Until the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, President Hassan Rouhani was regarded in Tehran as pretty much a shoo-in for a second four-year term. And some observers still believe that the moderate need do little more than campaign competently to win the vote, now less than two months away on May 19.
However, others point out that Trump has proved a real blessing for the hardliners and that a ratcheting up of the anti-Tehran rhetoric from the populist American president - or something worse such as fresh heavy sanctions or a military encounter - could swiftly improve their chances with the electorate. Trump’s revised executive travel ban order, which maintains a blanket prohibition on Iranians entering the US, is one example of a policy that could draw infuriated voters to the most strident anti-Washington camps.
According to academics and analysts, it most punishes those largely critical of the Tehran regime. Some 12,269 Iranian students are said to have studied at US universities last year, mostly at MA or PhD level, and it is such students as well as academics who will be the main victims of the ban if American states’ attempts at blocking it through the US court system founder. Anger is spreading among Iranians as they ask why it is that they are banned from the US when citizens of countries from which the 9/11 terrorists came, such as Saudi Arabia, are not targeted by the order.
Just a gaggle
Having not yet even settled on a candidate, the hardliners, or “Principalists” as they like to be known, need to draw on such outrage to engineer a fast turnaround. There are no main opponents to Rouhani as yet, just a gaggle of Principalists, and no conservative will be in with a chance unless they offer a decent economic plan. Nobody has so far, and the prevailing opinion in the Iranian capital seems to be that even many of those not so enthused by Rouhani would probably vote for him as the best of a bad bunch.
Nevertheless, even on the economic front it is not plain sailing for the incumbent, with Rouhani attempting to defend progress made in the 15 months since Iran’s post-sanctions era began following the late 2015 deal he struck with world powers to curb the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has regularly lambasted Washington for hindering Iran’s return to economic health by maliciously creating “Iranophobia”. But in his pre-recorded New Year’s message broadcast by state TV on March 20, he made it clear that some of the continuing economic woes could be laid at the government's door. Getting behind the idea of a new "resistance economy", Khamenei said the Rouhani administration’s economic policies had fallen short.
Khamenei’s supporters use the phrase "resistance economy" when referring to policies designed to make Iran's economy more self-sufficient and create jobs. The concept stands in contrast to Rouhani's policy of trying to open up Iran to more international trade and investment.
"I feel the pain of the poor and lower class people with my soul, especially because of high prices, unemployment and inequalities," Khamenei said in his message. "The government has taken positive steps but they do not meet people's expectations or mine," he added.
Speaking up for freedoms
Rouhani - a lawyer, academic (he has a PhD in constitutional law from Glasgow Caledonian University) and former diplomat - will hope that his commitment to boosting civil rights as well as the finer points of his economic record will outweigh any hardline momentum generated by anti-America incitements and calls for Iran to again close in on itself.
Addressing lawyers at the Iranian bar association on March 7, Rouhani spoke up for freedoms in unusually blunt terms, according to Reuters. The news agency quoted a Fars News account of his speech in which he said: “We need to make people more aware of their rights than in the past… When an investigator asks about people’s private lives they should stand strong and say ‘this is my private area and you don’t have a right to ask me about my private life.’ We shouldn’t interfere in people’s private lives and shouldn’t search them.”
As regards his economic credentials, Rouhani may be grappling with unemployment of 12.4% (3.2mn people), but he was boosted on February 27 by assessments of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It declared that Iran has experienced an “impressive recovery” since international sanctions were lifted in January last year. The IMF forecast that Iran should record annual growth of 6.6% by the end of the current Iranian year, and commended Rouhani for pulling inflation down to 8.7% - it rose as high as 40% prior to his 2013 election victory.
In a warning to those who would be prepared to accept an unravelling of the nuclear deal, the IMF cautioned that the country of more than 80 million people risks returning to the recession it was enduring a year ago should the agreement come off the rails.
Iran, which has the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, has in the past year achieved substantial economic headway largely thanks to a doubling of its oil production since sanctions were dropped. But the IMF cautioned that worsening relations between Tehran and Washington “could deter investment and trade with Iran and short-circuit the anticipated recovery”.
Determined to protect the nuclear deal from Trump’s hostility, ministers from EU member states who visited Tehran in recent months have expressed firm support for the accord. France has been particularly active in underlining its backing, even announcing on March 5 that it was developing plans to award direct loans to French companies that want to invest in Iran.
