Iran’s Bipolar Election
Iran’s Bipolar Election
An Iranian woman stands next to a wall plastered with election posters of Iranian President and election candidate Hassan Rouhani on a street in the capital Tehran, on 17 May 2017. AFP/Atta Kenare

Iran’s Bipolar Election

Iranian voters have a real choice on 19 May between a president promising engagement with the West or one focused on the ideological purity of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, both leading candidates are clerical insiders who support the continuation of Iran’s nuclear deal.

Who are the leading candidates in the 19 May election and what should we know about the top two?

The May 2017 election is essentially a two-way race between the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of Iran’s holiest shrine in Mashhad. Their shadow candidates, incumbent Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, withdrew their candidacy in support of Rouhani and Raisi, respectively. The other two contenders would play a marginal role or could drop out at the last minute.

Never before has an incumbent Iranian president faced such a serious challenge to his re-election. The closest a challenger came to unseat a first-term president was in 2009 when then-President Mahmood Ahmadinejad faced Mir Hossein Mousavi – an election that ended in a highly-disputed outcome and a subsequent popular uprising against what many viewed as rigged results. But this time, it is the establishment’s candidate, Raisi, who is challenging the incumbent, compelling the latter to adopt an anti-establishment rhetoric that one would expect from a dissident, not a sitting president of the Islamic Republic. For instance, referring to Raisi’s role as a judge on the infamous “death committee” that executed thousands of leftist dissidents in late 1980s and later as attorney general, Rouhani said “the people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed; those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut; … those [who] banned the pen and banned the picture. Those people shouldn’t even breathe the word freedom, for it shames freedom”.

While Rouhani has succeeded in taming inflation, unemployment is the main cause of economic malaise.

Rouhani and Raisi, however, have some similarities:

  • Both are consummate insiders. The former is a product of the system’s national security apparatus; the latter spent more than three decades in the judicial system;
  • Both have a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even though Raisi is ideologically closer to him than is Rouhani;
  • Both are clerics, but Raisi’s descendance from the Prophet’s lineage allows him to put on a black turban, whereas Rouhani wears white;
  • They are both members of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the supreme leader’s successor, a position to which both aspire;
  • They are both committed to the nuclear deal, even though Rouhani is its most prominent proponent and Raisi in the past has been its critic.

But their differences also are stark:

  • The two men present different visions for the future of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, who is more pragmatic, tends to emphasise the role of elected institutions and the constitution more than divine authority, supports integration into the global economy and engagement with the West, and advocates for relative socio-cultural freedom. Raisi, a so-called principalist (one who seeks to protect the ideological principles of the revolution), espouses more conservative Islamic socio-cultural norms, and sees an unavoidable clash of interest between the West and an independent Iran.

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  • Rouhani has had a long record of executive experience (as national security advisor for sixteen years and as president for four), while Raisi has a meager one (a year and a half as the custodian of the Astan Quds Shrine in Mashhad), having spent a lifetime in the judiciary.

What do Iranians think they are choosing between in this election?

The electorate, which is aging and more mature than in previous elections, seems to mostly care about one thing: making ends meet. The nuclear deal, Rouhani’s key achievement, has undoubtedly benefitted the country’s economy, which grew by 7 per cent last year. But 6 per cent of that growth was in the energy sector and the dividends are yet to trickle down to the population. Both candidates have promised to improve the country’s economic wellbeing, fight endemic corruption and end smuggling.

Should the system opt for short-term stability – a crucial requirement of a successful transition to the next supreme leader? Or should the system opt for long-term protection of the revolution?

Taking a page from former President Ahmadinejad’s economic populism and social justice agenda, Raisi has promised to triple cash handout subsidies for the disenfranchised. While Rouhani has succeeded in taming inflation, unemployment is the main cause of economic malaise. It is now at 12.7 per cent generally, while youth unemployment (for ages 18-29) hovers around 31 per cent for men and 53 per cent for women. Raisi has pledged a government of “Dignity and Work” that would create 1.5 million jobs per year by relying on domestic capabilities, based on the supreme leader’s favorite theme of building an “economy of resistance”. Rouhani, however, argues that tripling the subsidies would trigger runaway inflation, that the economy cannot thrive in isolation and that, without foreign capital and technology, there is only so many new jobs Iran can produce. Neither has presented a concrete, detailed program.

