Non-Crime and Punishment

Like many students working on Iran, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the recent announcement that Iran had convicted an American PhD student of espionage. The student, Xiyue Wang of Princeton University (my alma mater), was arrested in Iran last August but his case only became known publicly following the announcement of his conviction by the Iranian judiciary this past weekend. Wang has been sentenced to ten years.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Wang is no spy. His research in Iran apparently consisted of digitally archiving some 4500 documents, presumably concerning the Qajar period (late 18th to early 20th century Iran), his intended thesis topic. In typically creative Iranian linguistic fashion, the judiciary claimed that Wang had “spider web” connections to American and British intelligence services, but offered no specifics or evidence. Even without all the facts, it seems pretty obvious that this was a bogus charge created by conservative political factions for the purpose of undermining Rouhani rather than a response to an actual national security threat.

Whenever an American gets detained or imprisoned in Iran, there are immediate comparisons to other Americans who have been detained there. Most will recall the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who along with his wife was jailed in Iran on specious espionage charges for a year and a half from July 2014 to January 2016. Other Americans, including Baquer and Siamak Namazi, remain in Iranian custody.

What sets Wang’s case apart from those of most Americans detained in Iran is that he is not an Iranian-American dual citizen. Iran does not recognize dual nationality, which officials claim gives them the authority to arrest and detain Iranian-Americans who typically travel to Iran on their Iranian passports. This allows Iran to deny them access to basic consular and diplomatic services while in custody. Even without an American diplomatic presence in Iran, this legal construct gives Iran total authority over their cases and makes negotiating their release considerably more difficult.

A better parallel for Wang’s situation might be the case of Matthew Trevithick, an American student who was detained in Iran for 41 days from December 2015 to January 2016. I find Trevithick’s case interesting because his life experience prior to his detention in some ways mirrors my own. After studying international relations, he set out to explore several less understood parts of the world, including parts the Arab world and Afghanistan. Like me, he eventually became interested in Iran and visited the country on a tourist visa in 2010. Wanting to learn more, he applied to study Persian at the Dehkhoda Insitute in Tehran, one of the most well-known Persian language institutes in the country.

I, too, applied to study at Dehkhoda, but unlike Trevithick, my 2014 application received no response. After making some inquiries, I was told that it was virtually impossible for American students traveling on American passports to study in Iran, language or otherwise. Even after the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015 — a week after which Trevithick says his visa came through — people I spoke to about studying in Iran were still telling me that it was not safe for Americans to do anything there outside of conventional tourism.

In an odd way, I’m somewhat jealous that they able to succeed where I failed in getting a visa. Obviously, I’m not envious of what subsequently happened to them, and I am no doubt relieved that in my more naive days I was never given the opportunity to put myself in that situation. Still, I’ve never found a good reason why Trevithick — or now, Wang — were able to acquire visas that have generally been unobtainable for the vast majority of American passport holders.

Once in Iran, both made some incredibly bad decisions that lead me to question how much they actually knew about the country they were there to study. If you know, for example, that the authorities are prone to accusing Americans of espionage for engaging in even the most basic activities of student life, perhaps it’s not a good idea to go there as a student. This is especially true for those who have connections to American or British institutions, which adds an additional layer of suspicion to even the most mundane activities.

This paranoid style of Iranian politics and internal security is nothing new. Iranian society has long been susceptible to a good conspiracy theory, dating back to before the Islamic Revolution. Anyone who has read the famous Iranian novel My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkad will note the way in which the conspiratorial pronouncements by the eponymous character about British infiltration resemble those of the Supreme Leader when discussing the United States and the West. Unjustified detentions and kangaroo court convictions based on specious allegations of spying have been chronicled by other writers for decades. In one such example, Roger Cooper, a British man who was held in Iran for over five years from 1985-1991, recalled in his autobiography, Death Plus Ten Years, the way the guards at Evin prison talked about Britain and the United States:

As I began to have conversations with some of them I heard extraordinary stories about England, clearly black propaganda spread by fanatics. Apart from AIDS being endemic, our drinking water was recycled sewage, and homosexual marriages were commonplace. The Queen, or possibly Mrs Thatcher (the two were sometimes confused), decided who the next President of the United States would be, because Americans were very weak in politics and the British were extremely clever.

