TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Presidential Election Takes Shape
May 1, 2017

Iran’s Presidential Election Takes Shape

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Iran’s May 19 presidential election is likely to be a difficult contest for moderate President Hassan Rouhani.  

• The election pits Rouhani’s urban youth and intellectual supporters against hardline institutions and rural voters that support the Supreme Leader and his conservative allies. 

• A Rouhani defeat would likely not derail the multilateral nuclear agreement, but would indicate that average Iranians are not benefitting sufficiently from sanctions relief. 

• A loss by Rouhani would likely escalate already heightened tensions between Iran and the Trump administration.

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On May 19, Iran will hold the first round of presidential elections, setting the tone for U.S.-Iran relations during the Trump administration. Tensions have escalated in recent months as Iran has continued testing ballistic missiles and challenging U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. In response, the Trump administration has indicated it will counter Iran’s regional influence more assertively than the Obama administration. 

The cleric-controlled Council of Guardians—which vets all presidential candidates—has narrowed over 1,600 applicants to a field of six candidates for the first round of presidential elections. The candidates include incumbent President Hassan Rouhani; Supreme Leader protégé Ibrahim Raisi; Tehran mayor and Revolutionary Guard stalwart Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf; centrist former culture minister Mostafa Mirsalim; and two moderate candidates, Rouhani’s first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Mostafa Hashemitaba. If no candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote in the first round, a runoff will be held three weeks later. To improve Rouhani’s chances of achieving a first-round victory, it is likely that Jahangiri and Hashemitaba will either drop out before the voting or tacitly endorse Rouhani. 

The candidate field poses a major challenge to Rouhani’s re-election. After a narrow win in 2013, the nuclear deal represented the fulfillment of a core Rouhani promise and solidified his support among urban youth and intellectuals who want engagement with the West. However, some Rouhani supporters have become disillusioned at his failure to translate the nuclear agreement’s sanctions relief into tangible economic benefits for the average Iranian. Despite economic growth of about 7% in 2016, unemployment has not dropped significantly and foreign companies remain wary of doing business in Iran.   

In contrast to his 2013 win, Rouhani now faces a more unified field of hardline opponents including mid-ranking cleric Ibrahim Raisi, who is said to be Khamenei’s favorite to succeed him as Supreme Leader. Engineering Raisi’s election as president would position him well for eventual elevation to that position. The Supreme Leader’s support enables Raisi to appeal to rural and working class voters, many of whom benefit from regime largesse and strongly support the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s platform dovetails with that of Khamenei, who in recent speeches has criticized Rouhani for failing to advance the “resistance economy”—the hardline concept of building up Iran’s domestic industries and reducing reliance on imports. However, Raisi’s long prior service in the judiciary could harm his prospects—candidates who come from the judiciary and the security apparatus, including the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have tended to fare poorly in elections. 

The hardliners’ strategy appears to be to achieve a runoff between Raisi and Rouhani—an outcome that would enable the regime to put the state apparatus to work on behalf of Raisi. Such interference could include tasking the IRGC and its Basij militia to leaflet on behalf of Raisi, transporting his voters to the polls, and suppressing 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.  

No matter the outcome of the Iranian election, tensions between Iran and the United States are poised to escalate. However, the election of Raisi could cause U.S.-Iran tensions to reach a crisis level. Although Raisi—along with all of the other presidential candidates—has described the nuclear deal as an established fixture, a Raisi presidency is likely to undo Rouhani-era efforts to promote diplomacy and negotiations. Raisi is also likely to remove even those few restraints Rouhani has managed to impose on the IRGC and the IRGC-Qods Force. While the Trump administration has said it will continue to implement the nuclear agreement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated in late April that the deal had failed to curb Iran’s objectionable behavior more broadly and that Iran policy—including the nuclear deal—is under review. The Trump administration has already launched strikes on Iran’s key regional ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, for his use of chemical weapons, and the administration is contemplating increased support for a UAE-led offensive to seize the Yemeni port of Hodeida from Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The Trump administration and Congress are also considering imposing new sanctions on Iran’s missile program and on the IRGC. However, the administration and Congress are refraining from imposing such sanctions until Iran’s election is concluded, apparently assessing that doing so at this time would benefit Raisi’s election prospects. While another win by Rouhani is unlikely to push the relationship in a positive direction, the prospective election of a hardline Iranian president threatens to further exacerbate a tumultuous bilateral relationship in a region already plagued by crises.  

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