What is at stake in this election for the establishment?

In a sense, it boils down to a fundamental choice between two priorities: short-term stability of the system versus long-term survival of the revolution.

Iran is at an inflection point: the supreme leader, now 78, is paving the ground for his succession. His generation of Iranian leaders, the revolutionary Jacobins, are fading away by the force of nature, while a frustrated Iranian youth is seeking jobs and a move away from crisis to normalcy. This is while the leadership in Tehran sees dark clouds gathering as the Trump administration seeks to once again put Iran under pressure. And herein lies the dilemma. Should the system opt for short-term stability – a crucial requirement of a successful transition to the next supreme leader? Or should the system opt for long-term protection of the revolution by empowering Raisi, one of Khamenei’s students and a loyal disciple, to consolidate the principalists’ power and marginalise the pragmatists?

If the system chooses stability, continuity would serve its interests better than change. This would allow it to implement its strategy of presenting the Islamic Republic’s best face, protecting the nuclear deal, and seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and other members of the P5+1(China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK), should the Trump administration seek to undermine it, by leaving it in the steady hands of Rouhani as well as his team of professional – and smiling – diplomats. But this option has the risk that Rouhani, who doesn’t share Ayatollah Khamenei’s vision for the future of the revolution, could influence the succession.

Choosing revolutionary purity, however, would present some immediate downsides. If an uncharismatic man who was virtually unknown to the public defeats a sitting president whom all polls have shown ahead in an upset, albeit close victory, unrest could follow. This would be a risky gambit for a system that believes regime change is once again on Washington’s agenda and has barely recovered from the near-fatal 2009 experience. But the same fear could incentivise the system to close ranks now in order to better manage more serious future threats. The other immediate risk is that a Raisi presidency, in particular given his human rights record, would make it easier for Washington to demonise Iran and more difficult for the Europeans to side with Tehran.

If an uncharismatic man who was virtually unknown to the public defeats a sitting president whom all polls have shown ahead ... unrest could follow.

Arguably, a relatively narrow incumbent win could allow the system to reconcile these seemingly incongruous priorities. Rouhani would continue presenting a reasonable Iranian face to the world, but would be sufficiently diminished internally so as not to pose a challenge to the establishment. Raisi’s defeat would be a setback, especially given his political allies’ considerable last-minute efforts to boost his candidacy and the principalist camp’s hitherto elusive unity in backing him, but it has already catapulted him to national politics, raised his profile and created a constituency for him, which could serve as a prelude to his succeeding the supreme leader.

How much say do the people have in this choice?

They have an important say. The rule of the electoral game in Iran is for the most part that the system controls the ‘input’ by weeding out unwanted candidates, but accepts the ‘output’ of the result. The only real exception to this rule was the 2009 elections. Since Iran has no voter registration system, there could be tampering with the results. If such tampering is marginal, it might not have serious political consequences. However, brazen rigging that appeared to rob Rohani of his victory could well trigger unrest. This is something the leadership might think twice about before encouraging it, as this would occur at a time of growing U.S. pressure and possible renewed appetite for regime change.

Rouhani leads in the polls, but a large segment of the electorate remains undecided. Each campaign is seeking to swing the undecideds in its favor, though they are focused on mobilising different demographics. Raisi’s team is targeting rural areas and lower-income strata, the support base of ex-President Ahmadinejad, while Rouhani is courting the often apathetic urban middle class. Turnout can significantly tilt the balance on Election Day. Since 1980, participation rate for presidential elections has varied between 50 and 85 per cent. Around 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote this round. Given that elections for nearly 200,000 local council seats are held on the same day, a relatively high turnout is expected.

What has the campaign shown about the state of Iranian democracy?

Iranian elections are unfree, unfair and unpredictable. This is because the Guardian Council, an unelected body, vets the candidates and bars those whom the system deems undesirable. Of the 1,636 contenders who threw their hats and turbans in the race, only six could go through the Guardian Council’s filter this year. Apparently even being an ex-president is a disqualifier: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified in 2013, and this year Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the election.

As imperfect as elections are in Iran, they possess a degree of maturity and pluralism that is rare in the region.

