In striking down the wildcard candidacy of hardline ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad late on April 20, Iran’s Guardian Council appears to have set up a two-horse race.
Centrist cleric President Hassan Rouhani has emerged from the vetting process with permission to pursue a second term, but standing in his way is stern-faced religious judge Ebrahim Raisi, seen by some analysts as odds-on favourite to succeed 77-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and as someone capable of galvanising conservatives.
To the astonishment of many observers, Ahmadinejad turned up in early April to submit his paperwork for a planned run to bewildered election officials. Khamenei had even taken the unusual step last year of publicly advising that the self-styled “defender of the working classes” should stay out of the fray for his own good and the country’s.
Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, nevertheless pushed ahead, but he, like everybody, had to bow before the Vilayat-e Faqih, the Rule of the Jurists. The political philosophy of revolutionary founding father Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini holds that those best qualified to govern are those best equipped to interpret God’s law. Hence the powerful Guardian Council voted to exclude the polarising populist as it whittled down the field to six from around 1,300 would-be candidates.
Speculation as to whom the Council might disqualify had been rife and on 21 April the Financial Times reported that hardline clerics on the constitutional watchdog had even come close to excluding Rouhani, with the vote on permitting his candidacy at one point deadlocked at six for and six against.
But Rouhani, architect of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which eased sanctions that had Iran’s economy in a chokehold, finally made it through the secretive process.
As Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House and professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Europe, told bne IntelliNews prior to the Guardian Council meeting in the holy city of Qom: “Iranian elections are notoriously unpredictable.”
Vakil sees the upcoming election as a high-stakes contest that will have huge consequences for the Iranian electorate. She has taken a keen interest in the proposed candidacy of Raisi, director of the billion-dollar religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi controlled by Khamenei’s office and in charge of Iran’s holiest shrine. In a jointly-authored Foreign Affairs article, published on 9 April, she concluded that he “ticks all the right boxes” for becoming Iran’s next Supreme Leader.
The deep state’s pick
To the question of whether a failed bid for the presidency might not irreparably damage Raisi’s hopes in that regard, Vakil is clear that he will have to emerge from the contest with his credibility and reputation intact and that Iran’s “deep state” would not have put him forward “unless they thought he could win”.
Raisi is a 56-year-old mid-ranking cleric remembered for his 1980s membership of the so-called Islamic Revolution “death committee” that had thousands executed after interrogations into their religious beliefs and political affiliations. He is, says Vakil, “the deep state’s pick”.
“Nothing if not a hardliner, he hails from the extremist faction within the Combatant Clergy Association, a conservative political group,” she notes in the co-authored article.
Vakil describes Iran’s deep state as the result of Khamenei’s efforts over 28 years to steadily build up an intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure made up of underlings fiercely loyal to him and his idea of the Islamic Republic.
She contends that Khamenei has gradually undermined the role of Iran’s elected government, concentrating power in his own office and forming a strong relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the parallel military force beside the regular army responsible for protecting Iran’s security and Islamic character. His methods have largely been financial, she says, pointing to the many IRGC-affiliated businesses that have bought state firms at below market rates and won lucrative government contracts.
Deep state officials care most about defending their institutions against the “soft war” (jang-e narm) led by the West, she says, and in Khamenei’s eyes, the Islamic Republic’s survival will be secured by his “carefully built network of disciples”, most probably to be led by his close ally, the relatively young Raisi.
After registering his application for a presidential bid, Raisi, a former attorney-general who has referred to the US as the “Great Satan” that can never be trusted, told reporters: “Approaches have to change. We must create an economy that supports production and respects the role of the people in the economy. An economy that won’t be damaged by those days when there are social and political shocks."
In a March interview with state television, he commented that "as a servant of Astan Quds Razavi, I see the activation of a resistance economy as the only way to end poverty and deprivation in the country".
Critics have observed that his lack of executive experience could count against him with voters, but Vakil notes that as head of a massive and wealthy foundation he has actually been in practical charge of overseeing a sprawling business empire and numerous investments abroad.
