Iran’s Presidential Test

Iran’s May 19 election will pit Ibrahim Raisi, a hard-line protégé of the supreme leader, against the more centrist incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, in a contest that may hinge on the perceived economic impact of the nuclear deal, writes CFR’s Ray Takeyh.

May 1, 2017

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Iran

Elections and Voting

Heads of State and Government

Iran’s presidential election cycle has taken on its typical carnival atmosphere, with feverish speculation over favorites and more than 1,600 people registering to compete. But with the registration season closed, the basic contours of the race are coming into focus. The Guardian Council, the unelected body responsible for vetting candidates, has winnowed the field down to six based on its estimation of their character, accomplishments, and, most importantly, commitment to the Islamic Republic. The contest has centered on whether the international nuclear deal has created conditions for economic growth.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he registers to run for a second four-year term.President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for re-election. (President.ir/Handout via Reuters)

Center vs. Right

Since the Green Revolution of 2009, political space in Iran has shrunk dramatically. The reformist faction, which was the most devoted to democratic representation and civil society, has been excised from the body politic. The former reformist president Mohammad Khatami still commands some popularity, but he has largely been muted by the authorities and is unable to travel outside Iran or appear in the press or at official ceremonies.

Whatever is left of the reformist coalition that once shook up Iran’s politics has been limited to supporting the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani. Although he hardly shares their agenda—his first four years in power did little to advance human rights—many reformers feel that he is superior to the alternatives. The 2017 presidential vote will pit the center, composed of more pragmatic officials open to expanding the country’s commercial and diplomatic ties, against the right. The presidential race, as always, will be closely watched by outside observers for signals of not just what voters want but how freely balloting will be conducted, given the scrutiny of the security apparatus, which is aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Though subordinate to the position of supreme leader, Iran’s presidency still has significant power in the country’s complex political system. The president oversees the bureaucracy, guides diplomacy, crafts budgets, and steers the economy. 

In the current field of candidates, Rouhani occupies the political center. His campaign has emphasized his economic accomplishments and defends the arms control agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rouhani makes the reasonable claim that he inherited an economy on the brink of collapse and that an agreement was necessary to ease the country’s international isolation and open a path to recovery. Years of mismanagement and corruption, coupled with devastating international sanctions levied for the nuclear program, led to negative growth rates, high unemployment, and an inflation rate teetering around 40 percent. Since Rouhani took office nearly four years ago, the economy has regained some strength. In the past year, the International Monetary Fund says, Iran’s real gross domestic product grew by 7.4 percent and inflation fell to single digits. Much of this economic recovery was facilitated by the lifting of international sanctions, which has allowed Iran to sell more of its oil abroad and resume its access to global markets.

Rouhani often touts the nuclear agreement for allowing Iran to retain some indigenous enrichment capability. In fact, he stresses, the accord allows Iran to expand that capability over time. Rouhani cites Iran’s construction of IR-8 centrifuges, which operate with higher efficiency than current models, as an indication that the agreement did not impose real restraints on Iran’s research and development program. Rouhani promised in 2013 that he would spin the wheels of the economy as well as centrifuges, maintaining uranium enrichment, if in limited amounts. He has returned to the campaign trail noting that he has achieved both of these objectives.

The Supreme Leader’s Protégé

The conservative bloc seems to be settling on midlevel cleric Ibrahim Raisi as its candidate. Raisi is a protégé of Khamenei and was once his seminary student. Though at fifty-six he is relatively young, he has spent decades in the judiciary, serving as the general prosecutor as well as a member of the Special Court of the Clergy, which disciplines errant mullahs. The Special Court has aggressively prosecuted clerics who insist on a more liberal interpretation of Islam and call into question the prerogatives of the supreme leader. Raisi currently heads the Imam Reza Shrine, which, with a reputed $15 billion in assets, is one of the wealthiest religious foundations in the Middle East.

The most striking aspect of Raisi’s record is his participation in the so-called “death commission” of 1988. At that time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader, decided to execute many of Iran’s political prisoners. A commission of three judges was established to review the cases; one of them was Raisi. Upwards of five thousand prisoners, many of whom had already served their sentences, were put to death. Both Raisi’s presidential campaign and official Iranian media are attempting to whitewash this aspect of Raisi’s record, but it is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Islamic Republic and one that will burden his candidacy.

Conservatives point to the high unemployment rate as an indication that the much-touted arms control agreement has failed to generate the economic revival that Rouhani promised.

Raisi echoes the conservative critique of Rouhani’s stewardship of the still-sluggish economy. Conservatives point to the high unemployment rate, which is estimated at 12 percent and may be as high as 25 percent for Iranians twenty-nine and younger, as an indication that the much-touted arms control agreement has failed to generate the economic revival that Rouhani promised. Under the banner of “Work and Dignity,” Raisi is challenging Rouhani’s record and pledging to generate jobs, though he has not specified exactly how he would do so.

The Economic Stewardship Debate

Foreign policy has thus far not featured widely in this election. There appears to be a consensus within the establishment that Iran’s expanded activities in the Middle East should persist. Iran is embroiled in the Syrian civil war, trying to reshape Iraqi politics, and attempting to undermine the Sunni Gulf monarchies, yet none of these costly and contentious issues have been brought up by the candidates. The JCPOA is a source of friction, but mostly for its perceived failure to deliver an economic boost, though Rouhani insists conditions are improving.

Adding intrigue to the presidential race is the candidacy of the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard general. This will be his third run for the presidency. Hard-liners fear that his candidacy may split the conservative vote, thus aiding Rouhani. Qalibaf does not seem to enjoy the confidence of Khamenei, who appears to want to consolidate the conservative vote behind Raisi. Both candidates are united in attacking Rouhani’s record, and it remains to be seen whether they will both remain on the ballot. The conservatives want to unite behind a single candidate so that they do not repeat their experience in 2013, when a split vote delivered the election to Rouhani. 

It is impossible to predict who will win this election. The compressed electoral cycle and presidential debates, which are just beginning, will have an impact. It is hard to see how Raisi can win without manipulating the vote, which is a possibility, given his alignment with the country’s coercive institutions and his record of enabling human rights abuses. For Rouhani to prevail, he must win the election decisively. If the vote totals are close, the conservatives who oversee the election process are likely to nudge it toward the right—the extreme right.

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