President Trump’s recent foray into Syria’s civil war and the lingering questions over his administration’s ties to Russia have overshadowed the Iranian presidential election set for May 19, in which President Hassan Rouhani is running for re-election. Until recently, this year’s election was widely viewed as a done deal, with opposition to Rouhani seemingly weak and incapable of gaining widespread public support.
Unlike elections across the West, which have been fraught with uncertainty and roiled by right-wing anti-globalization candidates, Iran’s contest had been largely uneventful — until the entrance of two prominent conservatives upended the race and political predictions (creating some odd parallels with America’s own chaotic election).
Now, the closely watched election has become a free-for-all that will render a verdict on Rouhani’s embrace of global interdependence — at least in the form of the landmark nuclear deal negotiated with the U.S. and Europe — and whether Iran continues on the incumbent’s pragmatic, moderate path or reverts to the more conservative roots of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Compared to autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Iran boasts a hybrid political system that allows for some semblance of democracy. But campaigns have their limits in Iran’s theocracy, where the final arbiter is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The supreme leader is the ultimate decision-maker,” Haleh Esfandiari, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center who founded its Middle East Program, told The Diplomat.
Conservative hardliners strongly oppose Rouhani, who came into office in 2013 on a platform of improving ties with the West and stabilizing the economy following the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Until recently, they had not been able to coalesce around one candidate strong enough to unseat Rouhani. But last month, Ebrahim Raisi, a senior cleric and close Khamenei ally, emerged as Rouhani’s main challenger.
Shortly after Raisi’s entrance, Ahmadinejad — whose fiery anti-American tirades and populist policies such as food and gas subsidies contributed to Iran’s economic downfall (and his own) — shocked the establishment by entering the race. He had thrown his support behind his close friend and former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, after a meeting with Khamenei in which the supreme leader advised him against running for president again. Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 sparked mass protests, and he remains a polarizing figure in the country.
It was all the more surprising, therefore, when Ahmadinejad, defying the supreme leader’s wishes, escorted Baghaei through the process of registering as a candidate and then abruptly registered himself.
For all the Machiavellian maneuvering, however, Ahmadinejad did not get very far. Iran’s cleric-run government, which vets all candidates, promptly disqualified him from running, along with his vice president.
Now all eyes are on the conservatives and whether they rally around Raisi or another candidate, such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Saeid Golkar of Northwestern University, writing in an April 24 op-ed in Al-Jazeera, said the contest will come down to three power centers: the clergy (Raisi), the military/security wing (Ghalibaf) and the technocrats (Rouhani). A win by either Raisi or Ghalibaf could spell the demise of Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the West.
“Chances are even greater now that we will be having a two-round election in Iran, with a very polarized second round,” Hossein Rassam, a former Iran adviser to Britain’s Foreign Office, told Bozorgmehr Sharafedin of Reuters.
Nuclear Accord Put to the Test
The election is a test of Rouhani’s signature achievement: the nuclear accord reached in 2015 that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran has largely stuck to the terms of the deal, allowing international inspections, relinquishing 98 percent of its nuclear material and mothballing thousands of centrifuges. In return, Iran resumed selling its oil on the global market, had tens of billions of dollars in assets unfrozen and began inking business deals with international companies.
While Trump has threatened to alternately rip up and review the deal, he’s also begrudgingly accepted it for now — as have many on the U.S. side. But the pact remains highly contentious in Iran. It curbed inflation and helped stabilize the currency, but the agreement hasn’t delivered the lofty economic results people were expecting. It also didn’t fundamentally alter Iran’s relationship with the West, with many businesses still wary of investing in the country for fear of running afoul of remaining sanctions.
Now, Rouhani is running for re-election using the “slogan” that there would have been a war with the U.S. if not for the nuclear deal, said Patrick Clawson, senior fellow and director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative.
Iran’s hardliners dislike this argument, Clawson told The Diplomat, because it gives too much credit to diplomacy and hints at a rapprochement with the U.S., the hardliners’ perennial bogeyman. There was even talk that the Guardian Council, the powerful body that vets candidates, might disqualify Rouhani from running for re-election, although that would’ve sparked a major backlash among his reformist supporters.
