Note from LeftEast Editors: This article is republished from the blog Presidential Power, which follows the activity of both directly elected and indirectly elected presidents.
On Friday 19th May, Iranians residing in the Islamic Republic and abroad confirmed Hassan Rouhani as the president of the Republic. The electoral campaign had been particularly contentious, and since the first TV debate among the candidates, tones had turned harsh. “Iran again” (Iran dobare) is the post-election slogan that Rouhani’s supporters had chosen. However, in office again Rouhani will need to deal with a number of new challenges that will require a new approach. In particular, he will need to navigate the fractures and divisions within the elite in order to make sure that Iran’s position in foreign politics is credible, as the government prepares to deal with significant challenges ranging from the Trump administration and the Syria file, to the fate of the nuclear agreement of 2015. In order to do this, Rouhani will need to reach out to his conservative rivals in the elite, but this will come with a price. What will the president sacrifice in order to maintain stability? And who will pay the price for it?
Iran has been a hybrid-type of presidential republic since 1989. The 1989 reform had the effect of giving a counter-power to the highest office in the Islamic Republic. While, constitutionally, the rahbar or Supreme Leader is more powerful than the president and may count on a religious and political legitimacy, the president has always acted as a competitor to the Leader. As Jason Rezaian wrote, no matters who the president is, “he’ll have a fight with the supreme leader” on the foreign politics, the economy or on issues related to the role of the judiciary in curbing dissent or shutting down the press that dares to criticise the elite in power. Since 1989, this contentious pattern has repeated itself, regardless of the ideological affinity of the Leader and the president.
During Rouhani’s first term in office (2013-2017), the fights between Rouhani and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mostly revolved around the 2015 nuclear agreement. Although it was reached thanks to the support of Khamenei (who has the last word in matters of foreign policy), the deal was criticised by Khamenei himself and other conservative voices for “selling Iran to the West”. This slogan referred to the conditions that Iran had to accept in exchange for going on with the nuclear programme. In particular, the continuation of sanctions and the limitation in missile activities and trade caused an angry reaction on the part of the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards (the paramilitary apparatus, under the control of the Supreme Leader), who are heavily involved in such military activities.
Khamenei will continue to fight with Rouhani, who received 57.31% of the votes cast. Rouhani’s main rival, Ebrahim Reissi, gathered 38.29% of the preferences. Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative former Minister of Culture, received 1.16% of the votes, and Hashemi-Taba, a reformist former vice-president, 0.52%. With a turnout of 70%, Rouhani received more than 23 and a half million votes, while Reissi less than 16 million. Polls had to significantly delay the closing time in order to accommodate all voters who had waited long hours to cast their vote.
Ebrahim Reissi, Rouhani’s main contender, was the rahbar’s favourite candidate and a powerful man himself. He is a former general prosecutor in Iran’s judiciary, and he was involved in the mass executions of Leftists during the 1980s. He also is the guardian of the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad, to which a powerful bonyad (or economic foundation) is related, called Astan-e Quds Razavi. This foundation is one of the most powerful charities in the Muslim world. Reissi was appointed to that role by the Supreme Leader himself. He is usually referred to as a hard-liner in foreign politics and, socially, a conservative. It is important to keep in mind that all candidates are, to a different extent, insiders and part of the establishment. In fact, they all have to receive permission to run in elections by the Guardian Council, which assesses the suitability of every candidate. Rouhani is not different, and he also has a long history of service to the regime in key positions. He was a parliamentary member, the deputy of the parliament’s spokesperson, and, crucially, he has been the secretary of the Supreme Council of National Security for 16 years, a position that partly explains his diplomatic successes. In fact, the supreme council has taken part in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme since 2002, along with diplomats from Western countries and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rouhani was appointed to that post by the former president Hashemi Rasfanjani (1989-1997) and re-confirmed by Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He however resigned the position when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president (2005-2013). In 2013, Rouhani campaigned presenting himself as the candidate of moderation, calling for a moderate politics in the international as well as in the domestic arenas.
