Post-Debate Roundup and Early Analysis

I realize it’s not always easy to remember the cast of characters involved in Iranian politics, so if you need a quick refresher of the candidates’ names and profiles, please see here.

Debate Roundup

Iran held its first presidential debate this past Friday, providing the candidates their first real opportunity to interact with each other on the national stage. As with nearly all major political debates, it went on far too long (although they were kind enough to include a short break in the middle, which, in true Iranian fashion, lingered on far longer than it should have). It also frequently veered off-topic. Questions from the moderator about social issues, the alleged topic for this debate, were often met with answers about the economy.

The main story of the event was the war of words that broke out between the conservative Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and the reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. The former questioned the latter’s legitimacy as a candidate in the race, accusing him of being a shill for Rouhani — in whose cabinet Jahangiri currently serves as first vice president — and of disingenuously taking valuable airtime from actual contenders for the presidency. Jahangiri responded with harsh accusations about the Tehran Mayor’s political connections, claiming that Qalibaf has ties to the plotters behind the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran in January of 2016. He also referenced the Plasco building collapse earlier this year, after which Qalibaf faced accusations of mismanagement and calls for his resignation.

To be fair, neither candidate really stretched the boundaries of credulity with these accusations. By now, Qalibaf’s assertion that Jahangiri is in the race merely to support Rouhani is a more or less open secret. Nearly everyone expects that Jahangiri will withdraw before election day and throw his support behind Rouhani. Even if he doesn’t, the reformist and moderate factions are so closely aligned that it is difficult to imagine that their supporters would fail to understand whom to vote for to maximize their chances of winning. I have yet to read any reports of hardcore reformist Jahangiri Bros willing to risk a conservative victory by spoiling Rouhani’s chances.

Jahangiri’s platitudes about being in the race to represent reformist interests notwithstanding, neither he nor Rouhani did anything in this debate to suggest that the two men are not working together. Even Jahangiri’s aggressive attack on Qalibaf could be seen as a shrewd, perhaps even obvious, tactic to bog down the conservative candidate in a petty verbal altercation with a marginal candidate. Every second Qalibaf used arguing with Jahangiri was one fewer he could spend on his real rival in this election. Rouhani was thus free to remain largely above the fray, looking presidential while discussing his proposed policies.

Jahangiri’s invocation of Qalibaf’s shady political connections, meanwhile, seemed to strike a nerve among some viewers. Just moments after Jahangiri’s statement about links to the Saudi embassy attack planners, photos of Qalibaf with one of the plotters started bouncing around Twitter:

The man on the left next to Qalibaf is Hassan Kordmihan, a “mostly unknown but highly active cleric with deep connections” who was arrested in late January 2016 in connection with the attack earlier that month. The BBC also has a good bio article on him (Persian) that goes into more detail about his ties to various hardliner groups in Iran.

If there was a loser in this debate, it was conservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi. He kept a low profile throughout the proceedings, talking mostly in generalizations about various problems without saying much of substance. He also refrained from attacking any of the other candidates. In his only significant policy proposal of the debate, he said he would triple government cash subsidies for the poor, but offered very few details of how he would accomplish that or, for that matter, what good they would do. The subsidy idea is a retread of an old Ahmadinejad policy, which ultimately caused more problems than it solved.

The decision to lay low was a bad choice for a candidate who remains largely unknown to a significant portion of the population. In the condensed space of the three-week campaign, Raisi cannot afford to waste opportunities to introduce himself to a wide audience on the national stage.

Early Analysis: Questions About the Conservatives

At this point, questions remain about the conservatives’ strategy for May 19. With Rouhani all but certain to lead a unified moderate and reformist coalition, conservatives still have two seemingly serious candidates fighting against one another for votes within their own party.

Reza Akbari identified the problem several days ago on Twitter:

If true, this will make the path to victory significantly more difficult for either Raisi or Qalibaf, who will have to rely on denying Rouhani a first round victory (>50% of the vote) in order to have any shot at winning in a runoff. Presumably, the damage they’ll do to each other battling for conservative votes may make it harder to consolidate the right-wing factions behind either man ahead of the second round, let alone peel away any moderate voters from the other camp.

Alternatively, Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar floated a theory of a far more coordinated conservative plan:

Translation: “Raisi a cover candidate for Qalibaf: In the first round, Raisi develops a consensus between Principalists [conservatives], in the second round [the consensus] moves to Qalibaf. High possibility of a two-round #election.”