Shadow Race for Supreme Leader
Some observers have speculated that Raisi — a hardline figure in Iran’s judiciary for decades — is being groomed to take over for Khamenei, who is 77. That has led to questions about his candidacy and whether he is serious about winning or trying to raise his profile ahead of Khamenei’s succession battle. Conversely, a loss could ruin his prospects for replacing Khamenei. (Raisi is no shoo-in for the presidency: He is tainted by his involvement in the so-called “death committee” that issued verdicts to execute thousands of political prisoners in 1988.)
Whoever wins the presidency will have a say over who becomes the next supreme leader — another reason this election is so critical. To be sure, Iran’s current supreme leader is no fan of Rouhani. He has said the next president should ditch engagement with the West and instead of looking for investment opportunities abroad, as Rouhani sought to do, Iran should strengthen its domestic economy. At the same time, Khamenei’s intentions are unclear. He may ultimately back Rouhani to seek continuity and avoid a confrontation with the U.S., especially under an unpredictable new administration. In fact, if Rouhani loses, it would mark the first time an Iranian president did not serve a second term.
It would be “very easy for Khamenei to devise a situation in which a hardliner is inserted” into the race and elected president, Clawson said. But this appears unlikely.
In his annual Nowruz, or New Year’s speech, Khamenei struck an uncharacteristically cautious tone, according to Clawson. The speech was “not as fire-breathing as usual” and did not mention President Trump’s recent travel ban on Muslims.
Notably, the speech did not embrace the hardliners’ position, Clawson said. And it lacked “much of the anti-American belligerence that has colored past New Year’s speeches,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji, also a fellow at the Washington Institute.
Still, “Iranians are not going to be happy with their choices,” Clawson said.
‘Not Better Off’
Rouhani had promised that the nuclear deal would bring economic prosperity with the lifting of sanctions, but the public has not yet seen the benefits of the deal. His supporters say it takes time to rebuild an economy wracked by international isolation and years of mismanagement, but frustration among ordinary Iranians, especially poorer voters who have seen their purchasing power drop, could leave the candidate vulnerable. Moderates, including many young voters, are also disappointed by the slow pace of reform under Rouhani.
A December 2016 poll conducted by the University of Maryland and IranPoll.com found that over 70 percent of respondents reported that their living conditions had not improved as a result of the nuclear accord.
Raisi could seize on this discontent to argue that Rouhani’s policy of détente with the West has failed. “People are asking why despite all our resources and human talents … our country is in this situation,” Raisi said in a statement published by Iranian news agencies.
While Iran’s GDP has risen sharply in recent months — and is projected to grow 4.8 percent in 2017 — this is due mostly to increased oil production, Clawson pointed out. “Non-oil sectors are not seeing increased economic activity, so people are not better off,” he said.
Piling on Sanctions
Moreover, the public expected swift sanctions relief that has not yet fully materialized.
“They did not expect sanctions would stay in place, nor did they expect new sanctions,” said Esfandiari.
On March 21, the U.S. imposed sanctions on 30 Iranian companies and individuals for transferring sensitive technology to Iran for its ballistic missile program or for violating export controls on Iran.
The U.S. imposed these sanctions after a round of Iranian ballistic missile tests, which Iran was expected to refrain from under the nuclear deal, although experts say the wording does not outright prohibit such testing.
That’s why Congress has stepped in to target Iran for provocations that fall outside the nuclear realm. In March, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, which imposes additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, support of terrorist groups and human rights violations.
That seemingly tracks with President Trump’s tougher stance on Iran. As a candidate, Trump railed against the nuclear deal, but has since toned down his rhetoric. Experts, including many of the president’s own military advisors, say that unilaterally backing out of the deal would isolate the U.S. and give Iran an excuse to restart its nuclear program.
So the administration has shifted its strategy, ramping up sanctions and strictly enforcing the letter of the deal in an effort to further squeeze Tehran. (The White House recently certified that Iran has complied with the deal, but it ordered an inter-agency review to determine whether lifting sanctions would be in America’s national security interests given concerns over Tehran’s “role as a state sponsor of terrorism.”)
