Ibrahim Raisi since 2021, marks a shift in Iran’s electoral landscape, characterized by the first truly non-competitive elections in decades. Historically, while Iranian elections were never entirely free or fair, they allowed for competition among different factions of the regime from 1997 to 2017. However, the 2021 elections excluded serious candidates from the reformist and centrist sides, including prominent figures like Ali Larijani. One of the reasons Khamenei orchestrated Raisi’s presidency by eliminating virtually any other viable candidate was to control succession. If a reformist or expedient had become president, they would have gained more power to influence the selection of the next Supreme Leader. 


Presidents of the Islamic Republic of Iran  

1979-1989: Abdolhassan Banisadr, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, and Ali Khamenei 

Abolhassan Banisadr, the former minister of foreign affairs of Iran’s interim government served as the Islamic Republic’s first president, beginning his term in February 1980. Often clashing with the Islamic Republic Party, the Majles impeached him in June 1981 for his opposition to clerics serving in Iran’s political establishment. Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who had served as Banisadr’s prime minister, filled the position on August 2, 1981, only to be assassinated 28 days later. Future supreme leader Ali Khamenei succeeded him, but his influence was overshadowed by Prime Minister Hossein Mousavi, whose role was merged with the presidency in 1989.


Various presidents have complained about their limited ability to shape foreign policy despite being elected officials. Since becoming supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei has preferred to avoid sharing influence over policy-making, leading to conflicts with successive presidents. For example, he has consistently thwarted attempts by various Iranian leaders to establish direct communication with the Americans. For instance, he obstructed Mohammed Khatami, who coined the phrase “dialogue of civilizations,” from engaging directly with the U.S. Khamenei’s distrust extended even to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became president largely due to Khamenei’s backing. Despite Ahmadinejad’s initial support, Khamenei curtailed his ambitions for an independent foreign policy during his second term. This pattern underscores Khamenei’s focus on maintaining the power of the supreme leader’s office, sidelining both reformist figures like Khatami and hardline populists like Ahmadinejad to protect his narrow set of interests

Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997) 

During Arkbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, often called the “Reconstruction Period,” Iran maintained the ideological principle of “exporting the revolution” while pragmatically focusing on economic reconstruction and navigating international relations. The government aimed to attract foreign investments and manage post-war challenges, shifting from physical revolution exportation to promoting Islamic revolutionary ideals globally. President Hashemi-Rafsanjani adopted a strategy of “calculating realism,” evident during crises like the Gulf War and Iran’s improved relations with Saudi Arabia, a significant achievement marked by cooperation and the hosting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Tehran in 1997. Amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union and the thawing of Cold War tensions, Iran under Hashemi-Rafsanjani avoided aggressive actions, emphasizing stability and diplomacy. Although Iran faced diplomatic strains over terrorist incidents in Europe and Argentina, its pivotal achievement was rebuilding relations with Riyadh, culminating in significant diplomatic milestones that endured beyond Rafsanjani’s presidency into Mohammad Khatami’s tenure.

Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)

During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, which was characterized by a policy of non-aggression and calls for pluralism and détente, Iran aimed to repair its international relations. Despite initial strains with European countries over terrorism allegations, Khatami’s landslide election victory signaled a shift towards rebuilding trust globally. He emphasized reducing mutual distrust and engaged in diplomatic initiatives, including a landmark interview with CNN aimed at improving relations with the United States. However, internal conflicts between reformists and conservatives hindered significant progress in Iran’s Western relations during Khatami’s tenure. His administration promoted “Dialogue Among Civilizations” as a central foreign policy theme, later adopted by the United Nations in 2001, yet this initiative lacked a clear strategy and specific mechanisms. It was mainly promoted through non-political events, focusing on culture and civilization, aimed at reshaping Tehran’s international image. Despite Tehran’s cooperation with Washington during the Afghan invasion and its adoption of cultural diplomacy, Khatami’s efforts were overshadowed when U.S. President George W. Bush controversially labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil,” undermining Iran’s efforts to ease tensions with the West.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)

During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran abandoned its previous policy of de-escalation in foreign relations, adopting a confrontational stance marked by provocative rhetoric and deteriorating international ties. Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel’s disappearance and cooling relations with Saudi Arabia characterized this period, alongside tensions over Persian Gulf islands and Iran’s contentious nuclear program. The 2009 presidential election, marred by allegations of fraud, ignited the “Green Movement,” a series of massive protests brutally suppressed by the government, resulting in fatalities and widespread arrests. Ahmadinejad’s second term was dominated by economic turmoil exacerbated by international sanctions and plummeting currency value. Amid heightened nuclear tensions and regional unrest, Iran’s foreign policy struggled to secure tangible achievements, instead resorting to defiant rhetoric against UN resolutions and facing increasing pressure from Western powers and Israel over its nuclear ambitions.