Yet at the same time elections are highly contested. The electoral campaign is as short as it is vivid, prompting a degree of political openness that is not tolerated at other times. For instance, candidates accused one another of corruption in live televised debates and questioned the government’s diplomatic and defensive strategies, statements that could put a journalist or an academic in prison in normal times. As imperfect as elections are in Iran, they possess a degree of maturity and pluralism that is rare in the region.

Given restrictions on state-controlled media – which stifle criticism of state policies and even censure the candidates’ campaign videos – social media have become the main platform for political debate, smear campaigns, fake news and “alternative facts”. Messaging apps like Telegram, which has millions of users in Iran, have created a sphere of debate that is no longer controllable by the state.

How will the elections impact the Iran nuclear deal?

In contrast to what was witnessed during the U.S. elections, none of the Iranian candidates promises to tear up the nuclear agreement or renegotiate it. This is for two reasons: first, the accord was the product of a strategic decision taken by consensus and approved by key stakeholders in the Iranian political system; and second, recent polls suggest the deal remains popular despite widespread discontent over its limited economic dividends. All candidates have pledged to remain committed to Iran’s obligations under the deal.

Raisi, however, criticises Rouhani for being weak and naïve in expecting the U.S. to remain committed to its end of the bargain. He argues that only a strong Iranian leadership willing to stand up to the U.S. is able to “cash in the deal’s cheque”. For his part, Rouhani has emphasised that Raisi and his allies, who opposed the agreement during the negotiations, must not be allowed to become its custodian.

Regardless of the outcome, Iran is likely to pursue a strategy of remaining committed to the deal. Tehran will try to prevent the revival of a united international front against it by seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the other negotiating parties (the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China). But as noted above, Rouhani and Raisi can be expected to do so in widely diverging ways.

Ayatollah Khamenei receives Iranian officials, ambassadors of Muslim countries, on 18 May 2015.
Report 166 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran After the Nuclear Deal

Some in the West hope the nuclear deal with Iran will empower the country’s moderates. But playing Iranian domestic politics directly could backfire. The West should recognise that any change will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East.

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With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal. Many, there and abroad, believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade. Yet, the political system, with its multiple power centres and tutelary bodies, inherently favours continuity. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system – for instance by trying to push it in a “moderate” direction – could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see. To start, all sides should fulfil their commitments under the nuclear deal.

The accord comes at a sensitive moment. Over eighteen months, three pivotal elections are scheduled. February 2016 will see polls for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next supreme leader; in June 2017, there will be a presidential poll. With the supreme leader aging, many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course. President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends. But his affiliation with the former makes for a balancing act that is as complex as it is imperfect.

The precariousness of this equilibrium means that policy shifts when pressure from below is accompanied by substantial consensus at the top. The nuclear talks illustrate this. Rouhani’s election and the sanctions-battered public’s demand for normalcy catalysed the process, but the agreement was not a single man’s achievement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the U.S. before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

The president, who is from the republican camp, brought on board the most important allies: the pragmatic theocrats, who control the unelected institutions. Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appears as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

Rouhani has encountered difficulties in other spheres. He was forced to freeze priorities behind which he could not generate sufficient consensus, including social and political liberalisation. But his economic agenda, aimed at stimulating growth after several years of recession, is likely to move forward, even though it damages entrenched interests that have profited under the sanctions regime.

Everything suggests Rouhani will continue with a prudent approach, and change is likely to be arduous, slow and modest. Though the U.S. and its European allies might nudge him to move faster, there is no way to speed the reform process and many ways to undermine it. Seeking to empower republicans – touted in certain quarters as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal – will not work, as many theocrats view that tactic as a stalking horse for regime change.

This does not mean giving Tehran carte blanche, domestically or regionally, but issues of concern will need to be addressed judiciously, taking account of Tehran’s legitimate concerns no less than its adversaries’. It also means Iranians – notwithstanding the imperfection of their governance system, which many are the first to acknowledge – should determine their country’s positions without undue external interference. Trying to shape Tehran’s regional calculus through a variety of carrots and sticks is standard foreign policy practice, but trying to shape or short-circuit the decision-making process itself is another matter. As seen in the nuclear deal and now in the economic realm, internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicised channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Tehran/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2015

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