There isn’t much hard evidence to support either claim, but it’s difficult to see what, if anything, Raisi is doing to actively help Qalibaf’s cause. Friday’s debate certainly helped Qalibaf emerge as the early frontrunner for the conservative faction ahead of Raisi, but only by default. If Raisi is only running in support of Qalibaf rather than on his own behalf, he’s doing so much less effectively than his rivals Jahangiri and Rouhani on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’m hoping to have more posts on the election this week as things really start to heat up. The next debate will be this Friday, May 5, and will focus [theoretically] on political issues.

The Campaign Begins

Programming note: I’m going to try to focus a bit more on the Iranian election campaign in the coming weeks. I’ve noticed that this is an area that is undercovered by most media outlets, either due to a lack of interest or a sense of dismissal as to their relevance. Those with only a passing knowledge of Middle East politics may be forgiven for thinking that an election in the region doesn’t matter, but that is not the case here. The President of Iran is much more than just a figurehead or a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Supreme Leader. He (it’s always a he) plays an important role in crafting policy and, perhaps more importantly in the current international climate, shaping the image of Iran to the world. It is absolutely vital that this process and its consequences are carefully scrutinized and better understood by those interested or working in foreign affairs. I hope to contribute to that understanding with my work here at the PBOK. Tell your friends. 

The Iranian campaign season kicked off this past weekend. We now have our six Guardian Council approved candidates. They are the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, reformist Eshagh Jahangiri, Mostafa Hashemitaba, and far-right hardliner Mostafa Mirsalim. The BBC has a good roundup of them and their bios here.

Notable by his absence is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared his candidacy for the presidency earlier this month despite an explicit suggestion from the Supreme Leader not to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which vets the registered candidates prior to placing them on the final ballot, rejected his candidacy. The council also disqualified Ahmadinejad’s deputy, Hamid Baghaei, who many thought would serve as a proxy for the controversial ex-president after his removal from the campaign. Ahmadinejad has already said that he will not back any of the remaining candidates.

Some observers have been left scratching their heads at the presence of Eshaq Jahangiri on the ballot. He’s a reformist and the first vice president of Rouhani’s current administration, but it would be a mistake to view this as an emerging fissure within the Rouhani administration on the eve of a reelection bid. Instead, Jahangiri is running as what Iranians call a “cover candidate,” meaning his job is to support Rouhani on the campaign trail and in the debates, amplifying his message before dropping out and throwing his support to the incumbent. His presence in the field also doubles the amount of TV and radio time for the reformist-moderate coalition (each candidate receives precisely 1110 minutes total air time, excluding the debates), which will help prevent their campaign messages from being drowned out by the more numerous conservatives in the field

It’s still too early to pick a favorite, although most commentators seem to think Rouhani has a good shot at reelection. I tend to agree, but there’s not a lot of hard data on which to base this prediction. For what it’s worth, no Iranian president has ever failed to win a second term in office, although that figure includes the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad that ended in accusations of election fraud and prompted the Green Revolution protests.

Polling is relatively sparse in Iran, and, as with any authoritarian country, somewhat unreliable. There’s one outfit called IranPoll that has early assessments of some of the candidates based on a poll of 1,005 Iranians conducted between April 11 and 14, 2017. Based on their findings, Rouhani has the highest “very favorable” ratings (23%), but Qalibaf outpaces him on combined “very” and “somewhat favorable” ratings by a few percentage points (67-62). Raisi appears unfamiliar to a large segment of the population of this survey, with 46% of respondents saying they “don’t know the individual.”

If Rouhani has a weakness in this campaign, it’s that the issues that most concern Iranian voters don’t align with his perceived strengths as the country’s leader. Discussion of the Iranian economy will likely dominate this campaign. The majority of voters in the poll responded to an open-ended question on the most important issue facing the country with economy-related answers, including unemployment (42%), youth unemployment (13%), “various economic concerns” (11%), and the high cost of living (8%). Matters of foreign affairs such as “issues relating to the nuclear deal” and “international sanctions” only garnered 2% each, which may help explain why, despite more bloviating from the Trump administration this week about confronting Iran, Iranian officials have not devoted much energy or press space to any substantive response.

When asked about who can better accomplish certain goals as president, Rouhani scored higher than all other prospective candidates on issues related to foreign affairs, such as “improving Iran’s foreign relations” or “removing international sanctions.” But in economic categories such as “improving living conditions of the poor” or “reducing unemployment in Iran,” his numbers slip considerably. In the latter case, Rouhani’s rating fell behind Qalibaf’s. You can read the rest of the report here.