Iran’s resistance to Western sanctions regimes became evident. Ahmadinejad, known for his staunch anti-Western stance, illustrates how a resistance narrative is deeply embedded in Iranian national interests, despite causing significant economic hardships. Ahmadinejad staunchly opposed any weakening of Iran’s nuclear program. However, in 2012, the Supreme Leader attempted to circumvent the president by initiating secret talks with the United States in Oman. When Ahmadinejad’s presidency ended in 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator with a cleric background and favorable relations with the West, assumed office. Many within Iranian politics believe the Supreme Leader orchestrated the election to ensure Rouhani’s presidency, which indeed came to fruition.

Hassan Rouhani 2013-2021

Khamenei was surprised by the strength of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran from 2010 to 2012, which severely impacted the Iranian economy. He had not anticipated that the U.S. could unilaterally inflict such damage. This realization led him to allow Rouhani to come to power. Facing the economic strain, Khamenei decided that Iran needed a president who could potentially engage in dialogue with the Americans to lift the sanctions. This strategic shift ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

After assuming office in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani’s administration dubbed the “Government of Prudence and Hope,” focused on confidence-building and de-escalation in Iran’s foreign policy to foster a new equilibrium. Rouhani’s major achievement was the JCPOA agreement with Western nations, where Iran agreed to stringent IAEA supervision of its nuclear program in exchange for gradual sanctions relief. However, in spring 2018, the US withdrew from the agreement, initiating a fresh wave of sanctions against Iran.

Initially, it was believed that Raisi’s administration might exhibit increased competence due to its uniformity with the regime. Indeed, it made some diplomatic strides, such as joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and restoring ties with Saudi Arabia. Despite these moves, the administration failed to improve Iran’s economic conditions, which have worsened significantly. Although there was significant grassroots support for Rouhani’s presidency initially, when his administration faltered, he was perceived as inept, and viewed “just like the rest.”

Ibrahim Ra’isi (2021-2024) 

Raisi campaigned on a populist platform promising economic relief to the people, a message supported by the Revolutionary Guard. However, he was perceived as an uncharismatic bureaucratic figure who rose through the regime’s legal and bureaucratic ranks. His past includes a controversial involvement in the execution of political prisoners in the late 1980s, which left him with a significant stigma. Raisi aimed to leverage the presidency as a path to becoming the next Supreme Leader. Despite his ambitions, he lacked substantial popular support, evident from the fact that only around 30% of Iran’s population voted for him in the election. Compared to figures like Rouhani or Khatami, who enjoyed greater popularity both domestically and internationally, Raisi’s appeal was limited. Raisi’s presidency was linked to increasing repression, particularly against women, evidenced by a surge in morality police brutality, as seen when the murder of Mahsa Amini in police custody triggered widespread protests.

Could a Woman Ever be President? 

In the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, it uses the word “rajol” to refer presidential candidates. “Rajol” is an Arabic word that can be translated not only as “man” but also as “person of distinction.” Due to such an ambiguous designation, different interpretations have been made by the Guardian Council— a powerful body of the Islamic Republic that vetoes the eligibility of candidates that has so far interpreted “rajol” as man, thereby effectively barring women from running for the highest office. This reflects broader societal and cultural norms deeply rooted in traditional and religious values.

However, there are evolving interpretations and growing advocacy for gender equality in politics, with movements pushing for a redefinition of “rajol” to include women. The past century in Iran shows a gradual, and at times fiercely opposed, broadening of women’s rights: in 1936, Iran opened its first university, admitting both men and women; in 1963 women were given the right to vote. Even when many women’s rights established under the monarchy were revoked after the Islamic Revolution, progress was made, with women being appointed vice presidents, later named cabinet ministers, and even becoming provincial governors. Although advocacy of women’s rights has typically been associated with political reformists in the Islamic Republic, the fact that politically conservative women have sought to become presidential candidates for the current election shows that the idea is percolating across factional lines. Additionally, international pressure and internal reforms contribute to the gradual shift towards greater gender inclusivity in Iranian politics. Despite challenges, the trajectory suggests a potential future where Iran could elect a female president, building on incremental gains in women’s rights over the decades.



The democratic integrity of Iranian elections continues to decline, illustrating the increasing control of the supreme leader Khamenei over the electoral process. This further entrenches his influence on an institution already heavily under his sway. Consequently, the evolution of the presidency underscores a persistent struggle between theocratic authority and republican elements. As reformist, moderate, and even conservative agendas are consistently constrained, the presidency is shaped to reinforce the centrality of the supreme leader in Iran’s political system.


Sources and Supplementary Materials

Ali Alfoneh – Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Robert Asaadi – Postrevolutionary Iran: The Leader, the People, and the Three Powers

Arash Azizi – What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom

Richa Bhattarai – Can a Woman Become President in Iran? It’s Complicated.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad – Iran in an Emerging New World Order

Masoud Kazemzadeh – The Iran National Front and the Struggle for Democracy

Hooshmand Mirfakhraei – The Quest for Power and Respect: A Survey of Iranian Foreign Policy Since 1921

Andrew Thomas – Iran and the West: A Non-Western Approach to Foreign Policy

Akbar Torbat – Politics of Oil and Nuclear Technology in Iran

Alex Vatanka – The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran

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