I don’t mean to victim-blame here. Again, neither Trevithick nor Wang did anything explicitly wrong as students. I’m just surprised that neither of them — nor, for that matter, their friends or advisors  — seemed to consider what their presence in the country might look like to the Iranian authorities, or what the political climate in and outside of Iran might mean for their ability to study there. This was a costly oversight since it is ultimately those perceptions that matter more than reality.

In Iran, the truth won’t always set you free.

[UPDATE 7/21]

I forgot to mention in my post that Trevithick actually penned a Washington Post op-ed today in which he essentially says the same thing about keeping students out of Iran, although he blames the universities that are “recklessly” sending them there rather than the students themselves. It’s strange advice coming from someone who presumably obtained his visa and traveled there independently of any academic institution. But I guess there was some lesson learned here. Better late than never, I suppose.

Iran, 9/11, and the New York Times

Quick Programming Note: I’m not going to be posting as much in the coming weeks. I have a couple of big projects I’m working on which, along with other commitments, leaves little time for the blog. I’ll still update when I find something of note, but unless the U.S. starts a war with Iran (not impossible!) it will be a little less frequent for a while. 

Here’s something interesting: The New York Times has finally corrected its articles stating that Iran sponsored 9/11.  It took long enough. I actually first noticed it about a week ago in a June 29 article about the Manhattan skyscraper that was due to be seized by U.S. authorities due to its owners’ links to Iran. Here’s the original copy:

The government has agreed to distribute proceeds from the building’s sale, which could bring as much as $1 billion, to the families of  Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks, including the Sept. 11 attacks.

While it’s true that the federal court that made the ruling regarding compensation of victims of terror attacks included Iran as among those responsible for 9/11, there is absolutely no evidence to support that claim. The way the NYT wrote it plainly asserts it as an established fact. It would be hard to blame the average reader for taking it as such. The Times is, after all, the paper of record.

Here’s the correction they issued on July 6, 2017:

An article on Friday about a jury’s decision to let the federal government seize a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper it says is controlled by Iran overstated Iran’s responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. While a federal court found that Iran had some culpability for the Sept. 11 attacks as a state sponsor of terrorism, it has not been established that Iran sponsored the attacks, which were planned and executed by Al Qaeda. (A similar error occurred in a Sept. 25, 2013 article in The Times.)

It’s that last sentence that really gets me. I wasn’t even aware that this same mistake went as far back as FOUR YEARS AGO. I hadn’t even applied for my PhD program yet. Think of how may people may have seen that story or cited it as an indication of Iranian involvement in the September 11 attacks in the time since then.

Just to be clear, I don’t point this out as part of some argument against the BIASED LAMESTREAM MEDIA or whatever. I still think that the NYT is an excellent paper, but it is this kind of sloppy reporting that fans the flames of those who wish to discredit the media (or objective truth in general). With the possibility of a U.S.-Iran conflict becoming ever more real, these kinds of mistakes are unforgivable.

(h/t FAIR)

[Update — 7/8/17]

A lawyer friend has pointed out to me that there are two ways to understand the NY Times mistake. The first is as a news report of a misguided judicial decision. To the unquestioning observer, the court appears to be reasoning that since the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism, and Iran finances terrorists, Iran bears some responsibility for the injuries suffered on 9/11. This may be syllogistically logical, but charging Iran with a causal contribution is factually very attenuated.

The other way of looking at Iran’s relationship to 9/11 is to accept the linkage by those who believe that every U.S. enemy must have had a hand in the attacks. This requires ignorance of reality and context. If Al Qaeda terrorists, an organization of mostly Sunni Muslims, brought down the airplanes, and Iran’s leadership and population are over 90% Shia Muslims (who are considered heretics by extremist Sunnis), it is problematic to assert that Iran colluded with Al Qaeda in planning the 9/11 hijackings. This does not mean that Iran is not a sponsor of terrorist activity, but it suggests that it is misleading and, possibly dangerous, to base news analyses and policy justifications on Iranian responsibility for 9/11.

In either case, that a legal decision contradicts or ignores facts  may be evidence of Shakespeare’s conclusion that “The law is an Ass.”

Regime Change is Back

Analyzing the policy decisions of the Trump administration is something of a fool’s errand. Priorities seem to shift weekly, while “influential” advisors change daily, if not hourly. Foreign policy, and particularly Middle East policy, is a mess.

