Thursday, 27th April 2017

Rouhani prepares to take on hardliners to retain power in Iran

Shifting global political arithmetic seems to have fed into a shift in Iranian political calculations – as had been possible since Donald Trump’s election to lead the ‘Great Satan’ last November (GSN 1,026/15). A post-nuclear deal presidential election in which Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed happy to leave the way open for President Hassan Rouhani’s return as head of government has become much more competitive as the Islamic Republic’s various factions have reassessed their strategies. The 19 May election is now being widely characterised as a battle between Rouhani and the Rahbar’s protégé Razavi Ebrahim Raeisi (also written Raeesi), but regular candidate Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (or Qalibaf) may also be a serious contender this time round.

With the election campaign now under way, three of the six candidates appear to have a serious chance of winning, but much depends on the extent to that Khamenei decides to get involved. Rouhani has the advantage of incumbency (Iranian presidents can usually expect two terms) and is the main outwardly-oriented pragmatic/moderate candidate (GSN 1,034/41,021/1). He takes some credit for stabilising the economy and taking Iran back towards the international mainstream with the nuclear deal. But his economic record is mixed: rampant inflation may have been tamed, but unemployment remains high, as does a general sense of dissatisfaction among large swatches of the population – many of who might be tempted to vote for ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were the still ambitious populist allowed to stand.

Social discontent offers an opening to conservative/principalist contenders, including Raeisi, the hardliner reputed to be the supreme leader’s favoured candidate, and Ghalibaf, who has stood twice before. Ghalibaf came only a distant second to Rouhani in the 2013 race, but a recent opinion poll suggests he could be the greater threat this time. In a mid-April survey by, Ghalibaf was cited by 33% of people as being best placed to cut unemployment, compared to 27% for Rouhani and 9% for Raeisi. This is significant, as the lack of jobs is seen as the most important issue facing the country by a plurality of voters. Ghalibaf also had a higher favourability rating, with 67% saying they had a somewhat or very favourable opinion of him, compared to 62% for Rouhani and 32% for Raeisi.

Raeisi’s poor polling figures are a consequence of his low public profile. That is not necessarily a problem at this stage – Rouhani polled very weakly at the start of the 2013 campaign. Perhaps the biggest question around Raeisi’s candidacy is the extent to which Khamenei will be prepared to pull strings and push him towards the finishing line. In a speech on 19 April in Raeisi’s hometown of Mashhad, Khamenei said: “I don’t interfere in the election process at all”. But any failure at the ballot box would be a humiliation for Khamenei and would undermine Raeisi’s chances of ultimately taking over the top job. Chief custodian of the well-funded Astan Quds charity, Raeesi has in the past been named as a possible future rahbar (supreme leader).

The regime has certainy been known to get involved in the past; widespread voting irregularities in 2009 helped to give Ahmadinejad a second term and prompted waves of protests. Ahmadinejad later fell out of favour with Khameini and was barred from standing again this time, despite sloughing off the rahbar’s initial refuse to try to stand again (GSN 1,023/51,021/3). His ally Hamid Baghaei was also barred from standing.

A key test will be the televised debates, the first of which is due to air live on 28 April, following a U-turn by the Election Campaign Monitoring Committee, which had first decided that only a recorded version would be broadcast. If Raeisi fails to impress, there is always the possibility the regime could turn to more underhand tactics. Rouhani’s government is also capable of sharp practices. With interesting timing, the government enacted a 50% increase in monthly handouts to poorer families on 15 April.

The decision on who would be allowed to run came surprisingly quickly. Once nominations closed on 15 April, the Shora-ye Negahban-e Qanun-e Assassi (Guardian Council) began to draw up a list of approved candidates and it released the names on 20 April, a week earlier than expected. As usual, a huge number of people had put their names forward to enter the race. Some 1,636 candidates nominated themselves, ranging from 18 to 92 years in age and including 137 women. Three others were allowed to run:

• Eshaq Jahangiri, a vice president under Rouhani and seen as a fallback option for moderates in case the president had been barred from running;

• Mostafa Hashemitaba, another moderate who served as vice president under late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s; and

• Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative promoted by the centre-right Islamic Coalition Party and an adviser to Khamenei when he was president.

Campaigning officially began on 21 April and will run until 18 May. Raeisi and Ghalibaf have made criticism of the economic situation a central theme of their campaigns.

Rouhani has been campaigning hard, if unofficially, for several weeks, visiting at least nine provinces since the Iranian year began, on 21 March. It has been hard to separate these visits’ plethora of project launches, hospital and factory openings and job creation announcements from the election. Rouhani’s government has set an aim of creating 700,000 new jobs this year; Ghalibaf has said 5m are needed.

The United States appears to be doing its best to ratchet up the pressure, with more threatening rhetoric emerging from Trump and secretary of state Rex Tillerson in recent weeks. That could undermine Rouhani, playing into his opponents’ narrative that Tehran squandered too much in return for too little in the nuclear deal. However, the threat of renewed deeper confrontation with the US could turn off voters from Raeisi or even Ghalibaf, whose election would most likely increase tensions further.

The Iranian population has a history of opting for the most liberal or reformist candidate available, when given the option. Rouhani remains the favourite for now, although it would be a surprise if he won an outright victory in the first round of voting, without the need for a second run-off round, as happened in 2013. The chances of that happening would, however, be boosted if Jahangiri and perhaps Hashemitaba decided to pull out of the election before polling day, throwing their weight behind the incumbent.

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