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

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 Khamenei 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.

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