Early battle lines drawn in Iran presidential race
London - Iran’s May 2017 presidential election is shaping up to be a referendum on President Hassan Rohani’s foreign policy towards Western powers and whether last year’s landmark nuclear deal has delivered the economic benefits he promised.
In the run-up to the election, Rohani and his allies will try to show there have been concrete economic benefits flowing from the nuclear deal with world powers and resulting easing of international sanctions. Rohani’s centrist-reformist alliance should run a strong campaign judging by its impressive performance in the parliamentary elections last March.
But the rival camp — the principlists and conservatives — are fragmented and beset by a wide range of seemingly intractable intra-factional disputes. Despite the government’s mixed performance on the economy, the conservatives will struggle to put up a strong candidate to challenge Rohani.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in October issued 18 general policies on how the elections should be conducted. These guidelines, issued in line with Article 110 of the Iranian constitution, mostly relate to election finance, transparency and the absolute prohibition of electoral interference by the armed forces and the security and intelligence agencies.
Immediately afterward, the political director of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Rasoul Sanai-Raad, set out the case for a distinction between political “interference” and “illumination”. Sanai-Raad argued that “illumination” is legitimate insofar as it allows the IRGC to keep abreast of political developments.
Potential IRGC interference is a major concern for the ruling centrist-reformist coalition on two counts. Foremost, the IRGC maintains a considerable social base, particularly through its Basij (Mobilisation) paramilitary arm. Basijis can mobilise or manipulate working-class public opinion at crucial moments, such as during elections, through their control of mosques and other important community centres.
Second, at an ideological level, the IRGC is close to the principlist factions and thus has a stake in their electoral success. This explains why, as far as centrists and reformists are concerned, “illumination” is a code word for subtle forms of interference.
The major issues in the forthcoming election are the economy and foreign policy. The two are inextricably linked in the form of promised sanctions relief flowing from the nuclear deal and subsequent rapid economic recovery.
The conservative-principlist coalition has continually accused the Rohani administration of making false promises on sanctions relief. It argues that more than 15 months after the landmark nuclear deal, key sanctions — particularly in the banking and finance sectors — remain in place and have stifled economic recovery.
The government has defended the nuclear deal, arguing that Western parties, notably the United States, have not fulfilled their part of the bargain and are dragging their heels over removing sanctions.
To stand a credible chance of unseating Rohani at the polls, the conservative-principlist coalition must field an exceptionally strong candidate. Although Rohani is not a popular or charismatic leader, he maintains an electoral advantage by delivering on his key promise of resolving the nuclear crisis and thus potentially averting a major war in the region.
The conservatives and principlists do not have a track record of coherent campaigning and intra-faction solidarity. On the contrary, close to elections they tend to fall apart as manifested by the number of candidates they field. Multiple candidates would split the conservative-principlist vote.
One principlist candidate who stood a strong chance of defeating Rohani was former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but Khamenei intervened in September to force him out of the race.
Ahmadinejad’s departure is not necessarily a blow to the conservative-principlist camp insofar as the former president is not officially endorsed by any major faction. Ahmadinejad is also a deeply polarising figure whose presence in the campaign would have likely generated even greater discord among conservatives and may have produced political instability on the national stage.
Candidates will slowly emerge in the coming months but now there is not a single obvious conservative or principlist candidate who has the credentials, popularity and charisma to credibly challenge Rohani. If there is not a strong challenger, the May 2017 election will likely prove to be a dull affair and the result a foregone conclusion.