Incumbent faces hurdles in Iran elections, Trump no help
London - With Iranian presidential elections looming, the incumbent, Hassan Rohani, kicked off his campaign in earnest by issuing a mild warning to “armed forces” and other state institutions, including the judiciary, from interfering in the electoral process.
By “armed forces” Rohani means the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and specifically its paramilitary wing, the Basij. The latter has an extensive nationwide network centred on mosques and other community focal points, particularly in working-class and rural areas.
In previous elections, particularly in the disputed June 2009 presidential race, the Basij was accused of using its position to lobby for specific candidates, notably principlist politicians. It is worth noting that the IRGC’s foundational charter forbids the military organisation from meddling in politics.
In terms of his electoral prospects, public posturing notwithstanding, Rohani may be less fearful of IRGC intervention than of his relatively weak sociopolitical base. Regional and international events are also conspiring against him, calling into question the long-term viability of Rohani’s singular success, notably the nuclear accord reached in July 2015.
From an organisational point of view, Rohani achieved electoral success in June 2013 largely on the back of campaigning efforts by local groups loosely aligned to the country’s embattled reform movement. Despite suffering a shattering defeat at street and political levels in 2009-10 (following the disputed presidential elections), the reformists maintained local networks and can mobilise quickly to support allied candidates.
Rohani’s Achilles heel is his lack of an independent political base. This is partly a reflection of his career, which has had less to do with politics than security services and in part a symptom of his uncharismatic and authoritarian personality.
A securocrat by instinct and training, prior to becoming president Rohani had spent more than 30 years working at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic’s security establishment. This is not necessarily the best training for a career in Iranian politics, for while the latter is notoriously fractious and ill-disciplined, the country’s security establishment is remarkably cohesive in ideological and organisational terms.
Furthermore, Rohani’s temperament is not best suited for the kind of consistent coalition building required for long-term survival at the apex of Iranian politics. By most credible accounts, the Iranian president is authoritarian by instinct and is ill-disposed towards criticism. This makes it hard for him to reach out to opponents, a prerequisite for sustainable success in the Islamic Republic’s labyrinthine political community.
At a strategic level, the Iranian political landscape no longer offers favourable terms to Rohani as it did in 2013. Rohani achieved success by bringing centrists and reformists together, thereby compensating for his weak organisational base by piggybacking on the reformists’ nationwide political networks.
At a leadership level, the reformists continue to be in disarray with the leaders of the so-called Green movement, notably former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, still subject to severe restrictions. Rohani disappointed reformists by not taking any determined action to secure their release from house arrest.
Moreover, the spiritual leader of the country’s reform movement — former president Mohammad Khatami — is also subject to restrictions, notably a media blackout and inability to engage in foreign travel.
Most damaging to Rohani, however, was the death of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in January. A pragmatic centrist, Rafsanjani was key to bridging the divide between Rohani and the reformists by underwriting multiple political deals. Rafsanjani’s demise has been correctly interpreted as a boost to the principlists and conservatives in the lead up to May’s presidential elections.
The dramatic transformation in Washington heralded by the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency does not bode well for Rohani and his allies. Apart from an acute personality clash — Rohani is measured and ultra-rational compared to the mercurial Trump — the latter’s hard-line approach towards Iran has effectively ended the tentative détente in US-Iranian relations.
Specifically, the Trump administration threatens the centrepiece of Rohani’s presidency, namely the nuclear accord and the resulting partial lifting of the economic siege on Iran. Sanctions relief, however, has been too slow to reap Rohani the desired political dividends.
Qualified sanctions relief speaks to the Rohani administration’s overall economic performance, which has been less than spectacular. Lack of a strong economic record, coupled with his overall lack of popularity, considerably reduces Rohani’s electoral prospects.
Significant vulnerabilities notwithstanding, two crucial factors work in the incumbent’s favour. First, sitting Iranian presidents have never failed to secure a second term at the polls, no matter how poor their performance. Second, a strong rival to Rohani has yet to emerge.
In terms of competition, Rohani received a huge boost in September when his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was effectively barred from contesting future presidential elections.
Nevertheless, one of Ahmadinejad’s protégés, Hamid Baqai, looks set to contest the elections, unless he is disqualified by the Council of Guardians. With an Ahmadinejad ally in the fray, May’s elections are set to be interesting, if not a foregone conclusion.