Winners and Losers

Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian presidency. The full implications of his victory won’t become clear for some time, but for now, let’s take a moment to consider a few of the winners and losers from this election. We’ll start with the positive and work our way down.

First, the Winners:

  • Hassan Rouhani: So much for all those “Rouhani is in trouble” takes. Rouhani won and won big. He crushed his conservative rivals, Ibrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, even after they teamed up in the final days of the campaign as part of a last-ditch effort to defeat the incumbent. Raisi received only 38% of the vote to Rouhani’s 57%, negating the need for a second round runoff. Despite receiving a decisive public mandate, the path ahead for Rouhani is still fraught with potential pitfalls. It’s worth remembering how poorly things turned out for his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who won an even more resounding victory in his 2001 reelection campaign only to be politically marginalized by Supreme Leader Khamenei during his second term. Still, Rouhani has an opportunity now to be a transformational figure in Iranian political history. He’ll need to utilize every ounce of that public support to deliver on his promises of moderation and reform.
  • The Iranian People: In a world consumed by far-right populism and anti-democratic backlash, the Iranian people still showed up to the polls in Iran and around the world on Friday to make their voice heard. That over 40 million of them did so in a highly imperfect and less-than-democratic system with only limited avenues for expression of the popular will makes this achievement all the more remarkable. Many voters had to wait in line for hours at polling stations just to cast a ballot. Turnout was a much-higher-than-anticipated 73%. By contrast, only 55% of American voters bothered to show up last November when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency. The scenes of jubilation on the streets throughout Iran on Saturday sent a powerful message to the world that Rouhani’s reelection represents an Iran that remains optimistic about the future. Just check out this celebration rally in the traditionally conservative city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. If this isn’t joy, I don’t know what is:
  • Europe: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini was among the first world leaders to congratulate Rouhani on his reelection victory. Europe, unlike the United States, stands ready to reap the benefits of a more economically open Iran. Many of the pieces are already in place. Since the signing of the nuclear deal, EU states have sent a steady stream of trade delegations to Iran. Most returned with joint statements about the desire to increase business cooperation and/or memoranda of understanding for increased trade and investment. But lingering uncertainty about Iran’s future leadership and the possibility of U.S. reprisals for unauthorized business activity in Iran have made foreign businesses hesitant to invest there. With Rouhani’s reelection, at least one of those concerns has been resolved. With the Trump Administration taking the United States further away from its position of global leadership, the other one may not be far behind.
  • iPPO Group: I confess, I started to get a bit nervous right before the election about whether any of the polls I had read could even be remotely accurate. In my last post, I wrote about two starkly different polls, one from a hardliner outlet that showed Raisi with a slight lead and another from the Washington, DC-based International Perspectives for Public Opinion (iPPO) Group that showed Rouhani’s support surging in the last few days before the election. I suspected that the latter was probably the most accurate reflection of what I was sensing from election coverage, but I couldn’t be sure. I went to iPPO’s website, and there was shockingly little information available about who these people are or where they came from. Their Twitter account basically showed up out of nowhere just as the campaign got underway. It all seemed a bit…weird. The results, however, speak for themselves. While the actual Rouhani tally fell slightly below iPPO’s final numbers, they were the only polling outfit, as far as I can tell, which captured the overall tenor of the Iranian electorate as unequivocally pro-Rouhani. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes from their success.

And now, let’s talk Losers:

