Analysis

Vying to Stay in Power, Iran’s President Makes Bid for Reformist Vote

Hassan Rohani has lashed out at his three conservative rivals ahead of Friday’s election, criticizing the Revolutionary Guard and accusing one candidate of executing people

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Hassan Rohani hold his portrait during a campaign rally in the capital Tehran on May 4, 2017.
ATTA KENARE/AFP

“Security agencies are bringing people to your election rallies, who’s paying them?” asked Iranian President Hassan Rohani of his rival, Ebrahim Raisi, in a televised debate last Friday. It seems that the warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued on the eve of Israel’s last election about “Arabs being bused in droves” has reached Tehran. Perhaps we should hurry and register a patent on it before each of the six Iranian presidential candidates in Friday’s election uses it without paying royalties.

The debate, the last one before the May 19 election, was unusual in the direct, unbridled attacks the candidates made on one another, and also against the Revolutionary Guard, which have been backing Raisi.

During the previous debate the week before, Rohani had attacked the Revolutionary Guard (without mentioning them by name) as well as other government agencies that don’t pay taxes. In this debate he continued that tough stance. “If we want a better economy, we should not let groups with security and political backing get involved in the economy,” he declared alluding to the Guards and their affiliated organizations, which together control more than half the Iranian economy.

Rohani lashed out at another rival, Tehran Mayor Mohammed Beqar Qalibaf, a previous presidential contender, accusing him of being the one “who wanted to deal the students a mortal blow.” The Iranian president told Raisi that “your most prominent talent is executing people and imprisoning citizens.” Raisi was a member of the committee that in 1988 oversaw the executions of regime opponents.

Awakening Iran’s collective memory by recalling such traumatic events could perhaps help Rohani cope with the criticism being leveled at him by the reformists, who over the past two years have been frustrated by the president’s inability to keep his promises regarding civil rights. But the more conservative elements won’t be impressed by these reminders, since many of them were involved in the executions and even more of them supported the way the regime, during its early years, tried to “purify” the country of its opponents.

The need to shore up his support among the reformers, assuming that the conservatives will vote for their three candidates – Raisi, Qalibaf and Mustafa Mir-Salim – has also influenced his campaign strategy of telling his supporters things they want to hear. “I oppose the separation of men and women in society and in the universities. We won’t accept gender discrimination; we want social and political freedom,” he declared this week.

The question is whether these declarations will be enough to overcome the disappointment in his inability to keep his promises, and even more importantly if he will be able to win over the 40 percent of the public which generally doesn’t vote. That sector could decide the election results. During the last vote in 2013, Rohani got 50.1 percent of the vote, considerably more than his nearest rival, Qalibaf, who won a just over 16 percent.

But such an impressive victory is not assured this time, and if he doesn’t get at least 50 percent of the vote in the first round, he will have to contend in a second round, probably against Raisi, at which point anything could happen. The regime’s apparatuses including the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij resistance force, and most of the conservative religious scholars who support Raisi proved during the 2009 elections that they can skew the elections using subterfuge, vote-buying, threats, and by arresting rivals. That’s why it’s so important for Rohani to get out the “silent” voters to assure him a 50 percent majority that will prevent a second round. Working in Rohani’s favor is the fact that there are three conservative candidates who will split the vote and erode each other’s chances of victory.

These elections are focused on three issues: Iran’s financial crisis, which seems to be easing somewhat with growth at more than 6 percent, but still hasn’t managed to stem high unemployment; the possibility that Iran’s supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei, who is ill, could die; and the continuing implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Rohani’s primary objective is the removal of all economic sanctions against Iran — that, in an attempt to fulfill the promises he made before the last election as well as those that accompanied the negotiations over the 2015 nuclear agreement. This may prove to be a weak point given U.S. President Donald Trump’s firm anti-Iran stance and the possibility that he might impose even more sanctions.

The second issue, Khamenei’s life expectancy, could turn out to be critical, since the leading candidate to replace him is Raisi, who serves as a senior member of the Committee of Experts whose job it is to name a successor to the supreme leader. If Raisi ends up as supreme leader, then even if Rohani is reelected he will face a wall that will block any reforms he proposes.

The nuclear agreement, whose central clauses remain in effect for another eight years, will need the massive support of Rohani, as well as a leader like him in the next four-year presidential term. If Raisi is elected, the fate of the agreement will depend on one of the most conservative leaders Iran has ever known.