Double the trouble
Shortly before Raisi announced his intended run for the presidency, Tehran-based political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam told the daily Etemad that "if Raisi announces his candidacy, Rouhani will have to take him very seriously and double his campaign efforts."
After registering his intention to run, Rouhani told the media: “I’ve come back again for Iran, I’ve come back again for Islam, for better stability across our country, for greater security and more progress. We have to gather again for Islam, to build Iran together. ”
Rouhani won the presidency in a first-round landslide in 2013 mainly thanks to the backing of young people and women. He pledged to bring Iran out of its international isolation by sealing a workable nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) with world powers and committed himself to developing a freer society.
There’s no disputing the fact that Iran’s economy is still limping along and that, while a huge number of business delegations have visited the country since the November 2015 signing of the JCPOA, the hoped-for levels of foreign investment have not materialised. Nevertheless, Rouhani’s administration has brought inflation down to the single digits from the 30% experienced under Ahmadinejad, ended the recession and driven up crucial oil production levels.
“Rouhani was elected primarily on the promise of elevating the economic position of Iranians… [but] people are not seeing a huge elevation for Iran in terms of the economy or its place on the international stage,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg on 14 April.
The 2013 victory of Rouhani was aided by the divided field of five conservative opponents. This time around he faces Raisi, former police chief and Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf – a pragmatic conservative seen by some analysts as very unlikely to pull out in favour of Raisi – former conservative culture minister Mostafa Mirsalim and former pro-reform vice president Mostafa Hashemitaba.
The sixth candidate, Rouhani’s first deputy, Eshaq Jahangiri, who is close to the reformists, is essentially an ally of the president, there to protect him from too much hardline fire in the televised debates. “I’m here to supplement Rouhani,” he told reporters, indicating he would drop out once Rouhani’s candidacy had progressed sufficiently.
Assessing the field endorsed by the Guardian Council, Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, told Bloomberg: “It plays relatively well for Rouhani. Ghalibaf and Raisi are likely to split the conservative vote, whereas on the other hand Rouhani is uniting the moderates; he is the candidate that is bringing them together.”
Not that Rouhani does not have any conservative tendencies. As the Foreign Affairs piece co-authored by Vakil points out: “Rouhani, who counts as a moderate in today’s Iran, is also a creature of the political system, and when push comes to shove, he, too, will fall into line, despite his deep disagreements with the hardliners. Like the rest of Iran’s establishment, he has no desire to relive the 2009 protests or allow the Arab Spring to spread to his country.”
The Washington factor
One big factor to watch in how the campaigning evolves will be the level of aggression that Washington directs at Tehran over coming weeks. On 19 April, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lambasted the nuclear deal with Iran, declaring that it "only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state" and does not address "alarming ongoing provocations" by Tehran in the Middle East. On a visit to Riyadh on the same day, American Defence Secretary Jim Mattis took the same line, saying: "Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran."
The Trump administration is now pursuing a 90-day review of the nuclear deal which will not only look at Iranian compliance with the agreement, but at whether Iran’s conduct in countries including Syria, Lebanon and Yemen undermines US interests.
Tough policy approaches from Washington could theoretically anger voters and boost the hardliners, or “Principlists” as they like to be called when up against the “Reformists”.
Ahmadinejad will not be among them, disappointing members of the “oppressed” lower classes in Tehran’s poorer southern district and rural areas where he still enjoys firm support. News agency reports on 21 April said police had fanned out in the east Tehran neighbourhood where Ahmadinejad lives to prevent his supporters gathering in protest at his exclusion from the election, and that the authorities were thought to be curtailing his political activities.
But the sidelining of Ahmadinejad will be a relief to many who remember how his re-election in 2009 sparked the largest demonstrations in Iran since the Islamic Revolution after allegations that it was vote-rigging that defeated Green Movement opponent Mir Hossein Musavi.