  • Iranian Hardliners: They threw everything they had at Rouhani, but it still wasn’t enough. Even with only one candidate in the race on election day (and the other vociferously supporting him on the campaign trail in the final week of the race), Raisi only managed to get 38% of the vote. In many ways, this is an even worse performance than four years ago. Back then, conservatives could at least rationalize their poor electoral results on bad strategic decisions — such as running multiple candidates against a single moderate/reformist opponent — as well as a lingering resentment of hardliner politics after two disastrous terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the helm. This year, there are no such excuses. Raisi, personally, may have lost even more than just a chance to serve as president. The Iranian public’s decisive rejection of his leadership will likely eliminate him from consideration for the Supreme Leadership position upon Khamenei’s death. The conservatives still control many, if not most, of the important levers of power in Iran, including the judiciary and key institutions like the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, but societal momentum is clearly trending away from their stated principles. Their leadership is aging, and, unlike the reformists, they have few figures they can point to as their ideological torchbearers for the future.
  • American and Israeli Hardliners: We don’t usually call them “hardliners” in the West, but American and Israeli conservatives have a lot more in common with their Iranian counterparts than they’d care to admit. Like the hardliners in Iran, the American/Israeli right also yearns for conflict. They would have loved for the Iranian election to have given them a reason for one by electing — or stealing the election for — Raisi, but the Iranian people did not oblige. Former George W. Bush aide and neoconservative Elliott Abrams said as much in a remarkably ill-informed piece published in Politico just before the election. Abrams said he was rooting for a Raisi victory since Raisi represented the “true face” of the Islamic Republic. Abrams, along with other conservatives in both countries, urged Iranians to either vote against their own interests or abstain completely from the process. Doing so, they argued, would delegitimize the process and help hasten the downfall of the regime. Left unsaid, of course, was the means by which this supposed collapse could come about, but no doubt they all have dreams of war somewhere in the back of their minds.
  • Saudi Arabia: Donald Trump said his first foreign trip as U.S. President was about building a relationship between representatives of the three great world religions to confront terror and extremism. In reality, it’s about confronting Iran. Trump made this obvious in his speech in Riyadh this past Sunday when he called on the Muslim world to isolate Iran for “fueling the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” Then he signed an arms deal with the Saudis for $110 billion dollars. Rouhani’s election won’t change much in terms of their stated goals, but it will make it more difficult for the anti-Iran cohort to recruit other global powers to their cause. The dichotomy in imagery between Trump’s reception in the opulent surroundings of a deeply conservative Arab monarchy and the scenes of throngs of Iranians celebrating the results of their election sent a powerful message to the world about where these nations are at the moment.
  • Global PopulismI’m not as convinced as some commentators that either of the conservative candidates was a true “Populist” in the same way as Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen were during their respective campaigns. (If anything, I thought the Iranian hardliners were an odd mix of Islamic conservatism and Occupy Wall Street-style anti-elitism, but that’s another discussion.) Nevertheless, their defeat adds another short chapter to the anti-populist backlash of 2017 narrative. Along with the Netherlands and France — and, perhaps, soon Germany, as well — Iran rejected radical politics for a more moderate approach. Rouhani’s victory was a win for the globalist perspective, for an Iran that wants to be part of the wider world rather than to retreat inward from it. That Iranians are still capable of embracing this philosophy despite the hardships they have suffered demonstrates a faith that reason, diplomacy, and cooperation can still solve difficult problems.

The Final Countdown

 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.

In true Iranian fashion, the last week of the Iranian presidential campaign is providing some serious drama. A race that last weekend looked to be headed for either a Rouhani win or a run-off with one of the two conservative candidates has suddenly become a two-man sprint to the finish, with one candidate likely to win the presidency outright on Friday.

On Monday, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf announced he was withdrawing from the race and throwing his support behind a fellow conservative, Ibrahim Raisi. Since then the two have been traversing the country and appearing together at campaign rallies in an attempt to unite the conservative camp.

That Qalibaf withdrew is not necessarily all that surprising. It has been obvious since the beginning of the campaign that at least one conservative would need to step aside in favor of the other for either man to have a shot at defeating Rouhani. Still, up until Qalibaf’s announcement, it wasn’t clear whether either Qalibaf or Raisi would willingly subordinate his own interests to those of the other’s, or whether they would simply allow voters to decide for them in the first round.

Qalibaf’s exit, along with Eshaq Jahangiri’s completely expected withdrawal a day later, effectively transforms the race into a two-man showdown between Raisi and Rouhani. With the two other remaining candidates polling below 5% combined, there’s a good chance that someone will win the presidency outright on Friday.

