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Rouhani’s path to a second term in Iran

by Kevjn Lim

Hassan Rouhani
On 20 April, Iran’s Guardian Council slashed the list of 1,636 applicants hoping to run in the 19 May presidential election down to six candidates. The finalists include Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president; Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative custodian of the highly influential Imam Reza Foundation; Mohamed-Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor; Es’hagh Jahangiri, Rouhani’s centrist vice-president; and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba and Mostafa Mir-Salim, centrist and conservative former ministers, respectively. Of those removed from the list, the most notable is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who against the wishes of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, recently declared that he would run alongside his former vice-president, Hamid Baghaei.

If the 2013 elections are any indicator, moderate candidates will now coalesce around Rouhani. That year, Mohammed-Reza Aref, current head of the reformists’ Hope List parliamentary faction, withdrew in support of Rouhani. This year, Jahangiri and Hashemi-Taba could well follow suit given that the reformist faction, which has generally backed moderate centrists, has already announced that it would throw its weight behind Rouhani. Without explicitly saying so, Ali Larijani did the same. He is the conservative speaker of parliament who has been gradually distancing himself from the hardliners.

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According to some reformists, Jahangiri’s candidacy was really just a Plan B in case the Guardian Council rejected Rouhani. The same might be said of Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, another moderate-centrist former minister, who unsuccessfully ran in the 2001 elections that saw Mohammad Khatami’s re-election as president.

Over the coming weeks, such manoeuvring should clear the field for Rouhani to take on a conservative challenger. In Iran, although the candidates for the presidency are selected by the Guardian Council in consultation with the supreme leader, the competition after the list is set is mostly unscripted.

The challengers

The centrist-reformist camp will face off against three conservatives: Ghalibaf, Raisi and Mir-Salim. All are associated with the Popular Front for the Forces of the Islamic Revolution, known by its Persian acronym JAMNA, an umbrella group founded in late 2016 for the express purpose of contesting Rouhani in the 2017 elections.

Raisi, a 57-year-old mid-level cleric who is touted as the leading conservative candidate, is close to the supreme leader, under whom he studied for 14 years. He has also increasingly been noted as a possible choice for the third supreme leader. His black turban marks him as a Seyyed, one who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and his mostly judicial government positions have included prosecutor-general, chief of the General Inspections Office, and, since 2006, member of the Assembly of Experts, which will select Khamenei’s successor. In March 2016, Khamenei also tapped him to replace the late Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi as custodian of Iran’s richest and most important religious charitable foundation, Astan-e Ghods-e Razavi (also known as the Imam Reza Foundation, which manages Iran’s holiest site, the Eighth Shiite Imam Reza’s Mausoleum). Raisi is only the second person to occupy this position since the Iranian revolution.

However, despite support from conservative clerical power centres, including the influential Combatant Clergy Association, the Qom Seminary Teachers’ Society, and even the Steadfastness Front, which is chaperoned by the ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, Raisi remains little known among average Iranians. What is widely known – as Tehran’s deputy prosecutor, he allegedly co-presided over a large number of executions at the Evin prison in 1988 –could as much repel some voters as attract others.

At 56, Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor for the last 12 years and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ air force and the Khatam ol-Anbiya economic conglomerate, is running for the presidency for a third time. His strength lies in his name recognition and his executive experience. But his ambitions could be derailed by a real estate corruption scandal that erupted in August last year and implicated Tehran’s municipal government. The collapse of Tehran’s Plasco building this January, which reportedly killed between 20 and 30 people and wounded scores more and some blamed on his mismanagement, could also hurt his chances. For some, his past also has its dark spots: during the 1999 student unrest, Ghalibaf famously took to the streets brandishing a club. A year later, he assumed command of Iran’s police forces. If that and the other allegations do not get in the way, Ghalibaf could present the biggest threat to Rouhani. (In 2013, he came in second to Rouhani, albeit by a wide margin.)

Mir-Salim, the third conservative candidate, is a 69-year-old French-educated engineer who held high government posts in the early 1980s, including head of Iran’s police and adviser to Khamenei, who was then president. His subsequent stint as minister of culture and Islamic guidance for President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani came amid a forceful crackdown on the reformist press. However, Mir-Salim’s current political tendencies are less certain; some have suggested that he might end up shoring up Rouhani the way conservative candidate Ali Akbar Velayati inadvertently did in 2013, when he uncharacteristically attacked fellow conservative and presumed supreme leader favourite Saeed Jalili over his rigid approach to nuclear negotiations.

