The penultimate week of campaigning in the battle for the Iranian presidency turned increasingly confrontational. The two candidates seen as having a realistic chance of unseating incumbent Hassan Rouhani set about trying to demolish his economic record, causing the president to hit back with blunt and bitter attacks on the human rights and corruption fronts.
With moderate pragmatist Rouhani coming rather too close for comfort to crossing the red lines of Iran’s powerful “deep state” conservative clerics, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stepped in on May 10. He called on the candidates to avoid “immoral” outbursts that could damage the nation. In a written public address, he cautioned: “If people participate with order and proceed with ethics and respect the limits of Islam and laws, it will lead to dignity for the Islamic Republic, [but if they] turn immoral and with their spoken words give hope to the enemy, then the elections will turn to our disadvantage.”
Nevertheless, fierce exchanges erupted on May 12 during the final televised debate in the campaign as Rouhani, 68, went after his two main opponents, 56-year-old stern-faced hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, widely seen as 77-year-old Khamenei’s protégé, and chisel-jawed Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, 55, a conservative and former Republican Guard commander and police chief who puts on an “action man” persona.
Apathy a worrying foe
There are no reliable opinion polls in Iran but the latest surveys put out by the semi-official Iranian Students Polling Agency show moderate cleric Rouhani taking a bit over 40% of the May 19 vote and Raisi and Qalibaf both somewhere in the mid to low 20s, with Raisi a few percentage points ahead. If that is borne out by the voting, Rouhani and Raisi would face off in a second round a week later.
The president's intractable difficulty is that so many Iranians are disappointed with their lot since the November 2015 nuclear deal that supposedly released the chains on the economy. And there are warning signs that Rouhani’s main foe could actually be apathy and low turnout. On May 8, for instance, state-run IRNA news agency reported a survey that had over one-third of 6,000 eligible voters saying they would not be voting, while 46% said they were yet to settle on a candidate.
Such anxieties could explain Rouhani’s decision to go in hard against Raisi and Qalibaf in the final TV showdown, risking the wrath of the arbiter of all things state, Khamenei, but perhaps at the same time galvanising his base.
Turning to Raisi, Reuters reported, the president declared: "Mr Raisi, you can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court, you can even issue an arrest order. But please don't abuse religion for power." Raisi, appointed last year to manage the immensely wealthy Astan Quds Razavi foundation – an Islamic charity that administrates the country’s holiest shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad and has international assets – is undoubtedly the favoured candidate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the “Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution” which incongruously controls vast economic holdings, from construction to mines and oil, worth billions of dollars.
The IRGC is expected to bus rural, shantytown and big city hardline voters to the polls to ensure they cast a ballot. Rouhani touched on this reality in alleging that it meant public funds were being diverted to Raisi's campaign. The BBC reported him as saying in the TV debate: "Some security and revolutionary groups are bussing people to your campaign rallies... Who finances them?"
Training fire on Qalibaf, Rouhani made the stark claim that if in 2005 he had published a dossier he had obtained on his rival "you would not be sat here today", local news agencies reported. Qalibaf, a former IRGC air force commander who still has a licence to fly big airliners, found himself in a spot of bother in 2013 when the US-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran released an audio tape. In the recording, he is heard describing how while serving as Iran’s police chief in 1999 he personally beat up student protesters with batons in a bloody crackdown. Qalibaf subsequently claimed that during the protest he had resisted an order to shoot, but Rouhani was not about to let the taped revelations go unmentioned during the TV exchange, reminding potential voters that they would be backing a man who “wanted to beat up students”.
Hitting back at Rouhani, Raisi - a mid-ranking cleric who is odds-on favourite with some analysts to become the next supreme leader - claimed the president had blocked an inquiry into corruption charges against his relatives and accused some of his ministers of being linked to illegal imports. Also referring to allegations that he has received heavily subsidised public properties, Raisi, reported AFP, then chastised Rouhani by saying: “You know very well my anti-corruption spirit. Why do you keep on showing contempt, this is not proper.”
Raisi, of course, cannot escape his past as one of the four sharia judges who in 1988 sat on the so-called “death committee” that sanctioned the execution of thousands of political prisoners. On the campaign trail, Rouhani has stuck the boot in on this point. "The people will say ’no’ to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed,” he interjected at one election event, according to RFE/RL. Not surprisingly, Raisi is always eager to switch the attack to Iran's economic struggles. But unfortunately for Raisi, an inhabitant of the shadows until now, he suffers from something of a charisma deficit and his rhetoric can come across as rather bland.
Qalibaf, in contrast, has colourfully driven home his criticisms of Rouhani's economic record. At one point in the debate, said the BBC, he stated: "The country is facing an economic crisis with unemployment, recession and inflation. A tree that has not borne any fruit in four years will not yield anything positive in the future." The country, he insists, needs an Alpha manager, namely Qalibaf.
Raisi, meanwhile, has vaguely referred to how 250,000 small businesses have closed and promised that as president he would dramatically raise cash handouts for the poor. Qalibaf has likewise promised something like a tripling of such payments but on May 10 their pledges came up against the non-aligned Parliamentary Research Center. It rejected calls for what it termed “helicopter drop cash handouts”, saying they did not amount to sound fiscal policy. Qalibaf also found himself stopped in his tracks by a court when a website for job seekers that promised subsidies was ruled to be illegal electioneering based on bribes.