As I wrote on Monday after the announcement, the key determinant of Raisi’s success or failure will be how effective he is in bringing in Qalibaf’s supporters to his own camp. So far, there hasn’t been much evidence to definitively answer that question. One poll published yesterday by the semi-official Fars News Agency suggests a relatively successful consolidation. It shows Raisi now leading Rouhani by a 3.1% margin, 47.9%-44.8%.

There are several reasons, however, to view these numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism. First off, Fars News is a relatively hardline news outlet. Naturally, its coverage tends to go to great, sometimes dubious, lengths to promote favorable coverage of Raisi. Second, Fars provides neither the name of the firm that conducted the poll nor the methodology used in gathering the data. Instead, it says only that the poll was conducted by a “credible” group. Finally, as far as I can tell, this poll is only being reported second-hand by various minor news agencies. That is, outlets like Watan Imrooz and Afkar News (both links Persian) are reporting about poll results allegedly published by Fars. So far, I have not been able to locate the original reporting on Fars’s website.

Meanwhile, another poll by the Washington, DC-based International Perspectives for Public Opinion (iPPO) Group is showing precisely the opposite. It has Rouhani’s numbers trending upward in the final few days of the campaign. As of May 16, Rouhani hit a new high in iPPO’s polling, with 61% of likely voters listing him as their first choice candidate. Raisi sits in a distant second with 27%. Interestingly, 10% of voters still say that Qalibaf is their first choice, an indication that they either do not know or refuse to accept that he’s no longer in the race.

Which of these two polls is closers to reality is anybody’s guess. It’s always important to add the disclaimer that polling in Iran is notoriously unreliable, so it’s best not to put too much faith in any numbers.

IPPO Poll May 16
Source: ippogroup.com

In terms of narrative, the Rouhani-Raisi showdown has a lot of interesting elements. In some ways, this feels like it could be an unofficial run-off for the Supreme Leader position. The Supreme Leadership is not decided by popular ballot — it’s selected by a group known as the Assembly of Experts following the current leader’s death — but the winner of this election could be among the top candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khameini were he to pass away in the next several years.

This is common knowledge as it pertains to Raisi. Since the start of his campaign, Raisi has been spoken of as a potential successor to Khamenei. He checks all the proper ideological boxes, has relevant government experience from his time in the judiciary (controversial as it may be), and currently heads the powerful Astan Qods Razavi Foundation. The presidency seems like the next logical step on the path toward the Supreme Leader post. It would also echo the path Khamenei took prior to succeeding the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as Supreme Leader back in 1989.

For Rouhani, the path to the top spot is much more of a longshot. Rouhani is a career government insider with ties to all of Iran’s various power centers, but he is far from universally admired. As president, he has been a strong advocate for reform, arguing in favor of moving Iran away from its Revolutionary-era politics toward integration with the rest of the world. This has placed him at odds with many powerful conservatives who still maintain outsized influence in determining the next Supreme Leader.

Rouhani will need more than just a victory over the alleged heir apparent to overcome this hurdle. He’ll have to achieve lasting success in his second term. To even have a shot at this, he’ll need to capture a convincing share of the vote — possibly 60% or higher — to prove he has a sizable mandate for real change, let alone a shot at rising any higher in the Iranian political hierarchy. Anything less won’t win him the political clout necessary to overcome conservative opposition to his agenda, and may result in his marginalization as a lame-duck president with only modest popular support.

As the opposition candidate, Raisi has a much easier task in front of him. Any victory by a relative newcomer to electoral politics over a sitting president, something that has never happened in the Islamic Republic’s history, would signal his rise to prominence and place him adjacent to the Supreme Leader at a critical moment. It would also add to the narrative of his ascendancy, possibly making his continued rise a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s always wise to expect the unexpected in Iranian politics. All the right signals may be pointing toward Rouhani, but there’s just enough movement toward Raisi to justify an upset. Given that Iran’s elections are neither free nor fair, it’s reasonable to say that anything can happen on Friday.

Debate Roundup: Act III [UPDATED]

 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.