Although all candidates are insiders, and have to be so, differences exist. First of all, the landscape of domestic politics in Iran is highly factionalised and divided, although two main trends can be identified: the conservatives, who have the backing of the Supreme Leader and the security apparatus, and the reformists, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of the semi-private sector, the moderates and the technocratic elite. These groups have however overlapped and crossed paths during the years. For example, the electoral list that backed Rouhani’s government in the parliamentary election in 2012, namely the “Omid” (hope) list, also included staunch conservatives. Ali Larijani, the conservative spokesperson of the parliament, and Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, another well-known conservative, have publicly declared their support for Rouhani and his moderate agenda.
The electoral campaigns that preceded the 2017 election included however elements of conflict and political contention. For instance, diverging economic visions were on display, and different economic recipes for boosting the economy were presented to the electorate. While the conservative candidates resorted to the promise of increasing economic subsidies, Rouhani denounced these promises as unattainable and remained faithful to his purpose of attracting direct foreign investments (DFIs) in Iran and continuing with privatization. The candidates’ approach to foreign politics also presents important differences, with Rouhani emphasising the need for further engagement with the West and Reissi mostly condemning Rouhani’s past policies as subservient to the West. The economic aspect is fundamental here: while Rouhani promotes the presence of foreign capital in the country, to be attracted thanks to a mix of diplomatic engagement and public efforts, Reissi opposes it because he represents the domestic constituencies that benefit from the absence of foreign capital and privatization.
Also in terms of domestic politics, positions were different and the tone and the language used by the candidates varied as the campaign went on. Values such as national sovereignty and independence were emphasised by Reissi and his supporters, while Rouhani and his supporters focused attention on different issues. Beyond the economy, which was present topic in the electoral campaigns of all candidates, issues such as civil rights and the freedom of political prisoners also featured prominently in Rouhani’s campaign. An example is this video, in which the actress Baran Kosari addresses the audience during a rally in favour of Rouhani naming political prisoners, such as Bahareh Hedayat and her husband, and victims of violence such as Sohrab Arabi, a 19 year-old young man who died during the repression of the 2009 protest movement. This movement, known as the “green movement”, emerged in opposition to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2009. Another video shows Rouhani’s supporters celebrating his victory and chanting the slogan “Atena Daemi must be freed”. Daemi, a young woman, was incarcerated in 2014 for “insulting the Leader”, and is now on hunger strike. Rouhani resonated these calls for freedom, civil and political rights as he also did during his 2013 electoral campaign. According to the journalist Borzou Daraghi, Rouhani seemed to run “against the system he helped create” after the 1979 revolution. However, as Suzanne Maloney underlined, it is very unlikely that Rouhani’s strong criticisms of the system and its record in respecting human rights will be translated into actual policies. In a sense, Rouhani may have tried to play the card of the outsider, along with people such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, although in a very different context.
Seeds of a new system?
During the electoral race, two candidates, Eshaq Jahangiri and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, resigned in favour of the two main contenders, respectively Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Reissi.
Jahangiri is Rouhani’s former vice-president, while Ghalibarf is the current mayor of Tehran. The two candidatures had a different meaning. While it is common for weaker candidates to stand in order to create momentum for the election and later resign in favour of stronger candidates, as was with the case of Jahagiri, Ghalibaf’s candidacy did not serve that purpose. In fact, it was a real candidacy, at least it was until four days before election day.
The mayor of Tehran has run for the presidency three times now, with little success. However, he has been re-elected by Tehran’s city council twice as mayor, and his mandates (2005-2017) focused on developing Tehran’s civil infrastructures, from building an efficient metro network to rebuilding the road system. The mayor also developed the construction sector to an unprecedented level, according to some, making Tehran a city where living has become almost unbearable. In particular, he has been accused of not doing enough to solve the problem of pollution and other issues deriving from over-population and poor traffic management. However, he demonstrated that he was able to bring huge investments to the capital. It is not surprising, then, that his electorate is also composed of technocratic, wealthy people who benefitted from his work as the mayor of the capital and who may be in favour of integrating Iran in the free market international system.
Ghalibaf’s decision to drop out the presidential race, as Farzan Sabet comments, represented an attempt to unify the conservative vote behind Reissi. The conservative bloc in the parliament and in the institutions of the Islamic Republic has been, over the past years, increasingly factionalised. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the 2009 crisis and the very violent repression that repressed the “green movement” created multiple fractures within the conservative bloc. Ghalibaf’s decision was then intended to unite the conservatives and make them vote for Reissi with one single voice.
