‘Principlists’ concentrate attacks on Rohani

Sunday 12/03/2017
Helped by divisions. Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech at Azadi Square in Tehran, last February. (AFP)

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.