Before getting into the details of the last debate, I want to take another moment to survey the wacky media environment in which the Iranian election is being covered. For some reason, every major Western media outlet is pushing the same narrative about an increasingly desperate Rouhani struggling to hold on in the final days of the campaign. Take a look at this article in the Economist. Or this tweet from the Washington Post:

The Economist article starts off with a pretty snide remark about how Iran “plays at electing a president” every four years before delving into all the ways in which Rouhani has failed both as a president and as a candidate for reelection. Later, it posits that Rouhani may have to face a “humiliating” second round run-off against one of his conservative opponents, in which, according to an unnamed “seasoned foreign observer,” Rouhani will lose. Left unmentioned is the poll embedded in the middle of the article, which still shows Rouhani at over 50% against the field. The WaPo story, to be fair, plays down the “front-runner” aspect of the two conservative candidates referenced in the tweet, substituting the word “contenders” in the actual article headline. The overall sentiment, however, remains the same.

Perhaps this sensationalism is a deliberate effort to garner interest in the internal politics of a country that most people outside the Middle East don’t think about all that often. In my experience, a disturbing percentage of people blindly assume that Iran is a country of ideologues, brutally ruled by a cohort of bearded Mullahs and turbaned Ayatollahs. Elections are dismissed as disingenuous attempts at political theater, the results all prearranged.

To be sure, Iran is far from a democracy, and the elections are neither free nor fair, but these oversimplifications conceal the multifaceted surface of Iran’s political landscape. I suppose anything mainstream outlets can do to get people to actually read an article about Iranian politics is worthwhile. If that means drumming up a political horse-race in the style of Western democracies, then so be it.

The truth is, I’m still having a hard time spotting the dark clouds allegedly lurking on Rouhani’s horizon. The incumbent turned in another fine performance this past Friday in the third and final presidential debate. This round held special significance for all candidates since it focused on the issue the vast majority of Iranians say is most important to them in the upcoming election, the economy. Theoretically, it should have been Rouhani’s weakest performance. He’s had real successes in his first term in both social reform and international diplomacy, most notably with the nuclear deal, but these achievements have not yet translated into the tangible economic benefits he’s been promising to ordinary Iranians.

Yet despite possessing significant ammunition with which to attack Rouhani, the best the conservatives could do was to redeploy the same lines they’ve used in the previous two outings. Qalibaf, taking a page from presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s book, sounded like a robot on stage, constantly repeating the same talking point about the Rouhani administration’s elitism ad nauseam. He began literally every single answer, regardless of the question, with some reference to Rouhani’s government of “the four percenters.” Raisi also stayed on message, almost to a fault. He continued his calls for massive increases in cash handouts to the poor as a panacea for Iran’s economic woes but provided few details. He certainly didn’t explain either how or why this method of economic stimulus would prove more successful than when the Ahmadinejad government tried the same strategy to disastrous effect.

Rouhani pressed Raisi on this point when he took the podium for the third question of the afternoon. From the start of the debate, Rouhani repeatedly invoked the mistakes and mismanagement of the “previous administration,” i.e. Ahmadinejad’s, as the primary source of the economy’s problems as well as the reason for its slow recovery. He did so again in his answer to a question about the country’s banking system. When Raisi was given his two minutes to respond, he went on the attack. Sarcastically, he said that he’d like to arrange a debate between Rouhani and the previous administration since that’s who the incumbent seems to be campaigning against. Shortly after Raisi finished speaking, the camera cut to Rouhani at the podium, who had what could only be described as a “Chesire cat-like” grin on his face. When it came time for Rouhani’s final rebuttal, he dropped the hammer on Raisi, saying that he has no choice but to keep talking about the past administration. After all, so many of its officials are currently working for Raisi’s campaign.

With the final debate now in the books and just a few days left in the campaign, it’s reasonable to say all major indicators appear to be pointing in Rouhani’s direction heading into Friday’s first round. He leads in every poll, running close to or above the 50% necessary to win on the first ballot; his debate performances have all been solid; and he has drawn huge crowds at his public rallies, despite what some hardliner newspapers would have you believe:

Of course, there is always space for an upset. If the results of the Brexit and U.S. presidential elections have taught us anything, it’s that it is best not to be too certain about the outcome of any vote before it happens. Iran is no exception. As nearly all Iran observers remind us, surprises are not uncommon in Iran’s electoral history. But looking at the results of Iran’s presidential elections over the last three decades, there’s a pretty clear record of reformist and moderate success at the ballot box. Since 1989, only Ahmadinejad’s two victories — and it’s unlikely that you can call his 2009 reelection an honest “victory” — defied this trend. Barring any last minute surprises this week, I expect it will continue.