Western companies that want to invest in Rouhani’s post-sanctions Islamic Republic have been particularly put off by remaining American sanctions which can complicate transactions that necessarily link through to the American financial system and dollar trades. The matter was, for example, raised by the CEO of the world’s largest chemical company, Germany’s BASF, in February 24 comments on difficulties that might be faced by its oil and gas division in going ahead with an Iranian investment.
On March 20, Reuters reported that Iran is failing to make headway with a request to the Bank of England (BoE) to set up special clearing accounts for its banks. The country’s failure to convince Western banks to accept its business has been one of the main obstacles preventing its swift reintegration into global trade. The US still has restrictions not related to the nuclear deal in place in relation to Iran's missile programme. Western banks, wary of riling Washington by infringing any of its measures, are treading very carefully when it comes to handling business involving Iran.
Other outstanding economic and financial issues that voters in the upcoming presidential poll might like to address - provided that they are not instead drawn by the ad hominem attacks that have proved all the rage in major elections around the world recently - were raised by the World Bank’s latest “Global Economic Prospects” report issued on January 10.
Looking at challenges ahead for Iran, it stated: “The central bank needs to complete the unification of the exchange rate, which is behind schedule, and address weaknesses in the banking sector. Tight banking sector supervision and regulation will help reduce high levels of nonperforming loans and increase low bank capital. Continued efforts to tighten anti-money laundering regulations and combat the financing of terrorism will help to reintegrate Iranian banks into the global financial system.”
Figure of fun
One man who will not be running, at least if Khamenei’s decision-making is respected (and it tends to be) is Rouhani’s predecessor, ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Warned off declaring a candidacy by Khamenei, who feared his campaigning might mean the return of the big street protests he generated after winning a second term, Ahmadinejad is often nowadays seen as no more than a figure of fun by progressive Iranians.
When he joined English-language Twitter on March 5 and posted a video declaring “peace and love” some took it as his attempt at a political comeback. But it is difficult to see Ahmadinejad, mocked recently for writing a 3,000-word letter to Trump in which he praised him for speaking up about corruption in the US elections, winning round the Guardian Council to obtain the required permission to challenge Rouhani.
Registered conservative candidates for the May poll so far include ministers of years gone by such as former Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister and post-revolution police chief Mostafa Mir-Salem, Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, who served as minister of science, research and technology under Ahmadinejad, and Hamid Baqai, a former intelligence officer and one of Ahmadinejad’s closest confidants, who was the head of the presidential administration between 2011-2013.
Candidates still likely to throw their hat into the ring include Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, another conservative and former national chief of police who also once served as a commander in the Revolutionary Guards’ Air Force. However, his reputation was damaged on January 19 when Tehran’s iconic 17-storey Plasco tower, a landmark containing a shopping bazaar that was once Iran’s tallest building, went up in flames and collapsed, killing two dozen firefighters. As reports spread that the blaze was caused by an electrical wiring fault, the mayor was heavily criticised for not doing more to ensure property owners conformed to health and safety requirements.
If cleared by the Guardian Council to make a bid for the presidency, reformist politician Mostafa Kavakebian, a member of parliament for one of Tehran’s poorer southern districts, could cause a headache for Rouhani. The founder and leader of the Democracy Party, Kavakebian would be capable of attracting a significant number of anti-hardliner votes away from the incumbent.
It is the council in fact that could essentially determine how rough a road the Rouhani bandwagon faces. If its vetting procedures allow several other pro-reform candidates to stand, one of the Principalists might be seen as having a chance of triumphing. But given the 2009 debacle - when millions protested against perceived large voting irregularities that delivered Ahmadinejad 62% of the vote - the committee might refrain from permitting a line-up that could produce a fraught election and civil strife. Mohammad Khatami, who served as president from 1997-2005 and actively supported the protest against the 2009 result - thus becoming classed as a persona non-grata in politics for the rest of his career - is, like Ahmadinejad, barred from declaring a candidacy.
Others who will not make it on to the list of candidates are a whole range of women. But not for want of trying. As usual, many have in vain lodged applications to run in the election at the interior ministry in protest at the constitutional law that says the president must be male.