Presidential Elections in Iran: What is at Stake?

Presidential Elections in Iran: What is at Stake?
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As a general rule, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic system in Iran, following the fall of the monarchy in 1979, presidents have served two terms. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was allowed to serve his second term to the full, although his ideas, especially his presentation of an Iranian School of thought (Maktab e Irani) supposedly as a substitute to revolutionary Islam, and his challenging of the foundations of the Velayat e Faghih (The Guardianship of the Jurist), by claiming direct communication with the Mahdi, had seriously antagonized the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of Iran’s economy and foreign policy had nearly bankrupted the state and exposed it to the threat of possible US military attack.

It was under these circumstances that Hassan Rouhani entered the presidential elections in 2013 and was elected president. In the course of his four years at the helm of Iran’s executive branch, Rouhani has succeeded in vastly diminishing, if not totally removing, the risk of an American attack on Iran by reaching an agreement with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany over Ian’s nuclear program. By signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Rouhani’s administration has also succeeded in increasing Iran’s oil sales and recovering at least some money owed to Iran by its trading partners, but which because of international sanctions were not available to it.

For Iran’s hardliners, the JCPOA was a hard pill to swallow. The Revolutionary Guards were especially angry at this particular achievement of the Rouhani administration. The IRGC, which has a dominating role in Iran’s economy and insists on getting all contracts for large-scale infrastructural and other projects, was concerned that after the JCPOA and an improvement in Iran’s relations with the West, their monopoly would end. Other hardliners were concerned about the alleged moral contamination of the society as a result of greater contacts with the West. The Supreme Leader had only reluctantly and out of absolute necessity agreed to such a deal as the JCPOA.

Consequently, only days after the signing of the JCPOA the hardliners, notably the IRGC, embarked on provocative actions aimed at ensuring that the JCPOA will not be followed by any improvement of ties with the United States. The missile test almost immediately after the signing of the nuclear deal, and the capture and humiliation of American sailors, was decidedly aimed at undermining Rouhani’s efforts to improve Iran’s relations with America.

However, peoples’ expectations of the JCPOA and its speedy impact on their lives were highly unreasonable, especially that the hardliners did all they could to undermine Rouhani’s efforts to move beyond the JCPOA, and begin a dialogue with the Obama administration. Therefore, many restrictions on economic interaction with Iran, in particular banking and financial operations remained unchanged. The result was that there was no rush to invest in Iran, including its energy industry, and consequently no significant uptake in growth and employment.

President Rouhani’s hardline rivals did not wait long before attacking the JCPOA and its meager economic results. Difficulties created by the United States directly and indirectly to deal with Iran, plus the resumption of a tougher posture by the Trump administration towards Iran, provided the hardliners with excuses to remind Rouhani of America’s unreliability. Needless to say, the hardliners did not make any connection between the limited results of the JCPOA and their own obstructions to better relations with America.

Hardliners gleefully pointed out that trusting America is a mistake as is looking to the West for Iran’s economic progress. They insisted that only a resistance economy and Jihadi management could solve Iran’s problems. Initially, such statements were not very serious. But now the Supreme Leader is also voicing them. He just recently said that those responsible for the country should not look to foreigners for Iran’s progress. More ominously and in a direct rebuff to Rouhani, he said that those who say that the JCPOA removed the threat of war from Iran are wrong, thus dismissing Rouhani’s greatest achievement.

Considering the above observations and the entry of Hojat ul Islam Ibrahim Raeisi into the presidential race has somewhat clouded the prospects of President Rouhani’s re-election. Raeisi is the head of the vastly rich and prestigious complex centered around the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam Ali ibn Musa al Riza. Moreover, he is seriously considered as a potential successor to the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. For him, to enter the race without being assured of victory is a considerable risk. However, there is also the possibility that, because he is not well-known by the public, he entered the race to gain more exposure as part of his grooming as Khamenei’s successor. It is significant that he is running as an independent, although his views correspond more to those of the principlists. This might be because a future Supreme Leader should be above politics and factionalism.

The other candidate, Mohamad Baghir Ghalibaf, a twice-defeated presidential candidate, whose reputation as an effective mayor of Tehran has taken a hit in recent months, is much less of a challenge. He does not have the Leader’s absolute confidence, like Raeisi does, especially after a rather flashy and modern campaign that he ran in 2003.

Rouhani’s advantages lie generally in the fact that an overwhelming majority of Iranians, and not just the young urbanites, are tired of extremism, social, cultural and political restrictions, low economic expectations and foreign threats, including from Iran’s neighbors. They are tired of how Iran’s neighbors and rivals have exploited its problems with America and have worked to pressure it and gain unfair advantages. They want a more open society, better economic conditions, and greater contacts with the outside world. They do not want to see Iran turn into another North Korea.

Moreover, more moderate principlists, including the speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, support Rouhani. The reformists are also behind Rouhani, despite the candidacy of Ishagh Jahangiri. Therefore, at the very least, Rouhani should be able to garner more than fifty percent of votes even in the first round and certainly in a second round.

The question, therefore, is how determined the hardliners, especially the IRGC, are to get rid of Rouhani. Although, if they do so in the face of popular support for him, they could face another situation similar to that of 2009. In view of the current regional and international conditions, and President Trump and his advisers talk of regime change in Iran, such a situation might not be as easily settled as before. However, this is a remote possibility as everyone wants to avoid social and political tensions.

Therefore, if Rouhani campaigns successfully, and convinces the skeptics why he still is the best choice, he should garner sufficient votes to win a second term.

In the case of his re-election, Iran will continue on the road of moderation domestically and constructive engagement with the outside world, especially Europe, in addition to its traditional partners like China and Russia. However, there is the risk that even if he is re-elected, his ability to pursue his policies might be undermined by pressures from the hardliners, especially the IRGC, as they undermined Muhamad Khatami’s far more reformist and progressive policies.

However, even in the case of a victory for Raeisi, there will be no excessive closing of Iran’s social and cultural scene. For instance, Raeisi has tried to reassure women by pointing out his own wife who is an educated professional woman. Nor will Iran embark on adventurism abroad. After all, if Rouhani was able to reach the agreement on the JCPOA, it was because the IRGC and the Supreme Leader supported this effort. Moreover, even under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s radicalism did not go much beyond the rhetoric, although even that was disastrous enough.

In summary, in Iran, there are still red lines beyond which no president no matter how progressive can move. At the moment, relations with America and reconsideration of Iran’s position on Israel are two of these red lines. Countering this fact is the reality that Iran’s society has evolved to a point that a return to the restrictions and radicalism of the early decade of the revolution is simply impossible. There are also the economic realities; despite talk of resistance economy and Jihadi management, everyone in Iran, including the hardliners, know that the country needs money and technology to develop; this must come from Europe, Japan, and South Korea among others.  Russia is not an available source as it needs investment and technology in many areas, and China has other priorities. Nevertheless, a victory for Rouhani in the forthcoming elections is the best outcome for Iran, the region, and the world.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.