UPDATE (5/15/17): Qalibaf has withdrawn from the race. It seems that the conservatives have finally picked their horse and are going to throw all their weight behind Raisi. While not quite a “surprise,” the removal of a major conservative contender clearly alters the electoral landscape in the final few days of the campaign. It’s impossible to know what this means in terms of potential outcomes until new poll numbers come out, but for all intents and purposes, this is now a two-man race between Rouhani and Raisi. The key question for the remainder of the campaign is how successful will Raisi be in winning over Qalibaf’s supporters to his cause. The conservatives are less cohesive as a group than the moderate-reformist alliance, which could make it difficult to transfer all those voters without suffering any spillage. A last minute marriage of forces is a risky maneuver, but it’s likely the only chance the conservatives have at unseating Rouhani in the first round.

And Down the Stretch They Come

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.

Also, the third and final debate is coming up in about 30 minutes. If you’re reading this just as it posts, you can tune into the debate with simultaneous English translation here. If you’re otherwise engaged, fear not. I’ll be watching closely and will have a recap up in the coming days to get you ready for next Friday’s election day.

I guess everyone’s over France. On to the next one…

With just a week to go until Iran holds the first round of its presidential election on May 19, it seems like everyone is waking up to the idea that this might actually be an important political event worth paying some attention. After weeks of virtual silence from most major media outlets in the West, there has been a sudden deluge of articles offering analysis of the campaign and predictions for the vote. The New York Times even put out a call for testimonials from Iranians asking them what issues are most important to them in this election:

Spoiler alert: it’s the economy, stupid.

If there’s a common thread emerging from these analyses, it’s that no one has any idea what’s going to happen. Prognosticating the Iranian elections is notoriously difficult, and bold predictions one way or the other have a tendency to come back to haunt you, so it comes as no surprise that many experts are holding back on making any firm conclusions. Conventional wisdom still seems to favor the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, winning reelection. This is the safe choice. As I’ve written about in my previous posts on the campaign, Rouhani has decent approval ratings, leads all polls, and has performed well in both debates. History is also on his side — all previous Iranian presidents who served their first term also won a second.

But where there is a broad consensus, dissension stands out, and some commentators have used that to explore the possibility of a conservative victory. These proposed counterfactuals seem evenly split on which conservative candidate is the favorite to unseat Rouhani, which by itself is an indication of the structural instability of the conservative faction in Iran. Some present Raisi as the clear frontrunner, proposing that the presidency will serve as a stepping stone to his eventual ascendance to Supreme Leader. Others believe that only Qalibaf has the national recognition and the necessary support to triumph over Rouhani.

I don’t agree with the contrarians. Absent one of the conservatives stepping aside for the other in the first round, the only chance either has to win will be in forcing a runoff with Rouhani. Even then, a conservative victory assumes that all first round Qalibaf voters will be second round Raisi voters, or vice versa. The argument in favor of Raisi is especially dubious. He’s lagged in the polls from the outset and is largely unknown to the Iranian population. [There’s also an implied element of ballot-stuffing in this scenario since it assumes that the regime will manufacture a win for their desired candidate for ulterior motives.] Of course, I’m not above hedging with another reminder that in Iran, anything can happen. It’s best never to be TOO sure.

Finally, there’s an emerging category of “What’s the matter with Rouhani?” articles asking why Rouhani’s campaign has suddenly taken such an aggressive stance against the hardliner establishment. Is it a sign of desperation or a shrewd tactical shift? Perhaps, as Suzanne Maloney at Brookings notes, it might simply be a return to the strategy that won him the presidency the first time around in 2013.