The one foreign policy area in which there has been at least a degree of consistency throughout the Trump political experiment — from the campaign to the Oval Office — is Iran. Iran, in the eyes of this administration, is an evil despotism bent on regional domination. This makes the policy choices surrounding it quite easy: such tyranny must be countered on all fronts.

Even so, for a while, the form that confrontation would take was something of a mystery. Trump quickly reneged on his campaign promises to “tear up” the nuclear deal on his first day in office, but he continued to promise more action. Not long after that, Michael Flynn, in one of the only significant acts of his brief tenure as National Security Advisor, placed Iran on the diplomatic equivalent of Double Secret Probation — he called it “on notice” — without explaining what that meant.

It took a while, but we finally got our first glimpse of the Trump Iran policy over the last two weeks. Regime change is back.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 14, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out in the clearest language to date what policy objective the United States is seeking with regard to Iran: “Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony…and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government in Tehran.”

Tillerson’s testimony came on the same day that the U.S. declassified a trove of documents related to the 1953 Iran coup d’etat, in which U.S. operatives helped overthrow the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restore the Shah to power. Whether this timing was coincidental or deliberate is tough to say. Personally, I tend to err on the side of relative ignorance to world history when it comes to this administration.

Tillerson’s message was reinforced this week by a chorus of Trump allies calling for a more aggressive approach to Iran. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who advises the President on matters of foreign policy, said this week that “the policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran.” He continued, “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.”

The administration hasn’t yet offered any details of what this proposed regime change might actually look like beyond Tillerson’s vague quote about working with “those elements,” but it’s worth taking a moment to speculate about where this policy comes from and what form it might take.

Based on recent Republican history, I wouldn’t be surprised if this push is at least partially motivated by outside forces. Politico notes the circulation of a memo advocating regime change written by Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation For Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hardline lobbying group with ties to the American and Israeli right. According to the article, the memo “included a discussion of ways to foment popular unrest with the goal of establishing a ‘free and democratic Iran.'”

Not mentioned are any connections to the Mujahideen E Khalq (MEK) organization, a Marxist-Islamist Iranian opposition group that was once a designated terrorist organization, but it’s possible it has a role in this as well. Two of Trump’s biggest supporters during the campaign, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have appeared at MEK gatherings and accepted payments in exchange for speaking engagements. In 2014, Giuliani said that regime change in Iran would be “easy” since the MEK would be on hand to step in to run the country.

Finally, there’s the Israeli-Saudi angle. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have at various times suggested that the only solution to the Iranian issue is some form of regime change. Likewise, Saudi Arabia is engaged in several bitter proxy wars against Iran throughout the region. In 2016, the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud appeared at the MEK’s annual gathering in Paris at which he recited the slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” Building a front against Iran was a major theme of President Trump’s first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel earlier this year.

There are several ways in which the United States might attempt to carry out regime change. It could attempt a covert operation to foment domestic unrest and spark a popular uprising against the regime. Alternatively, it could start directly funding groups dedicated to the overthrow of the regime. Finally, there’s the Iraq model of regime change, in which U.S. military force is applied directly to removing the current government.

None of these options make much sense, not least because there’s no obvious plan for what would come next once the regime falls. It hardly seems worthwhile breaking down the negatives of direct military action to overthrow the Iranian government. Simply saying “Iraq” out loud ought to be enough. Still, it’s worth noting that if Trump or his advisors think that an invasion of Iran would be as simple as the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, they are dreadfully mistaken. Iran’s more advanced military capabilities aside, the Iranian population is over twice as big as Iraq’s, and the country nearly four times as large geographically. The logistics of such an operation would be the stuff of nightmares and would require a military commitment of blood and treasure far beyond the price already paid for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Covert action is probably the more popular option in the White House right now, but realistically, this is the stuff of fantasy. Any indication of U.S. involvement in a plot to overthrow the government would engender a massive public backlash in Iran. Unlike Americans, Iranians know their national history, and the memory of 1953 still lingers in the national consciousness. The regime is hypersensitive to even the appearance of American intervention in their national affairs so it will be difficult to conceal any covert action.