But critics say such an approach could backfire, empowering hardliners and jeopardizing a hard-fought agreement that most experts credit with significantly delaying Iran’s “breakout” time to develop a nuclear weapon.
In an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine, seven former Obama administration officials involved in negotiating the nuclear deal came out strongly against the most recent Iran sanctions bill, arguing that the overly broad legislation could be used to impose superfluous sanctions that violate the deal. This would give Iranian hardliners a pretext to abandon Iran’s own nuclear commitments.
“If our Chinese, European, or Russian negotiating partners agree that we are altering the deal, the international consensus necessary to keep pressure on Iran to abide by the deal could erode,” they warned in the March 31 article. “Non-nuclear sanctions, on matters like ballistic missiles, terrorism, and human rights violations, remain in place. And Iran essentially paid for the nuclear deal with its own money, which the international community had frozen in banks around the world, to increase pressure on Iranian leaders to make a deal. In short, President Donald Trump has inherited an Iran policy that leaves us significantly safer than when his predecessor took office.”
In January, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to make a threat of his own in response to Trump’s promise to “rip up” the Iran deal.
“If he does, Iran too will have options at its disposal in its reaction,” Zarif said at the World Economic Forum. “President-elect Trump likes to be surprised, and we will surprise him.”
Sticking to the Deal
For all the political bluster and public dissatisfaction with additional sanctions, Iran is unlikely to abrogate the nuclear accord.
“My sense is that Iranians will continue to implement the deal meticulously,” Esfandiari said.
Their motivation, according to Esfandiari, is the European companies that want to invest in Iran.
Indeed, European government officials and business leaders rushed to Iran as soon as the nuclear deal was signed, in an effort to court business partners and cut bargains as the first dealmakers in line to access a market of nearly 80 million people.
German officials brought top executives from companies including Siemens, the Guardian reported at the time. France and Italy followed suit, and the United Kingdom reopened its embassy in Tehran shortly after the Iran deal was signed.
But Rouhani will have to continue defending the deal while producing tangible economic results.
“Any time someone wants to criticize Rouhani and his cabinet, they will bring up the deal,” Esfandiari said.
Moreover, the second term is usually harder than the first.
Khamenei “has traditionally distanced himself from the president in the second term,” Esfandiari said. He did so with Ahmadinejad and he will continue talking about economic weaknesses and will point out Rouhani’s failures, she said.
Final Word: Khamenei
Khamenei has not wasted any time. In the run-up to the election, he publicly lambasted Rouhani’s economic record. In his Nowruz speech, he directed his ire not at the U.S. but at the state of the Iranian economy, calling for a “resistance economy” that would create more jobs.
To be sure, Khamenei still regularly spouts off the anti-American rants that have become de rigueur for any Iranian leader. Yet for all of his anti-American vitriol over the years, Khamenei may not want a hardliner returning to the presidency as long as Trump is in the White House, Clawson observed.
“It’s too early to tell if Khamenei is backing off in the face of Trump,” Clawson said. “But for now, he’s biting his tongue.”
Yet even if the West gets a moderate as Iran’s next president, it’s wishful thinking to hope for the same scenario when Khamenei exits the scene and the real leadership scramble begins, according to Hossein Rassam and Sanam Vakil of Chatham House. Writing in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, they argue that the next supreme leader is likely to be one of three contenders, with Raisi as their top pick. Regardless who wins, they warn that, “Those hoping for a kinder, gentler Iran are likely to be disappointed.”
“Since he took power in 1989, Khamenei has steadily built an intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure composed of underlings who are fiercely loyal to him and his definition of the Islamic Republic, a network that can be called Iran’s ‘deep state.’ When Khamenei dies, the deep state will ensure that whoever replaces him shares its hardline views and is committed to protecting its interests,” the authors write. “It is foolish to hope that pressure from the Trump administration will bring about political change in Iran. Khamenei wants a stable transition, and he is counting on the deep state to ensure it.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews), managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report.