Personally, having followed this campaign closely from the start, I don’t think I’ve seen as much of a tonal shift in the last week as others have suggested. The Iranian campaign season is relatively short – only about 4-5 weeks – which I’m not sure even provides enough time for any kind “major” tactical or strategic shifts. Rouhani was certainly more aggressive in his second debate performance than he was in his first, but I attribute this mostly to the subject matter. In the second debate, he spent a large portion of his speaking time defending the signature achievement of his first term, the nuclear deal. This conveniently provided the opportunity to thrash his conservative rivals for their flip-flop on the deal — both were vehemently opposed to negotiations, but are now campaigning on a pledge to maintain it.

As for his rallies and other public campaign events, it’s not uncommon for these to intensify as election day nears. In every election, emotions run highest in the days leading up to the vote. I interpret Rouhani’s more aggressive tone in the last few days simply as a response to the demands of his followers, who want reform and still view Rouhani as the candidate best positioned to achieve it. To them, Rouhani bears the torch for other politicians who have run afoul of the regime and lost their political influence along the way, such as former President Mohammad Khatami and the Green Movement leaders, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Consider this description of a Rouhani rally last week from Thomas Erdbrink in the New York Times:

“Moussavi, Karroubi must be released!” the crowd of thousands thundered over and over, a reference to the country’s most prominent opposition leaders.

Hands raised, they drowned out a warm-up speaker at the campaign event for the president, Hassan Rouhani. Many wore green wristbands, a political symbol that, not too long ago, could get someone arrested in Iran.

When Mr. Rouhani finally arrived, there were victory signs, but also shouts of support for Mohammad Khatami, a more liberal former president whose portrait is not allowed to be printed or shown on television in Iran.

Mr. Rouhani’s campaign video showed Mr. Khatami sitting with Mr. Rouhani, which led to more cheers. “Long live Khatami!” people screamed.

Rouhani has always preferred to operate within the system of the Islamic Republic rather than rage against it. This has hindered his ability to bring the type of radical changes that many of his supporters may have expected, but it also explains his longevity in the system. I suspect that Rouhani is using these last crucial days of the campaign to remind Iranians that these goals have not disappeared and that he’s still, even after a full term in office, the only candidate capable of achieving real reforms.

I’ll end with a short speculative episode that occurred a few days ago. I attended a panel this past week on the Iran election, and one of the panelists (I don’t want to say who, because I’m not sure if this was for broad public consumption) made an interesting prediction about Rouhani’s ultimate goals for this election and beyond. Basically, this person believes that Rouhani may be using this election as a potential launchpad for a bid to become Supreme Leader following Khamenei’s death. If he can win a decisive mandate from the voters and prove that the country is behind both his message and his persona, it could be enough to convince the establishment that he’s a viable candidate for the post. It’s an interesting, if unlikely, thought, but it could be Rouhani’s — and Iran’s — best chance to finally achieve lasting change.

Debate Roundup: Act II

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.

Before getting into a review of last Friday’s second Iranian presidential debate, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the format of these debates and how they differ from their Western counterparts.

Iranian presidential debates are a strange thing. Anyone tuning in expecting to see a Persian language version of the brutal debates in the American and French presidential elections no doubt came away disappointed. By contrast, the Iranian debates thus far have been very staid affairs. In both the first and second debates, candidates took turns responding to questions drawn at random from a bowl by the moderator. Each answer was timed down to the second, with any time not used returned to the candidate for use in their final statement. There was almost no crosstalk, no yelling, and no dressing down or accosting of the moderator. Compared with the verbal vitriol of Trump-Clinton and Le Pen-Macron, Iran’s debates came off as downright dull. Add in the excessive length — well over three and a half hours — and it’s doubtful that many viewers stuck around to the very end.

Still, there were some fireworks. Conservative candidate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf went after Rouhani straight out of the gate. Qalibaf was asked about how better to foster science and technological advancement in Iran, but he spent most of his answer time riffing on an alleged “scandal” in the administration involving the Education minister’s family and the illegal import of Italian clothing. If the attack irked Rouhani, it didn’t show in his response. Rouhani quickly dismissed the allegations as baseless. His alleged ally, the reformist Eshaq Jahangiri, backed him up on this point. As was the case in the last debate, the most amusing reaction to Qalibaf’s theatrics came on Twitter, where, as if on cue, pictures of the Tehran mayor sporting a jacket from the Italian manufacturer Lotto began circulating.