It’s the non-oil sector, stupid
Rouhani's difficulty in selling the nuclear deal agreed by the major powers as something that will eventually transform the lives of ordinary Iranians is nicely demonstrated by an IMF snapshot released in February. It showed that although inflation has dropped from highs of near 40% to single digits under the president, while real GDP grew by as much as 7.4% last year, growth in the non-oil sector has averaged just 0.9%.
With so few of the gains having trickled down to the general populace, surveys such as one taken in April by IranPoll, which showed 72% of respondents saying the nuclear deal has not improved the living standards of average Iranians, cannot be far off the mark. Raisi has cited questionable figures showing poverty under Rouhani has moved up from 23% to 33% of the population, but even the official figures concede unemployment has crept up to somewhere around 13% while youth unemployment has climbed to a numbing 31%.
Growth has very much been driven by the removal of international sanctions that barred Iran from exporting its oil and petrochemicals (though the world oil price plunge curbed gains), but Iran is still shackled by numerous secondary, unilateral sanctions retained by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control for human rights abuses, claimed state sponsorship of terrorism and ballistic missile programme development. Under US President Donald Trump that is unlikely to change any time soon, and faced with a newly-aggressive Washington Khamenei has been calling for the championing of economic self-sufficiency, rather than more opening up to the West in the pursuit of foreign investment. "The candidates should promise to focus on national capabilities and domestic capacities to resolve the economic issues ... rather than looking abroad," Khamenei said on state TV on April 24.
Raisi wasted little time in responding to the wishes of Iran's leader for what the conservatives refer to as the “resistance economy”, stating, according to Tasnim News Agency, that "our problems are not something to be resolved by Americans and Westerners... Iran's problems can only be solved by the capable hands of domestic experts”, before going on to pledge that if elected he would create over 1.5 million jobs a year. Not to be outdone, Qalibaf promised to create five million jobs per year, but it is this kind of boastful bluster that perhaps gives Rouhani his best shot at discrediting the key challengers with working-class voters who are tempted by the prospect of bigger handouts.
His determination, however, to rebuild Iran by wooing more and more foreign investment will remain exposed to derision while the American sanctions remain in place and the Islamic Republic thus stays shut out of much of the world’s financial system. In 2016, Iran’s economy absorbed only an estimated $9.5bn in FDI, a tiny fraction of the goal of drawing from $150bn to $200bn by 2020.
Bad or worse?
The TV debates have proved gripping stuff for followers of Iranian politics. Reacting to the debate on Twitter, Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted how much dirty laundry the candidates have washed in public. "This is so much fun, but also shows corruption is endemic," Vaez commented.
Out there in Tehran, a city where the foreigner might be astounded by the deranged and snarled traffic or intrigued by the women-only metro carriages, those intending to vote seem clear on only one reality: the choice is between bad and worse.
Two of the capital’s working-class taxi drivers - famed for speaking their mind to all and sundry - were split between Rouhani and Raisi. “During the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [hardline administrations that ran from 2005 to 2013] people felt so helpless with the price fluctuations [due to steep inflation], but things are now rational, prices are normal again,” said one, saying Rouhani deserves a second term. The other, a more conservative and religious cabbie, insisted to commuters heading to West Tehran’s Poonak district that “We must follow our leader Khamenei and since he is interested in him [Raisi], we will vote for him.”
An Iranian banker, who spoke with bne IntelliNews by phone, concluded: “I do not think anyone but Rouhani will win this year’s election. Nobody knows Raisi and Qalibaf is just embarrassing himself attempting to be a man who offers the world.” He added: “I’m tired of having to struggle to make ends meet, I am not going to risk voting for anyone else.”
His sentiments were echoed by a housewife in the northern city of Tabriz who messaged this publication, saying: “We have to appreciate what Rouhani has done so far for us, especially with the lifting of sanctions. You feel like he is trying to keep [hold of] inflation, he is attempting to make things more stable… although we still have problems, you feel as if his team has a handle on the situation.”
Qalibaf, on the other hand, has the support of Tehran’s age-old and well-off “bazaar class”. “Rouhani is a man who is all talk, but Qalibaf is a man of action; at least he gets things done and he is a real manager,” was one typical comment from this camp.
The Tehran mayor is also popular among the thousands left lame by the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. One former soldier, who lost both his legs in the conflict, wrote on the hugely popular Telegram social media platform that he would vote for Qalibaf. “He’s the only one who can see us, nobody else has done so much for the disabled of Tehran …I can now go to the park with my wife thanks to the ramps he has put in,” he remarked.
If Rouhani does suffer a surprise defeat or only scrapes over the line, he’ll reflect on how he was forced to serve as president with one hand tied behind his back, a hand tied by Washington which has refused to budge on its secondary sanctions. Behind the scenes, the EU, disturbed by the Trump White House’s level of aggression towards Iran, has been doing all it can to push the nuclear deal as a potential winner for those minded to invest in the emerging economy with a population of 80 million.
But speeches rather than deals don’t cut it. As Bloomberg reported Stephane Michel, French oil major Total's president for exploration and production in North Africa and the Middle East, saying at an EU-Iran oil and gas forum last month: "If at the end of the day, it is only words and no facts, there's a problem."
For its part, Total has had to hold off on signing a $2bn deal to help develop the South Pars 11 Iranian gas field, while waiting to see if Trump will sign a sanctions waiver renewal.
It’s an all too familiar story that explains many of the pre-polling day nerves being felt by the Rouhani election organisation.