Early battle lines drawn in Iran presidential race

Sunday 06/11/2016
Iran’s President Hassan Rohani listens during a news conference, after addressing the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, last September, in New York. (AP)

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.