Plus, the United States is already doing the job of counterespionage for them by announcing their intentions so publicly. Tillerson’s statement about regime change may have been buried in the U.S. press behind more prominent stories about Russia or healthcare, but it was front page news across Iran the next day. As if to drive home the point, many headlines juxtaposed Tillerson’s words with notices about the release of documents pertaining to the 1953 coup. It’s hard to surprise someone when they know you’re coming.

Where’s Iran?

I’m at the Association for Israel Studies annual conference right now. It’s a pretty typical academic conference in most ways. There’s an abundance of panels on a melange of topics. Some are interesting, many are not. The size of the conference (there are nearly one hundred panels) means that nearly every element of Israel’s politics and culture is covered in some way. In terms of international relations, there are discussions on Israel’s relationships with Palestinians, the broader Arab world, and the Western — and even Far Eastern — world. Just about everything is covered. Everything that is, except Iran.

Other than two presentations on the negotiations over the nuclear agreement, no one is presenting any research on Israeli-Iranian relations. I just came from listening to one of those presentations. It mostly amounted to a rehashing of the nuclear deal and why, despite its flaws, it’s still worth keeping. Yet even in this benign take, the presenter found time to rehash many of the common stereotypes about Iran, including that it is ruled by religious extremists who are so “hell-bent” on destroying Israel that they might endanger the survival of their country just to achieve this goal. In this professor’s view, the Iranian nuclear and missile programs exist solely for the sake of targeting Israel. It’s like Saudi Arabia doesn’t exist.

For what it’s worth, I decided to attend the conference pretty late, well after the deadline for paper submissions for panel participation, so I didn’t have the chance to correct that imbalance myself. Still, it’s amazing to me that no one else studying Israel appears very interested in what is happening in Iran and how that relates to Israel. In trying to figure out why that is, I’ve come up with three possible explanations:

1. The perception that the Iranian issue is overblown: Back when I was looking into doing a Ph.D., I recall having several exploratory conversations with academics who expressed skepticism at my proposed topic of Iranian-Israeli relations. The Iranian issue, they said, wasn’t really a big part of Israeli society. Sure, Israelis love to talk about Iran, but ultimately, all this bluster doesn’t have much influence on Israeli politics or foreign policy. If there’s no effect, the thinking goes, then the alleged cause isn’t worth studying.

I find this rationale odd. Typically, the idea that words matter is a pretty fundamental premise for academics, who spend most of their time analyzing every detail of language. Furthermore, even a cursory glance at Israeli media or political discourse over the past several years reveals an intense Israeli interest — some may even say preoccupation — with Iranian affairs. For evidence of this trend, look no further than Prime Minister Netanyahu. Many, if not most, of his major international speeches over the past five years have focused on the existential threat Iran poses to Israel. Similarly, there has been an explosion in Israeli media discussion of Iran over the past decade, dating back to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian President. Given this level of interest and volume of discussion, how could Iran NOT have an effect on the country’s politics?

2. There’s nothing to study:  Another strange argument I’ve heard from Israeli scholars is that the Iran issue doesn’t offer any interesting angles for innovative research. Iran hates Israel. That’s it. Of course, this explanation does little to address the why of that statement. When pressed on this question, the answer usually involves some vague references to Anti-Semitism and/or Islamic fundamentalism that is built into the Iranian regime. This version of Iran is ruled by a group of long-bearded “Ayatollahs” and robed-and-turbaned “Mullahs,” for whom hatred of Israel is a core religious tenet.

This explanation is as lazy as it is ignorant. It reflects a strange antipathy to learning rarely seen in academic circles. Moreover, it is a rejection of the historical record. Iran wasn’t always an enemy of the Jewish State. Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule, Iran was an ally of Israel under the Periphery Alliance. Even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Israel continued providing Iran with weapons and military supplies during the Iran-Iraq War. Some of the motivation for that decision stemmed from a belief that Iran represented the lesser of two evils, but it was also partially driven by a desire to maintain relations with a state they believed still harbored a faction sympathetic to Israel. Somewhere along the way, this nuanced perception of Iran faded and was replaced with the more simplistic view that dominates today.

