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.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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