Side note: That’s some quality emoji work by the pro-Rouhani reformist @election96 account.

Qalibaf’s attack was indicative of his broader strategy for Friday’s debate, which hinged on trying to portray Rouhani and his government as corrupt elitists who have lost touch with the needs of the people. Taking a page out of the “99%” movement’s playbook, he described the division between the government and the people in slightly altered numerical terms by repeatedly accusing Rouhani of heading an administration of the “four percent” against the 96% of ordinary Iranians. It wasn’t entirely clear where he got those specific numbers.

Qalibaf’s conservative colleague, Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, pushed a similar anti-elitist message. He made several promises directed specifically at low-income Iranians, promising if elected to increase government subsidies and cash handouts. Raisi appears to be courting those with Ahmadinejad nostalgia by pushing a lot of the same policies that propelled the controversial former President to office back in 2005.

With Ahmadinejad out of the race and vowing not to publicly back any of the remaining candidates, his voters are presumably up for grabs. It’s a logical strategy, assuming these voters actually exist. It’s hard to imagine there are that many Iranians who long for the runaway inflation, economic isolation, and rampant government corruption that characterized the Ahmadinejad years.

The strongest performance of the day belonged to the incumbent. In the first debate, Rouhani seemed content to sit back and let his ally Jahangiri do most of the heavy lifting. This time, Rouhani was much more vocal in defending his administration’s record. It helped that the debate’s subject matter focused on political affairs and international relations, which included questions about the signature achievement of Rouhani’s first term, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the nuclear accord.

Rouhani hammered his conservative opponents for their opposition to the negotiations over the deal. He drew direct comparisons between their rhetoric and that of the “Wahhabis” and “Zionists,” Iranian code for the Saudis and Israelis, respectively. He even brought up the American president — the only time that Donald Trump has been mentioned during the first two debates — accusing his conservative opponents of being secret Trump supporters. “You were happy when Trump came to power,” Rouhani told the conservative candidates, “because he said he would ‘tear up’ the agreement!”

Qalibaf and Raisi, who, it’s worth noting, are both campaigning on a promise to maintain the nuclear accord if elected, instead attacked Rouhani’s handling of the deal’s implementation. As Raisi put it, “nothing has happened so far” to create “tangible improvements in people’s lives.” He went on to note that despite the promises of an Iranian economy freed from sanctions, many still remain in place, especially in the banking sector.

Rouhani countered by arguing that real change requires time, and asked Iranians to consider whether the country was in a better place economically and politically now than it was four years ago. Jahangiri backed up his boss on this point, saying that thanks to the nuclear accord, “Iranophobia has become Iranophilia.”

Regarding the possible conservative coordination I wrote about before the debate, there wasn’t much said or done in the debate itself that would hint at one of the conservatives dropping out in favor of the other.

If I had to guess at this point, I’d suspect that Qalibaf is more likely to withdraw than Raisi.As I’ve noted in past posts, Raisi, whose candidacy might reflect a desire to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader, has more riding on this election than Qalibaf. Qalibaf has already run and lost in two previous presidential elections. A third would not change much in terms of his political standing. For Raisi, however, a loss in the presidential elections would represent a popular rejection of his leadership, which would all but eliminate him from consideration for the Supreme Leader post.

If a poll out of the University of Tehran from last Saturday is to be believed — and in Iran, not all polls should be — Raisi’s path to victory remains a relatively steep one. Raisi is polling at a lowly 16%, a distant third behind Rouhani (34%) and Qalibaf (28%). Even with a last minute Qalibaf withdrawal, it may be difficult for the relatively unknown Raisi to close such a large gap in the last few weeks of the campaign. Of course, a Qalibaf withdrawal combined with slightly lower enthusiasm for Rouhani may be enough to deny the incumbent the necessary 50% of the vote to win on the first ballot. If Raisi can make the runoff, it could give him the time and the exposure necessary to win over a majority in the second round.

