Iran’s conservatives scramble to find a presidential candidate
Beirut - Iranian elections are often decided late, with many voters making up their minds in the last few days or even when they reach the polling station but planning and manoeuvring within the political class have been under way for months for the election due in May when President Hassan Rohani is expected to seek a second term.
For principlists, self-styled steadfast defenders of the 1979 Islamic revolution and its ideals, the central question is how to defeat Rohani, who in 2013 was elected from a field of six with 50.88% of the vote and who has presided over limited economic recovery and the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with US-led world powers.
The first challenge is finding a credible candidate. Some principlists have set up the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF), which aims at agreeing on a single figure, circumventing the country’s lack of effective party structure and avoiding past experience in which principlists divided their impact and vote by fielding several candidates.
Among the PFIRF’s founders is Mehdi Chamran, brother of Mostafa, the commander and defence minister killed in 1981 in the Iraq war and famous for organising the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon after the 1979 revolution.
Mehdi Chamran and other PFIRF notables are strongly linked to the Guards, although Chamran is most associated with the Tehran City Council, which he has been chairman of twice since 2003.
Once a strong supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first as Tehran mayor and after 2005 as president, Chamran switched in the 2006 local elections to back the current mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.
Ghalibaf ran for president in 2005 and 2013 and might hope to be third time lucky. “There’s a good chance the PFIRF could support him,” said Saeid Golkar, a lecturer in the Middle East and North Africa studies programme at Northwestern University in Illinois and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
However, the collapse of a well-known Tehran 17-storey building in January, killing at least 20 firefighters, “has undermined him, along with belief in his management”, Golkar said.
Another possibility was hinted at in December’s comment from the spokesman of the Guardian Council, the elections vetting body, that a woman might be eligible.
This produced suggestions from professors and others than the constitutional term “statesman” is not gender-specific — giving impetus to the notion that Marzieh Vahid- Dastjerdi, a PFIRF founder and health minister in Ahmadinejad’s second government, might be the first female to stand for president.
Choosing a woman might be of limited help in challenging Rohani, said Golkar. “While she could attract women voters in big cities, she wouldn’t be a popular candidate for a patriarchal society like Iran, especially in rural areas,” he mused.
This was not the only factor working against her, Golkar added. “According to the PFIRF’s regulation, the founding members [of which she is one] cannot be nominated. She has also rejected the claim that she’ll run for the presidency.”
The principlists’ difficulties are compounded by the lingering presence of Ahmadinejad, whose followers gather mainly around Dolatbahar, a website that has failed to rule out his return, after being barred in the 2013 election by the constitutional limit on any president serving more than two consecutive terms.
On the other hand, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, in September gave unequivocal advice to Ahmadinejad, even if not naming him, not to stand “both for his own and the country’s good”.
The frustration for the principlists in struggling to find a viable candidate is exacerbated by the fact that Rohani is becoming vulnerable, both as US President Donald Trump daily confirms a hard-line narrative of “the Great Satan” squeezing Iran dry and as the public sees the nuclear agreement and any easing of international sanctions as failing to deliver expected benefits.
Polling in December by Iranpoll and the University of Maryland in the United States found that 59% of Iranian respondents said they opposed renegotiating the nuclear agreement, as some close to Trump have advocated.
Support for the deal was 55.4% against 33.6% opposing but this was clear slippage from August 2015, just after the agreement was signed, when the poll indicated 75% approving and 20.6% opposing.
The polling puts Rohani’s approval rating down from 82% in June 2016 to 69% in December. Given the way Iranian elections throw up surprises, there is no room for Rohani to be complacent.
In December, 51% of people asked said economic conditions were worsening compared to 43% in June. About 75% said they agreed that the nuclear agreement had not improved matters.
All of which shows promise for the principlists but the outcome depends on whether they can find the right candidate and utilise their considerable campaign experience built up through social media and traditional networks around mosques, welfare associations and the volunteer Basij militia.
The prize of the presidency would be all the sweeter if, as seems likely, defeat rules out Rohani in any subsequent contest to succeed Khamenei, 78 this year, as supreme leader.