Iran’s forthcoming presidential elections will occur amid a ravaged Middle East and a precarious nuclear deal. With a fractured opposition fielding a host of cannibalistic candidates, President Rouhani may—in spite of his perceived foreign policy failures—traverse the same path to electoral majority he did in 2013.
On 19 May, Iranian voters will go to the ballot boxes for the 12th presidential election, which is shaping up as a test for President Hassan Rouhani’s policies of economic recovery and international rehabilitation. Rouhani had an ambitious agenda when he came to office in 2013. He promised to rejuvenate Iran’s economy by lifting international sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear program. The electorate will judge if he has delivered on that promise.
In 2015, Rouhani secured a historic nuclear deal with P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and in 2016 international sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program were rescinded. But the tangible benefits of the deal have yet to trickle down to Iranian citizens. The expected benefits of the deal are decreased by the refusal of the US to cancel its own sanctions on Iran. In addition, there are new measures such as last month’s US enforcement of new sanctions on 13 people and 12 companies following Iran’s provocative ballistic missile test. A recent poll found that Iranian citizens are frustrated with the slow pace of economic recovery. This could prove a serious handicap in Rouhani’s election campaign.
Further confusion is caused by the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House. Trump has threatened to tear up the deal and has repeatedly taken a hard line on Iran. In one instance, he said the US navy would shoot Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf out of the water.
While Trump does not seem to have the capacity to bring the international community together in a concerted effort against Iran, his grand posturing is creating problems for Rouhani. Critics of the nuclear deal have been vocal about the price that Iran has paid to secure the revocation of sanctions. The scaling-back of Iran’s nuclear program and the strict international observation regime are seen by Rouhani’s critics as too high a price for the removal of sanctions. They have welcomed Trump’s rhetoric of tearing up the nuclear deal. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who leans more towards Rouhani’s critics, even challenged Trump to deliver on his threat.
Tensions between the United States and Iran play into the hands of hardliners who never subscribed to Rouhani’s agenda of reconciliation with the international community. Rouhani’s critics feel vindicated by the antagonistic language and policies of the Trump administration as it supports the notion that Iran and the United States are locked in a civilisational conflict. Last month, Khamenei declared of Trump: “We are thankful to this gentleman…he showed the real face of America.” In this context, Rouhani is struggling to sell his message of dialogue and reconciliation with the international community.
Rouhani’s efforts to present Iran as a responsible state and a force for peace and stability in the region has also encountered a major setback. The civil war in Syria has drawn Iran into a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and its allies, poisoned Iran’s relations with Turkey, and tarnished Tehran’s image in the largely Sunni Arab streets. This marks a foreign policy failure for Rouhani and yet another boon for the hardliners, who dismissed his early diplomatic overtures as misguided and ultimately counter-productive because they made Iran look weak.
Rouhani’s push for re-election is made more complicated with the death of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who proved a key ally in the 2013 presidential election. Rafsanjani was among the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a close confidant of the supreme leader. He served as the chair of the Expediency Council which provides advice to the supreme leader, especially in times of disagreement between different organs of the state. Rafsanjani’s support for Rouhani and his reform agenda went a long way in placating the concerns of the supreme leader. His absence in the 2017 election has robbed Rouhani of an important ally at the highest echelons of power.
But it is not all doom and gloom for Rouhani. Despite the slow pace of economic recovery, he is still more popular than any of the contestants. The election law in Iran does not allow for formal registration of candidates until a month prior to the poll—which makes for a very intensive electoral campaign—but alternatives have expressed interest in running for the post.
Fortunately for Rouhani, they all represent the opposing camp. While different in their affiliations to various groups on the Iranian political landscape, they are all critics of Rouhani’s policy. Some are traditionalists, while others are more hardline and combative. This range of candidates will help Rouhani as it will split the opposition vote and enhance Rouhani’s chances of gaining an absolute majority. This same pattern helped Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections.
Despite the fact that Rouhani has not advocated for political and social reform, the reformist camp in Iran sees him as the only candidate who could bring some change, or at least prevent a roll-back to a harsher political environment. As a result, Rouhani enjoys the support of activists in the reform camp and most notably the former President Mohammad Khatami who continues to be popular in major urban centres in Iran.
Rouhani’s re-election is not guaranteed. But there is sufficient support behind him and disarray in the opposite camp to warrant optimism about his chances. A two-term presidency is the norm in Iran, and it is safe to assume that Rouhani will get his second chance.
Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh researches Middle East & Central Asian Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and is the convenor of Middle East Studies Forum. His latest publication is with Dara Conduit, ‘Iran in the World‘ (Palgrave 2016).
Shahram Akbarzadeh will speak about the forthcoming Iranian election at AIIA Victoria on Wednesday 15 March.
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