The Iranian Presidential election of 2017: Rouhani challenges the conservatives

Thursday, 18 May, 2017

Pejman Abdolmohammadi

Presidential elections will take place on May 19 2017 in Iran. There are six official candidates who are running for the presidency in this round who have been pre-selected by the Council of Guardians from among 1653 candidates. This means that the Council of Guardians has approved that these six persons have all the requirements, foreseen through the Constitution, to eventually become the President of the Islamic Republic.

The current President Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ebrahim Raisi, Eshagh Jahangiri, Mostafa Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba were the six candidates until Ghalibaf withrew from the race on behalf of the other conservative candidate, Raisi, and Jahangiri in favour of Rouhani. The last two are not among the main competitors as they are lesser known figures or quite marginalised within the main factions of the Islamic Republic. 

At the moment Rouhani and Raisi are likely the main competitors for the Presidential race in 2017. Among them, Rouhani comes from the pragmatist faction of the Islamic Republic while Raisi comes from the conservative front.

Rouhani also has the endorsement of the reformist front and the support of a part of the soft oppositional groups of the Islamic Republic such as the so called “Melli-Mazhabi” faction, which is affiliated with the unrecognised party “Nehzat-e Azadi” (Movement for the Freedom). Moreover, Rouhani might rely on certain traditional conservatives who are supportive of his foreign policy and political economic policies.

Rouhani has an important international and domestic reputation following the “nuclear deal” last year and some Iranian voters support him for this. However, the economic crisis in Iran has also grown under his first term and the class divergence between the rich and the poor is growing in Iran. The inflation and unemployment rate are still high. Moreover, the incumbent President did not respect his electoral promises regarding reducing the limitations of civil liberties in Iran. These elements might damage his popularity in this election and provoke a lack of consensus among Iranians compared with the 2013 election. 

On the conservative front, Raisi is supported by the so called “Deep State” and he has close ties with the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is among the most loyal clergy of the Supreme Guide and has taken relevant positions within the Judiciary System of the Islamic Republic together with fulfilling strategic roles in the national security apparatus.

Lastly, he was appointed as head of one of the most important and wealthy religious foundations (Astan-e Quds-e Razavi) in Mashhad, with responsibility for overseeing the country's holiest Shi’a shrine of Imam Reza. This foundation is one of the most influential within the Iranian system.

Moreover, Raisi has the endorsement of the conservatives and hardliners of the Shi’a clergy both in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. He is also supported by a part of the IRGC and the Supreme Guide’s Office (Beyt-e Rahbari). However, Raisi has not been a very public figure in recent decades and for this reason not many Iranians know him well. Further there has been damage to his image related to his participation as Islamic Judge in the so-called "death commissions" during the eighties, which were responsible for approving the death penalty for many political prisoners opposing the Islamic Republic who had been sentenced to time in prison.

Raisi has gained also the endorsement of Ghalibaf who has the support of a part of the conservative front, particularly sections of the IRGC which have recently been more involved in the economic, logistic, energy and banking fields. 

According to this analysis, the upcoming elections might differ with the previous one for the following elements:

1) In the last twenty years of the Islamic Republic, the “Deep State” supported the President in charge so that he might be elected for a second mandate. This could lie in an alleged guarantee for stability of the Islamic Republic, both on the domestic and foreign policy. Starting from the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the three Presidents, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad have been always re-elected regardless of their political affiliations. In no cases has the establishment promoted challenging competitors to obstacle their re-elections. 

This time the facts seem different. The President Rouhani is a pragmatist and the establishment promotes, at least until now, a relevant conservative competitor in Raisi. As stated above, he has the endorsement of the office of the Supreme Guide together with the support of an important part of the Shi’a conservative clergy and a part of IRGC. This might make this election more sensible and totally different than the previous one.

2) The paradigm shift in global policy promoted by President Donald J. Trump in the United States.  The election of Trump together with the end of Obama’s doctrine will also influence the domestic Iranian political balance of power. The opening of the Obama-Kerry axis towards Teheran, in recent years, strengthened the pragmatist position in the Islamic Republic and consequently Rouhani managed to increase his power during the last three years. Now, with the end of Obama’s administration and the rise of Trump, the pragmatists might suffer and become more fragile in dealing with conservative challenges. Furthermore, as much as Trump will increase pressure over Assad in Syria and over other allies of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Yemen and Lebanon, the Iranian establishment might feel threatened and could promote a more conservative President as a reaction to the new American foreign policy in the Middle East. Also the support towards Saudi Arabia and Israel, main competitors of Iran in the region, might strengthen Iranian hardliners’ position. 

3) The health of the Islamic Republic's Supreme Guide and his possible death within the next 4 years (before the 2021 presidential elections). Even though the news concerning Khamenei’s health problem has been circulating in the media for several years, according to several internal sources it seems that his health situation is now quite bad and he might die quite soon. If true, this might justify the establishment promoting the candidacy of Ayatollah Raisi who is entrusted to Khamenei. There are also several hypotheses confirming that Raisi might be one of the possible candidates to succeed Khamenei. If Khamenei dies relatively soon, then it is important that the conservatives have the presidency of the Islamic Republic in their pocket. This will help them better handle the transition of power. 

The withdrawing of Ghalibaf reinforces the position of Raisi as almost all the conservative front is united on behalf of him. With Ghalibaf’s endorsement to Raisi we should expect a challenging election full of tension which might provoke new internal conflicts in Iran. According to the latest surveys, Rouhani is still the favourite with around 40% of consensus, while Raisi and Ghalibaf would be around 15% and 24% each. It means if Ghalibaf voters really follow his endorsement and consequently vote for Raisi, we might have a very close competition between the two candidates. 

Last but not least, it should be also emphasised that a part of the population normally does not vote to express their critique or protest towards the Islamic Republic. Normally, this oppositional part of the Iranian electoral body has been around the 30% mark, which is quite significant. If a percentage of this block decided to go to vote, they would normally vote for the most pragmatist or reformist candidate, following the logic of the “least worst”, which in this case would be Rouhani. We should also see how successful Rouhani will be in attracting this vote which might be helpful to him for his challenge against Raisi. 

However, in the last hours the tensions are amplified. Rouhani has been changing his strategy, adopting a more critical language against the conservative fronts, also towards the Supreme Guide, and, from the other side, also Raisi is increasing significantly his attacks against the pragmatist and Rouhani in particular. 

The result of this election will influence significantly the domestic and foreign policies of Iran in the coming years. If Rouhani emerges as the winner, Tehran would likely continue its opening toward the West, particularly on the economic level, while it will not be clear the effect over Iran’s involvement in the Middle East crisis. If Raisi wins, there would likely be changes in the foreign policy of the new government. The role of Russia and China would be strengthened as global allies and the opening toward the West would decrease significantly. The Islamic Republic would be more involved in regional conflicts. On the economic front, there would likely be less attention on liberalization and privatization.


Pejman Abdolmohammadi, Università di Genova and London School of Economics

*This Commentary was written on May 16th