However, it is likely that part of Ghalibaf’s electorate diverted their vote in favour of Rouhani, who has worked in the past years to reach out and consolidate support among the semi-private sector, regardless of possibly different ideological orientations. It is no coincidence that during the first weeks of the electoral campaign, reformists and Rouhani’s supporters called for a “national dialogue” with “moderate conservatives” – a proposal the Supreme Leader labelled as impractical. The attempted goal was to isolate the hard-liners and reinforce the moderates in both the conservative and the reformist camp, to make support for Rouhani stronger and cross-factional.
Rouhani’s re-election, then, strengthens his position vis-à-vis Supreme Leader Khamenei. The rivalry between the two is feeding another debate that has recently haunted the Islamic Republic, namely the possibility of a constitutional reform. Politicians and opinion-makers have suggested that there are too many competing centres of power in the country, making governance arrangements and decision-making somehow dysfunctional. After favouring a type of presidential system over a parliamentary one, the same policy-makers are now suggesting that eliminating the president and establishing a parliamentary system would solve this problem. Here, executive power, in fact, would entirely rely in the hands of the leader and the legislative function would be in the only hands of the parliament. This proposal is supported by Rouhani. It is likely that Rouhani thinks of himself as the next Leader, considering that the incumbent one is old and, according to rumours, seriously ill. The proposal is backed by Khamenei too, who sees only benefits for his position, should the presidency be eliminated. The proposal would also have the benefit of eliminating potentially de-stabilising moments in the politics of the Islamic Republic, such as presidential elections. These elections mobilise Iranian society, empowers it and therefore create opportunities for major disruptions and protests, such as the 2009 “green movement”.
Rouhani will need to square a circle, starting with Iran’s foreign policy. US aversion toward Iran (confirmed during Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20th) is not new to the Iranian establishment, but it may now manifest itself differently in the context of the regional, Syrian crisis. As the US and Russia seem to have grown closer on the Syria file, it remains to be seen how this will impact on Iran. In particular, the consequence of this will impact on Iran’s traditional anti-Israel policy in Syria. Not only have Russia and Israel already collaborated in military activities in Syria and have a flourishing weapons trade, but US rapprochement with Russia may strengthen the Moscow-Tel Aviv axis, with an effect on the Moscow-Tehran one.
Despite unfavourable circumstances, Rouhani’s election may re-unite the conservative front. This could happen if Rouhani’s rent distribution fails or if Rouhani’s international policies create major discontent. The question of foreign investments is crucial here. Iran is still a long way from being able to significantly increase the quantity of foreign investments because of a number of factors, among which is the fact that Iran has been under sanctions for decades and has therefore developed a quasi self-sufficient financial system. However, should FDI significantly increase and should Rouhani’s administration fail to distribute rents efficiently, Rouhani may face a significant challenge from powerful sectors of the establishment. Khamenei has made no mystery of the discontent that is mounting, and has invited Rouhani to look for investment within the borders of Iran.
This may jeopardise not only Iran’s international economic policies, but also Iran’s foreign policy. Should discontent with the nuclear deal reach higher levels, it may become difficult for Rouhani’s administration to advance the deal with hostile governments, such as Trump’s, in a consistent and credible way.
Rouhani may also enrage the part of his electorate that backed his candidacy not only to avoid a four-year term of socially conservative policies and tension in the realm of international politics, but also to advance political and civil rights, to free the political prisoners of the “green movement” and to improve the rights of workers. This is not a small part of Rouhani’s electorate. During Rouhani’s first term, respect for human rights did not improve. The nuclear deal and Iran’s integration in the free market economy came at the cost of stabilising the country, namely repressing all potential sources of instability. The further weakening of workers’ rights and the silence on the abuses of the judicial system and the security forces on individuals critical of the regime, have been a characteristic of Rouhani’s mandate. The images and videos coming from Iran of the people who retook to the streets upon the electoral result chanting slogans demanding freedom and justice, suggest that this may turn into a serious challenge – should the government fail to address demands for rights and social justice.
Paola Rivetti is Lecturer in International Relations at Dublin City University