Iran's Presidential Elections 19 May 2017

After decade-defining upsets in the UK and the US, and a series of polls across Europe that have tested the resilience of centrism, it is now Iran’s turn to go to the polls. On 19 May, the Islamic Republic will decide whether or not to continue to support incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s approach of international engagement and relative moderation. As the ongoing 2017 UK election is frequently framed as a test of the government’s approach to Brexit, the Iranian contest can be seen as a reflection of the extent to which the public approves of the direction taken by Rouhani with regards to his foreign policy and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). An acceptance of this will see Rouhani continue the Iranian Presidential tradition of serving two terms; a rejection is likely to result in a conservative victory and a much more antagonistic path with regards to the West.

Trying to make sense of the Iranian election process is not easy. The election process itself is largely opaque by design. Whilst it does have the trappings of democratic participation it is better to think of it as a theatrical performance giving a show of democracy to its domestic audience. Indeed, much of what is seen to be decided in the public forum will have been actioned behind closed doors well beforehand. Nothing happens in Iran that hasn’t been sanctioned – begrudgingly or not – by the Supreme Leader. At this stage, the frontrunner candidates are: the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani; Mayor of Tehran and perennial Presidential campaigner Mohammed-Bager Ghalibaf; and conservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi. At this stage, every President since the Islamic Revolution has served two terms, Ghalibaf has (twice) run unsuccessfully before, and Raisi was a largely unknown figure until his candidacy was announced. One would assume, therefore, that Rouhani has it in the bag. However, there are a number of reasons that suggest that a rather more cautious view of the potential outcome is warranted. The first step in this analysis is to understand the relationship between Rouhani’s political career and the JCPOA. 

Iran has a myriad of domestic troubles, such as large-scale unemployment, slow economic growth, and high inflation. For most Iranians, these will be the issues which will take priority over the state or number of their country’s nuclear reactors. However, Hasan Rouhani, in acquiring the political capital necessary to undertake a settlement with two of his country’s greatest historical ‘enemies’, tied the success of the deal with the betterment of Iran’s internal conditions. The successful implementation of this deal, he argued, would see the return of international businesses, investment, and custom in light of widespread sanction relief. Unlike the historical precedent of a ‘resistance economy’ which has provided an ideological political and economic foundation for Iranian leaders since the Iran-Iraq War, Rouhani has made a point of tying Iran’s prosperity to the presence of foreign investment. However, things rarely go as smoothly as anticipated and Iran has struggled to attract the projected interest of international companies due in large part to Iran’s own opacity as well as the prevalence of non-nuclear sanctions.

Therefore, the impact of the JCPOA has yet to make much of an impact on the lives of most Iranians. Whilst the economy has grown, it has almost entirely been fuelled by an increase in oil exports, and therefore hasn’t manifested itself in anything tangible. 86% of Iranians feel like their financial situation has either deteriorated or remained unchanged in the last four years, and 64% have a negative view of their country’s economic situation. These numbers pose a problem for Rouhani, whose legitimacy rests on his moderate position being able to bring about positive economic and political change. The perceived failure of the JCPOA cannot be separated from that of the failure of Rouhani.

Ibrahim Raisi, whilst not being a particularly well known entity, isn’t encumbered with the baggage of political expectation. Additionally, he has the backing of the Supreme Leader and therefore the state’s security apparatus. The Supreme Leader and religious establishment are likely to attempt to exert a much greater influence over this election than the previous one. Rumours coming out of Tehran are that Ayatollah Khameini’s health is growing increasingly poor and that realistically he is not likely to be around for the next election. If this is the case, then securing victory for the religious establishment’s candidate in order to ensure a smooth transition of power over the coming years (should the situation necessitate it) will be the priority of Iran’s conservative political spheres.

As the highest authority in Iran, whoever replaces Khameini will define the direction Iran takes for at least the next decade. Conservatives will be rallying behind the scenes to make sure that the succession is uncomplicated, and results in an outcome that benefits their own interests. Raisi’s victory in this presidential election would guarantee a conservative grip over all aspects of government and would facilitate their selection of Khameini’s successor. What is not clear, however, is whether the establishment is grooming Raisi to become the next Supreme Leader, or seeking to install him as President in order to facilitate the future candidate for Supreme Leader.

Raisi is not yet setting fire to the polls. According to IranPoll, just over 30% of Iranians have a favourable opinion of him, compared to over 60% for Rouhani. However, around 40% are yet to make up their minds, and this provides a large pool of potential support. An internal poll taken at the beginning of May put Rouhani at 53% and Raisi at 32%, although polling within Iran is notoriously unreliable and it is always worth remembering that Rouhani was himself a surprise victor four years ago. Equally, as an extension of Khameini, the hardline establishment will be ensuring that Raisi is not humiliated during the election process, as this would embarrass the Supreme Leader and potentially undermine his authority which he has been carefully rebuilding since his intervention in the Green Movement protests sowed substantial misgivings among certain segments of the population. This implies that whilst a Raisi victory might not be certain, it is likely to be a close contest. This leaves two main potential outcomes;

  1. Raisi takes the election in the second round, wining enough of the vote to legitimise himself and acquire a mandate, but not so much that the election is obviously rigged. Even the most authoritarian of the hardliners will want to avoid a significant public backlash.
  2. Raisi loses, but attains a respectable percentage of the vote, ensuring his profile has been raised sufficiently to ensure his eventual ascension to the position of Supreme Leader. 

Then we have Mohammad Ghalibaf - the mayor of Tehran - and an unknown quantity. Despite standing in, and losing, the last two elections, he is a popular figure and is polling well with the highest approval rating of any candidate. His urban support base may undermine Rouhani, thereby giving the edge to Raisi. However, as happened last time, his support may not translate into votes. In 2013, many voted for Rouhani in order to keep the hardliners out. This is less likely to take place in this election however, since it does not follow on from eight years under a hard-line presidency. In 2013, the hard-line presidency of Ahmad Ahmedinejad was a rallying cause for the moderate vote of Rouhani.

Whilst this article portrays a pessimism towards Rouhani’s chances of success, it deliberately provides an alternative perspective of this Iranian election. To be clear - Rouhani is still the favourite, with the advantage of incumbency, and so far it does not look as though general dissatisfaction with the Iranian economic climate has spilled over into an anti-Rouhani sentiment. However, for the reasons stated above, there is a distinct possibility that the result of this election will be unexpected; although perversely, if we have learned anything over the last 12 months, it is that we should expect the unexpected!

Were a conservative candidate to win the election, then relations with the West will almost certainly deteriorate. Whilst all candidates have pledged at least superficial allegiance to the JCPOA, we would be likely to see increased aggression in non-nuclear activities and regional expansionism, which would greatly exacerbate the likelihood of conflict (be it conventional, hybrid, or proxy) with the United States, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The future of the nuclear agreement is looking increasingly gloomy. The growing hostility emanating from Washington is likely to be mirrored in Tehran, even under Rouhani, as his argument for moderation is increasingly undermined by hostile American policies. A Rouhani victory should ensure a lower possibility of escalation, but cooperation will probably cool off to the point of being non-existent, and the best chance in decades at true normalisation of relations between Iran and the West will disappear.


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