Analysis

Iran Elections: Struggling Economy, Not Security or Foreign Policy, Will Determine Rohani's Fate

Voters in Iran face rising unemployment, high costs of living and inflation. Now they must decide if they want their next president to be a supreme leader-in-training, or a leader who wants a second chance

Iranians walk by a wall plastered with election posters backing President Hassan Rohani in Tehran, May 18, 2017.
ATTA KENARE/AFP

When U.S. President Donald Trump meets the leaders of the Gulf States who were invited to Saudi Arabia to meet the world’s new illusive leader on Saturday, Iran may already know the identity of its next president.

Will it be Ebrahim Raisi, who will challenge the pro-West strategy, or will Hassan Rohani be granted another, last term to continue the quest for rapprochement with the West?

Trump won’t be the only one who must measure his words regarding Iran. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s staunch rival, will also face a dilemma. Rohani may advance a reconciliation between the two states, while Raisi is expected to continue branding Saudi Arabia as an American, Zionist extension.

The strategic ties between the Gulf States and the U.S. administration in recent years have relied on the threat projected by Iran. A sense the Obama administration preferred Iran to the old alliance with Saudi Arabia fueled a rift between the sides. Iran shapes Saudi Arabia’s policy in Lebanon and Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, hence Saudi Arabia’s great interest in the election.

It’s hard to rely on Iranian public opinion polls, which are apparently intended to affect voters more than reflect their opinion. While the Fars news agency gave Raisi 47.9 percent and Rohani 44.8 percent, the Iranian polls center predicts Rohani to win by a 43-24 percent margin. More importantly, no pollster gives either of them the required 50 percent to prevent a runoff. The final outcome could very well have to wait for a second round next week.

Supporters of both candidates focus on two main issues. Rohani’s rivals accuse his administration of corruption and economic failure, while his supporters threaten that Raisi will cut Iran off from the world and bury the chance of economy recovery. The economy, not security or foreign policy, is the name of the game in these elections, and the candidates have toxic ammunition against each other. Rohani can point to significant achievements – inflation fell from about 40 percent in 2013 to a “mere” 9.5 percent in 2016; growth soared to 6.5 percent; huge foreign investments have poured in; and billion dollar agreements were signed with European states, Russia and the United States. The first new Airbus planes will start landing in Iran’s airport next week. The auto industry is thriving. Persian carpets were exported to the United States. Iranian oil is flowing back to East Asian markets.

But the money still hasn’t trickled down to the people. Unemployment is above 12 percent, reaching 27 percent among young adults. New work places are slow to appear. Bank reform is far off. Housing prices are rising. The gap between the rich and the poor persists.

Even if reelected, Rohani’s strong political rivals may thwart any reform he tries to bring about. His rival Raisi has numerous supporters in government, the conservative religious elites, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij, all waiting for the moment Raisi contends for the succession of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Raisi is presumably being “promoted” to president as a stage in his training for the supreme leadership post. Hence, victory is important to him and Khamenei. One who fails in the presidential election will hardly gain the legitimacy to be elected supreme leader.

To demonstrate his ideological loyalty, Raisi is directing most of his barbs against what he calls Rohani’s groveling to the West and especially to the United States. He calls Rohani’s administration “the humiliation government” that hastened to shake the hand of the United States, Iran’s greatest enemy.

Raisi has no government or foreign policy experience. His advantage is his closeness to Khamenei and his control of the largest charity organization in Iran. He can count on the hundreds of thousands of Basij volunteers to work for him throughout the state and on his full coffers to buy votes.

Human and civil rights have also become a key issue in the campaign. Rohani, who was elected four years ago after promising more freedom of expression and bolstering human rights, doesn’t have much to brag about. He failed to prevent newspapers’ closure, release political prisoners, stop mass executions, change school and university curricula or even get the sanctions completely lifted. Rohani explains his failure by having to choose between confronting the conservatives on ideological-religious issues and appeasing them in order to reduce their objection to the nuclear deal, which he saw as a key to both economic change and social reform.

Rohani chose, justly, to advance the nuclear agreement and was even backed by Khamenei. But now, the post-agreement struggle against him will be ideological and intended to prevent any reforms beyond economic ones.

It is almost certain that the nuclear agreement will be upheld even if Raisi is elected, as the conservatives have realized how much the sanctions undermine the Islamic regime’s legitimacy. The United States could help Rohani more by revoking more sanctions and not threaten Iran with additional ones.