‘Principlists’ concentrate attacks on Rohani
London - Shortly after Hossein-Ali Amiri, Iranian vice-president for parliamentary affairs, confirmed to the official IRNA news agency that President Hassan Rohani would seek a second term in the election, due May 19th, the president visited Sistan-Baluchestan, a south-eastern province that polled heavily in his favour in 2013.
Front-page pictures of Rohani rising for the national anthem alongside Abdul-Hamid Esmail-Zehi, perhaps Iran’s pre-eminent Sunni cleric, conveyed a timely image to Iranian voters of a president seeking reconciliation but standing firm in an unstable world.
Rohani’s election platform will be continued international engagement and cautious economic reform.
The omens are generally good. Every Iranian president since Ali Khamenei in the 1980s has won a second term. “I consider Rohani the favourite,” said Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii. “Continuity and stability are in everyone’s mind and there’s a dearth of formidable challengers.”
Iran’s reformists may well back Rohani, as they did in 2013. However, a report in the reformist Shargh newspaper that Vice-President Eshagh Jahangiri is liaising between the reformists and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reflects both the possibility of a reformist candidate and the importance of Khamenei’s role in the build-up to the poll.
Rohani should be helped by divisions among principlists — known in Farsi as osulgarayan — who have been critical of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with world powers.
Hamidreza Baqaee, vice-president for executive affairs under Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already announced he would stand, although he could well be blocked by the watchdog Council of Guardians, which in 2013 barred Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Other principlists have established the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF) to agree on a single candidate but are struggling to find a charismatic figure. Among the names bandied about is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Tehran mayor who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2005 and 2013.
“Ghalibaf is the only potential big-name challenger,” said Farhi, “but he’s mired in a corruption scandal of his own. The Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces is struggling to come up with a platform to run on beyond the need for principlist unity.”
Saeed Jalili, the former top security official who from 2007 to 2013 took a belligerent stance in nuclear negotiations with the Europeans, is another possibility, although in the 2013 presidential election he polled only 11%.
“Jalili seems to be testing an anti- JCPOA narrative that’s not getting traction,” said Farhi. “(Overall) the critics (of the nuclear agreement) have not been able to come up with an alternative narrative to attract voters.”
An outside possibility for a principlist challenger is Ebrahim Raeisi, appointed in 2016 by Khamenei to chair the powerful foundation supervising the shrine in the north-eastern city of Mashhad of Imam Reza, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and the eighth Shia imam. Raeisi, though, is less well-known than Jalili and is more likely to concentrate on his existing role.
So far, most principlists are concentrating attacks on Rohani not on international affairs but on high pay levels among technocrats and officials. A populist appeal based on economic equality helped Ahmadinejad win in 2005 and would chime with the egalitarian values of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
It might also tap the popular mood. Despite the glowing International Monetary Fund report released at the end of February noting an “impressive recovery” and 6.6% growth in the year ending on March 21st, most Iranians are unconvinced they have benefited from sanctions relief.
Polling by Iranpoll and the University of Maryland found 51% of respondents saying in December that economic conditions were worsening and 75% said they agreed that the nuclear agreement had not improved matters.
Some in Tehran expected the election of Donald Trump as US president to bolster the principlists — although eyebrows were raised at the gushing 3,500-word letter from Ahmadinejad to Trump suggesting he had as US president “the historic opportunity with new reforms to be a pioneer of new and great developments and thus make history”.
Trump has not replied and talk in Washington is rather different. A recent submission to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee by Scott Modell, managing director of Rapidan Group consultants and a former CIA operative, proposed that the Trump administration “target the decayed base of popular support for the regime”, partly through US-government funded Farsi-language media “spearhead(ing) an information warfare campaign” among disgruntled workers, women and ethnic minorities.
Washington has a poor record in such work. President George W. Bush’s attempts to communicate directly with Iranians in his 2006 State of the Union address fell flat, while CIA support for militant ethnic separatists among, for example, the Baluchis and Kurds is likely to foster Persian nationalism.
Clumsy attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic might encourage turnout in the presidential election and, by putting Iran “on notice”, the Trump administration may well strengthen the appeal — both to voters and to Khamenei — of Rohani as a reliable but firm hand on the tiller.