A lot depends on what happens in the space between now and election day on May 19. There will be three televised debates in that period, the first of which is scheduled for this Friday. Iranian authorities originally announced that the debates would be pre-recorded and aired at a later date, presumably with some editing, but recently reversed that decision in the face of protest. Ironically, the IRIB’s (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) reason for not airing the Iranian presidential debates live was probably the same as their reason for airing the American ones live last fall: They didn’t want the vitriol between the candidates to “blacken the image of the country.”

What Iran Thinks When It Hears “Chemical Weapons”

First off, a quick programming note: I haven’t been able to post as much recently due to a relatively busy writing schedule these last few weeks. As always seems to happen with side projects, real life obligations intervene to draw you away from them. Fortunately, I’ve managed to finish a lot of that work in the last few days and now have the time to resume posting here with more consistency, just in time for the Iranian presidential campaign to start heating up. I’ll get to that at some point in the near future, but today’s post will focus on an event from the recent past.

In Iran, the issue of chemical weapons usage has always been highly personal and emotionally charged. Iranians have a tortured history when it comes to chemical weaponry. They were famously the victims of some of the most atrocious deployments of chemical agents in modern history when Saddam Hussein used them during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Precise estimates of the number of casualties resulting from chemical weapons in the conflict are difficult to determine, but according to a declassified CIA report, chemical weapons accounted for approximately 50,000 casualties during the conflict.

Many of those who survived these attacks have had to live with permanent disabilities in the decades since, in essence becoming living reminders of the costs of the Iran-Iraq War to go along with the memorials to the dead, which,  as I’ve noted previously, are ubiquitous throughout Iran. According to Robin Wright, the sheer quantity of chemical weapon attack survivors currently living in Iran has made it “the world’s largest laboratory for the study of chemical weapons.”

Last week’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun — which, in all probability, was the work of the Syrian regime — has not done much to diminish Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad, but it has put Iranian leaders in the awkward position of having to find a way to justify that support given their nation’s past. One solution they’ve found has been to condemn the attack itself without any specific discussion of responsibility for it. This also provides Iranian leaders with an opportunity to remind the world that Iran was once the victim of chemical weapons, something they very much believe has been forgotten by the international community (more on that in a moment).

Representatives of more conservative and hardline factions went slightly further in their response, looking to cast doubt on the source of the attacks, either by blaming ISIS or other rebel groups or — in the grand tradition of Iranian conspiracy theorizing — suggesting the involvement of a mysterious “third party”, i.e. the West, looking to justify its desire for military intervention against the Assad regime.

All of this must be viewed within the context of the Iran’s longstanding feelings of victimhood in international affairs. There is a belief in Iran today of what might be called a global “amnesia of convenience.” It is the idea that the outside world either denies or has forgotten what Iran has gone through in its recent history. This is especially true in reference to the Iran-Iraq War. The Persian name for the war, for example, is the “Jang-e Tahmili,” which literally translates to “The Imposed War.” Not only was this war forced upon them, but Iran faced the additional challenge of having to fight this war essentially on its own against an array of world powers who lined up to provide arms and intelligence to Saddam’s forces (Iran-Contra notwithstanding).

This feeling extends into the arena of chemical weapons usage and WMD-proliferation, as well. As Steven Ward points out in Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, “Because of the international community’s general inaction in response to Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the Iranians regularly denigrated international arms control treaties.” Still, despite these denunciations, suspicions surrounding Iran’s own intentions to develop similar weapons linger.

When Saddam deployed his chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, he did so with the help of the United States, which provided the Iraqi dictator with targeting intelligence in full knowledge that he would use the information to launch a chemical attack. That the United States government has never fully acknowledged their complicity in these attacks, let alone punished anyone for allowing them, has contributed to Iranian accusations of American hypocrisy in the Syrian conflict.

[As an aside: Reports such as this one in Politico that describe the history of chemical weapons in warfare yet fail to even mention Iran-Iraq tend to support the claim that the atrocities of that war have largely been forgotten by the rest of the world. Oddly, however, I think the picture at the top of that article is actually from Iran-Iraq.]

The lingering resentment over the past in Iran remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to U.S.-Iran reconciliation today. Even the Obama Administration, which took a much softer stance on Iran than the current one, struggled to overcome this perception in its negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. Tangentially, it also makes finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict even more difficult than it already is. More missile strikes or an increased American military presence in Syria will do little to convince Iranians that American intentions in the Middle East are anything but nefarious, and will likely only harden their support for the Syrian regime. This is something that no amount of American ordinance will ever be able to bomb out of existence.