TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Developing Election Battle
March 21, 2017

Iran’s Developing Election Battle

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Iran’s upcoming presidential election is unexpectedly evolving into a hotly contested power struggle rather than an easy reelection campaign for the moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

• The emergence of several hardline candidates coupled with recent speeches by Iran’s Supreme Leader criticizing Rouhani’s economic performance suggest that the Supreme Leader might be seeking to oust Rouhani.

• Rouhani remains highly popular with Iranians, casting doubt that a hardline opponent could defeat him without major backing from regime institutions and electoral bodies.

• A Rouhani defeat would not automatically derail the landmark multilateral Iran nuclear agreement.

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Since the multilateral nuclear deal was finalized in July 2015, observers both inside and outside Iran had assumed that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would easily coast to reelection in May 2017. Rouhani was elected in 2013 by garnering more than 50% of the vote against a broad field that included several hardline candidates. The nuclear deal represented the fulfillment of Rouhani’s core campaign promise to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation and achieve relief from comprehensive international sanctions that were causing severe recession in Iran. It had also been widely assumed that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would not encourage electoral opposition to Rouhani’s reelection. Khamenei’s acquiescence to Rouhani’s reelection seemed assured in 2016 when the Supreme Leader directly vetoed a request by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to run in 2017. 

Though no apparent rift has emerged between Rouhani and Khamenei, there is increasing evidence that the Supreme Leader may be encouraging hardline opponents to run against him. In several speeches in recent weeks, Khamenei and other hardliners have directly criticized Rouhani for failing to translate sanctions relief into tangible economic benefits for the Iranian people. Khamenei has censured him for failing to advance the ‘resistance economy’—the concept of building up Iran’s domestic industries and reducing its reliance on imported goods. Hardliners have also implied that Rouhani has failed to persuade the U.S. to lift sanctions that remain in place because of Iran’s support for terrorism, proliferation issues, and its human rights practices—sanctions that are deterring foreign firms from delivering the expected benefits to Iran’s economy.  

Khamenei’s criticism appears to have encouraged the hardline camp to mobilize. One hardliner seeking support is former state broadcasting chief Ezzatullah Zarghami, who remains sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU for human rights abuses. Other possible hardline candidates include several former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders, such as Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, who previously ran against Rouhani and fared poorly. Yet, the hardliners remain plagued by the same disunity that harmed their electoral chances in 2013. A late February meeting of hardline groups failed to anoint a consensus challenger to Rouhani. The hardline groups will try again in late March or early April to achieve consensus, days in advance of the deadline for candidates to file their intent to run. Several hardliners insist they will avoid the race unless the hardline camp unifies around one of them. 

One figure who apparently has broad hardliner backing—but who seems unwilling to take the risk of running against Rouhani—is mid-ranking cleric Ibrahim Raisi. In 2016, Khamenei appointed him to the key position of head of the Shrine of Imam Reza and its associated economic conglomerate in Mashhad. Raisi is said to be Khamenei’s favorite to succeed him as Supreme Leader. As such, Raisi’s potential candidacy has ignited fears that Khamenei might place the state apparatus at the disposal of his favored candidate. Regardless of whether Raisi runs, the issue of potential regime interference in the vote remains front and center in the assessments of experts and pro-Rouhani voters. Such interference could take the form of tasking the IRGC and its Basij militia to leaflet on behalf of the favored candidate, to transport conservative voters to the polls in large numbers, or to suppress voter turnout in cities where Rouhani’s voters are concentrated. Some of these steps were widely reported to have been taken by the regime in the 2005 and 2009 elections that Ahmadinejad won, and a year of protests (‘Green Uprising’) against alleged fraud and regime interference followed the 2009 election. In late February, Rouhani publicly warned that if “a military force, a security force, or an armed force” violates election laws, “we have to shout and stand up.” It is very possible that another uprising would erupt if the regime were perceived as engineering Rouhani’s defeat in the May vote.  

The upcoming Iranian presidential election has significant potential implications for the region. A Rouhani victory will ensure that Iran’s regional policies remain stable. Still, his defeat would not automatically derail the landmark Iran nuclear agreement; even his hardline critics are not advocating a unilateral Iranian abrogation of the deal. However, a hardliner victory could result in an increasing pace of Iranian challenges to the Trump administration, including through missile testing and IRGC Navy ‘high speed intercepts’ of U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf. A hardline Iranian president might increase Iranian support to the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, and thus hinder chances to settle the conflict in that country. The Trump administration has identified Iran as a major threat to U.S. national security, and any provocative Iranian action has the potential to cause U.S.-Iran confrontation.

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