Iran’s conservatives will remember the 2013 elections with some embarrassment. One of their five (from among eight finalists) withdrew, and the others failed to unite behind a consensus candidate, grievously splitting the conservative vote. If they learned their lesson, then at least one if not two of the candidates is likely to withdraw as it becomes clearer who the favourite is. Indeed, while JAMNA officially proposed a slate of five candidates, an internal statute clause also calls for the candidates to cede to a consensus figure. As things stand, however, neither Raisi nor Ghalibaf appears willing to give way, although at least one observer believes Raisi could be a mere cipher to help boost Ghalibaf’s prospects.

A ‘resistance economy’

Whomever the vote comes down to, the main issue in this election remains the state of the economy. Since the 2015 nuclear deal credited to Rouhani’s government, Iran’s crude oil sector has nearly recovered to pre-sanction production levels of four million barrels per day. In February this year, exports even fleetingly brushed three million barrels per day for the first time since 1979. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s GDP grew by 7.4% between April and September 2016, though such growth was hardly surprising given the already low starting point. Conversely, the country’s non-oil economy sputtered along with an average annual growth rate of only 0.9% in 2016, widely blamed on the reluctance of the world’s major banks to re-engage Iran.

What is worse, the benefits of Iran’s relative economic rebound have yet to percolate down to ordinary Iranians. According to official statistics, unemployment has risen slightly to about 12.7% (30% for youth) over the past two years, though inflation has dropped compared to the Ahmadinejad period. Beyond that, environmental problems, often aggravated by underdevelopment and overexploitation – not necessarily Rouhani’s doing – are approaching critical levels. Just last February, a freak dust storm incapacitated the relatively neglected Khuzestan province, home to many of Iran’s oil deposits and its largest community of ethnic Arabs, triggering mass anti-government demonstrations.

Unsurprisingly, then, in his Persian New Year speech in March, a critical Khamenei charged that the government’s economic policies had fallen short of his and the people’s expectations. He extolled instead the virtues of a ‘resistance economy’, one that in his telling would outflank external sanctions and instead transform adversity into increased self-sufficiency.

Overseas, the United States remains the key external influence on Iran’s elections. The US president, Donald Trump, has yet to set out his Iran policy, but top officials, including the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and secretary of defence, James Mattis, have begrudgingly acknowledged Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement while also denouncing its regional activities. Compounded with US sanctions, every hostile pronouncement from the White House or Congress, and certainly any suggestion that the United States would rescind or renegotiate the nuclear deal, will only undermine Rouhani and vindicate the conservatives’ accusations of American duplicity.

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One way Rouhani has sought to neutralise the United States’ threats is by closing ranks with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a move motivated as much to diminish the prospects of a Trump-Putin entente as by shared strategic interests in Syria’s war. On the latter, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently made it plain that Russia could use Iran’s bases for strikes against Syria’s opposition after an awkward controversy last August over Russian sorties flying out of Hamedan.

Rouhani’s prospects

Assuming that Rouhani sweeps the centrist vote, he stands a fighting chance of re-election against Raisi and Ghalibaf. In terms of the economy, Raisi’s year-long experience at the helm of the Imam Reza Foundation is likely to give him little advantage, given that such foundations are notorious for their lack of accountability. Furthermore, Raisi, unlike Rouhani, has yet even to cut his teeth in international politics. Unless Raisi stands down, Ghalibaf’s electoral prospects will remain diluted at best, never mind the allegations of graft against him. But, as Brexit and Trump suggest, surprises can happen.

As for Ahmadinejad, his rejected candidacy is a boon to both rival camps, given how his feisty brand of cash-handout populism could have poached votes from both the conservative electorate and from Rouhani’s supporters who are disgruntled with the state of Iran’s economy. Yet, despite the mess he bequeathed to the economy, his Messianist heterodoxy, and his repeated recalcitrance in toeing Khamenei’s line, Ahmadinejad’s seeming popularity among Iran’s disadvantaged classes gives him leverage in future attempts to challenge the establishment.

It is hardly a matter of controversy that the Supreme Leader holds the final word on security and foreign policy. But Iran’s history since the late 1980s suggests that the electorate’s choice of president can significantly influence domestic life and Iran’s relations with the world. For instance, Khatami and Ahmadinejad, both under Khamenei and in the face of domestic opposition, implemented drastically different visions of Iranian society and statecraft. The same yawning gulf now stands between Rouhani’s re-election and a hardline victory.

This article by Open Briefing senior analyst Kevjn Lim was originally published by Foreign Affairs on 28 April 2017.