Resilient Rohani defies critics in presidential race
London - While scheduled well in advance, Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s trip to Moscow in late March could hardly have been better timed. Russian President Vladimir Putin called bilateral relations “friendly and respectful”, citing a 70% increase in bilateral trade in 2016.
Barely a week later, talk within the Trump administration of prising Tehran and Moscow apart ended with US missile strikes on Syria.
Internationally and at home, Rohani is proving far more resilient than his critics expected.
With the 2015 nuclear agreement surviving an American president who had vowed to tear it up, Rohani remains favoured to secure a second term in Iran’s own presidential poll in May.
In announcing at the end of March sanctions on 15 US companies, largely involved in arms and real estate, which had aided Israeli “terrorism” and the expansion of Jewish settlements, Iran responded to the Trump administration’s latest sanctions listing 30 companies and individuals from China, North Korea and the United Arab Emirates for links to Iran’s ballistic missile programme or for the supply of restricted goods.
In more tit for tat, parliamentary deputies in Tehran threaten to list the CIA as “terrorist” if the US so brands Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Tehran’s behaviour is symbolic but emphasises to other signatories of the nuclear agreement — Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain — that the United States, not Iran, threatens the deal.
The Trump administration’s $2.1 billion fine on the Chinese company ZTE for supplying Iran with partly US-made goods has done little to deter foreign businesses moving back to Iran.
Iranian government figures put foreign direct investment up from $1.26 billion in 2015 to $11 billion in 2016 following the easing of US and EU sanctions after the 2015 agreement. French carmakers Peugeot and Renault have already doubled sales.
In announcing its latest $3 billion deal with Iran, following the even larger one agreed in December, Boeing referred to the 18,000 jobs it would retain or create in the United States.
Others, especially energy companies Total, OMV and Royal Dutch Shell, are pausing after signing memoranda of understanding, both to assess US policy and for the outcome of Iran’s presidential election in May.
Western banks, some of which have previously faced high US fines for involvement in Iran, are also cautious but it seems likely that if the nuclear deal remains in place later this year, then foreign investment will rise further.
Within domestic politics, Rohani’s critics in the principlist camp have still to agree on a single candidate for May.
The Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF), a principlist grouping established to agree on a single candidate, has drawn up a shortlist of five, which includes Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ibrahim Raeisi, who heads the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.
In a letter published in the state news agency IRNA on April 9, Raeisi suggested he would run anyway to establish a “powerful and aware administration for serving people and fighting discrimination, poverty and corruption.”
This surprised many who expected Raeisi, who was appointed to the shrine in 2016, would wait for the political battle over who will succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
The looming succession struggle complicates the presidential election as rivals such as judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani will consider whether being president would hinder Raeisi’s chances.
The reformists, aware that anyone from their midst would be unlikely to be ratified by the watchdog Guardian Council, will back Rohani, who as president has eased social restrictions as well as maintained the nuclear agreement.
Clearly, Rohani can benefit from principlist divisions. “Ghalibaf came fourth in the list of five PFIRF candidates still in the running for the front’s candidacy,” Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii said, “but with Raeisi saying that he’s running, Ghalibaf’s chances have been reduced.
“Apparently PFIRF was negotiating with him to run as Raeisi’s first vice-president, but not with much success, at least for now. With the exception of Rohani’s definite plan to run, with solid support from the reformist-centrist alliance, nothing is settled yet.”
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has confirmed his support for one of his vice-presidents, Hamid Baqaei, after announcing he will not himself run.
Ahmadinejad now says he will run. He had been advised by Khamenei not to stand and Baqaei could be barred by the Guardian Council as a member of what principlists call “the deviant current” associated with Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei warned in his Nowruz speech in late March against any repeat of the wide-scale unrest of 2009, when reformists disputed Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
His criticisms of Rohani, however, were muted. This suggests that while the leader would lose no sleep if Rohani were re-elected and would welcome a competitive election to demonstrate the vitality of “Islamic democracy”, he may also be concerned at passions becoming too heated.