3. Everyone’s already an Iran expert: Over the course of my research, I’ve identified something I like to call the “Transitive Property of Iranian Knowledge in Israel” (it’s a working title): if you know x, and Iran is related in some way to x, then you must know Iran. Take nuclear proliferation, for example. One Israeli expert on nuclear proliferation I interviewed for my research began by stressing that she was not an Iran expert before later telling me that she’s certain that Iran hates Israel because of “its ideology.” Another researcher who writes extensively on Iran said he had never even heard of two of the most prominent books on Iranian-Israeli relations, Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance and Haggai Ram’s Iranophobia.

This logic also applies to broader regional or Arab experts, as well. If you know Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon, then you must also know Iran. They’re both Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East — how different could they really be? Sometimes, even the most surface level exposure is all it takes to become an “Iran expert” in Israel. The result is that Iran is boiled down to a single issue or characteristic while the larger whole is ignored.

Whatever the actual reason, the scant attention paid to Iran by Israel scholars is an unfortunate outcome. I would have hoped that by this point, the quality of Iranian analysis in Israeli academic circles might have progressed beyond “they hate us,” but that will have to wait until next year’s conference.

Maybe I’ll write a paper for that one.

“The Undertaker” Gets a New Assignment

I’ve been busy traveling and catching up on other work since the conclusion of the Iranian election two weeks ago, so I haven’t had as much time to devote to the blog. I’m planning to do a more thorough analysis of Trump’s emerging Iran “strategy” when I get a chance.

For now, though, I want to take a moment to focus a bit of attention on a smaller piece of news from the New York Times that risks going unnoticed thanks to the chaos of the past week. Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman are reporting that Michael D’Andrea has been named the new head of the C.I.A.’s Iran operations desk. You may remember D’Andrea from a high-profile 2015 NYT piece by Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, which named D’Andrea publicly for the first time as one of the architects of the C.I.A.’s targeted killing program. For years prior to that, D’Andrea was known only by his aliases or nicknames, including “The Undertaker,” “Ayatollah Mike,” “The Dark Prince,” or simply “Roger.” His reputation, if not his name, has long been a feature of both DC-Beltway and pop culture intrigue. Described as a “gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam,” D’Andrea has been mentioned in various pieces throughout the years, including Mazzetti’s 2013 book, The Way of the Knife. He was also the basis for the character named only as “The Wolf” in the 2012 film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty - The Wolf
“The Wolf” in Zero Dark Thirty

Given D’Andrea’s penchant for action, this move suggests that the C.I.A. is transitioning toward a more aggressive approach to Iran that better conforms with the Trump Administration’s hardline rhetoric. The Times gives D’Andrea some praise in its write-up of the move, noting that he “comes with an outsize reputation and the track record to back it up: Perhaps no single C.I.A. official is more responsible for weakening Al Qaeda.” That second part may or may not be true (I don’t know if they rank these types of things), but my own cursory review of D’Andrea’s past actions reveals a record that is mixed, at best. He was involved in the development of the Agency’s “detention and interrogation program,” best known for torturing detainees. As head of the C.I.A.’s Counter Terrorism Center, D’Andrea presided over a targeted killing campaign that despite its enormous body count, hasn’t been able to win the so-called “War on Terror.” In one infamous incident — which eventually led to his 2015 naming in the press — he authorized a drone strike in Pakistan that killed two Western hostages, including one American. He also may have prevented a memo alerting the FBI to the presence of one of the 9/11 hijackers in the United States from ever reaching the Bureau.

If D’Andrea implements a similar “active” approach to operations in his new role, I don’t expect good things to come of it. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been highly attuned to attempts at clandestine American meddling in their system. The storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 was, after all, prompted by the admission of the exiled Shah to the United States, a move many Iranians interpreted as a prelude to another 1953-style coup d’etat. Even if one accepts the narrative success of D’Andrea’s previous missions, applying the same logic of fighting Al Qaeda (or any terrorist group) to Iran holds the potential for disaster. There are numerous cultural, political, and religious differences to account for, to say nothing of the fact that Iran is an established nation-state with large, well-equipped armed forces. Any ham-fisted attempts at regime change or foreign meddling risks undermining the gradual progress Iran has been making toward a freer, more open society under Rouhani. It would bolster the arguments of hardliners like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who constantly preach about the risks of American infiltration. Success in toppling the regime, however, might be even worse: it could destabilize one of the few remaining stable states in the region and increase turmoil in an already tumultuous part of the world. The ripple effects from such a disruption would be felt far and wide.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

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 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.

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.