Also of note here: 18% say they’re currently undecided.

Raisi’s best chance to make up ground before the first round of voting comes at the end of this week in the third and final presidential debate on Friday, May 12. This round will [finally] focus on the issue the overwhelming majority of Iranians say is most important to them: the economy.

All Eyes on the Conservatives

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.

Here’s one of those “big, if true” moments. Vaghaye Daily, a relatively small reformist newspaper, reported that the chief of staff of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s campaign said that one of the conservative candidates will need to withdraw for the other to have a shot at winning:

Translation: Chief of Staff of the Qalibaf Campaign in Kerman: After considering the polling and the sense of popularity among the people, #Qalibaf or #Raisi will step aside from the election.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this. The way this quote is reported in the tweet, it sounds like there’s a chance that the conservatives are starting to see the writing on the wall. Facing the prospect of a relatively popular incumbent opponent who enjoys the united support of the reformist and moderate political factions, they cannot afford to split the vote in the first round of the election and risk neither of them making it to the runoff round.

Still, it’s difficult to predict which candidate will sacrifice himself for the good of the other. Both men have a lot riding on this campaign. For Qalibaf, this is his third shot at the presidency. Neither of his previous efforts fared particularly well. In 2005 he placed a distant fourth, falling behind in the final days of the campaign as the conservative establishment lined up behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He skipped the next election in 2009 but took a second crack in 2013. He placed ordinally better in that attempt by coming second to current President Hassan Rouhani in the first round of voting but was only able to secure 16.6% of the vote to Rouhani’s 50.9%, thereby failing to force a runoff. With decent favorability ratings after a lengthy period serving as the Mayor of Tehran combined with the mixed results of Rouhani’s first term, especially in the economic realm, this year may represent Qalibaf’s best chance to finally win the post he’s sought for over a decade.

Raisi, meanwhile, is the candidate with the purest conservative credentials. A former member of the judiciary who now heads the powerful Astan Quds Razavi Foundation — as well as a close friend of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — Raisi seemed like the obvious consensus choice of the conservative establishment. Unfortunately for him, his popularity among the conservative elite does not equate to favorability with the Iranian population. It’s not that he’s unpopular per se, it’s simply that a large portion of people do not know who he is.

More troubling for Raisi, as Reza Marashi pointed out in Al-Monitor last week, is that even the perception of his most-favored status among the clerical elite may be something of a facade. Marashi argues that Raisi has been spending the last few weeks trying to appeal directly to Western media to establish himself as the presumptive favorite of the Supreme Leader, hoping that this perception will trickle back into Iran via the hardline press. This is a dubious strategy, as Marashi notes, since not only has the Supreme Leader already explicitly stated that he favors no particular candidate in this election, but the exact same strategy failed to help the conservative candidate Saeed Jalili in 2013 finish higher than third with a paltry 11.3% of the final vote.

Like Qalibaf, Raisi has little incentive to pull out of the race. With Khamenei growing old and his health increasingly uncertain, Raisi is widely considered a potential candidate to replace him as Supreme Leader. Since Khamenei is only the second Supreme Leader in the country’s history, there isn’t much precedent for succession in this post. Khamenei served as President for two terms prior to becoming Supreme Leader upon the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, so it’s possible that Raisi sees the presidency as an important stepping stone to Supreme Leadership.

If the conservatives are planning something, it may come out during the debate tomorrow. In the first debate, they behaved more or less autonomously, with Qalibaf engaging directly with Rouhani and Jahangiri and Raisi trying mostly to stay out of the way. A repetition of that approach won’t benefit either of them. If Qalibaf and Raisi want to help one another, they will have to start publicly coordinating their messaging. They will have to team up to attack the Jahangiri-Rouhani alliance on different fronts and defend each other during counterattacks. I would also expect to see some measure of praise expressed between the two conservative candidates to indicate at least a minimal level of mutual respect. If they actually intend to unite their electoral forces, they can’t simply ignore each other until the last moment if/when one of them drops out. If the conservatives actually have a coordinated plan, tomorrow is the time to show it.