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Iran: Early Battles in the Presidential Race have Already Started

Although Iranians are not scheduled to vote for president until May 2017, some important political battles have already taken place in that crucial contest. Two leading potential hardline challengers to current President Hassan Rouhani have already withdrawn their names from a potential presidential run, and backers of the moderate incumbent are already signaling that they see this as a big boost for a Rouhani re-election victory.

The circumstances around one of those potential challengers is remarkable.  Former two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been making moves for months towards a challenge to Rouhani. However, Fars News Agency reported on Monday, September 26 that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ruled out an Ahmadinejad challenge.  During a lecture to seminary students at his office, the Supreme Leader stated that “Someone, a man, came to me. I told him not to take part in that certain issue, both for his own and the country’s good.  I did not tell him not to participate.  I said, `I do not find it advisable that you participate.’|” Although Khamenei did not mention Ahmadinejad by name, rumors had been circulating in Tehran for weeks that the ex-President had gone to the Supreme Leader, seeking his approval for a challenge to Rouhani, and Fars’ account made clear that this was what Khamenei was talking about. After the Fars report, Dolat-e Bahar, a website close to Ahmadinejad reported “While some point out that Master has made an order, he actually said that it is not expedient.” Technically, the Supreme Leader cannot rule out a candidacy, which is the task of the 12-person Guardian Council; however his recommendations are always accepted.

The second leading hardline personality who made clear that he will not run for President, following weeks of encouragement was Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Brigade, which oversees all foreign operations of the IRGC and has been deeply involved in both the Iraq and Syrian wars. General Soleimani enjoys tremendous popular support, with recent polls showing a 76 percent approval rating.  But on September 16, he issued a statement rejecting pressures from hardline Members of the Majlis to be their presidential candidate. “I am a soldier of the Guardian and the Islamic Republic regime and the brave population. I will remain in the role of soldier to the end of my life.”

At the same time, he issued other statements, warning sharply against any efforts by the Rouhani government to court relations with foreign powers that have sought to bring down the Islamic Republic. “Nothing of value” comes out of such efforts to seek relations with governments that would isolate Iran. “It is treason if someone in position wants to portray an enemy as a friend.” At the same time, he emphasized that there is strong unity between the Rouhani government and the IRGC, and it is only the efforts of Iran’s enemies to drive wedges between the IRGC and the government that has created confusion.

Heshmatollah Falahatpishen, a member of the Majlis national Security and Foreign Policy Commission, posted a controversial comment on Khabar Online News Agency, following the announcement by General Soleimani. He attacked those fellow Majlis members who had solicited the General’s run, accusing them of being “willing to destroy everything and sabotage all values just to win the elections. After their politicians — who were once highly respected and counted on by many Iranians — turned out unsuccessful in politics, they have now started supporting national figures and raising their own aspirations… The recent rumours about Major General Soleimani’s possible involvement in politics corroborate my claim. I personally believe that this is hazardous.” Falahatpishen went on to describe General Soleimani’s work as a soldier as being above politics, and warned that, had he run, the elections would have been turned into a mandate over Iran’s regional operations, which would have been a distortion. “Astutely enough, he [General Soleimani] circumvented being a plaything in the hands of the political elites who have been defeated in the political arena; hence hiding themselves behind national figures.”

President Rouhani is sensitive to the balancing act he must maintain, to secure urgently needed foreign direct investment to build the Iranian economy, which was a big selling card in his winning popular support for the P5+1 deal last year, while at the same time satisfying hardline factions that believe Iran was double-crossed by the United States in that agreement. In his September 22 address before the United Nations General Assembly session in New York City, and during a one-hour press conference that followed, Rouhani was sharply critical of the United States, accusing the Obama Administration of “frightening big banks” against investing in Iran. He singled out the April 2016 ruling by the United States Supreme Court, that allowed $2 billion in assets of the Iranian National Bank to be confiscated and turned over to families who were victims of terrorist incidents in 1983 and that were blamed on Tehran.

Rouhani is, however, moving aggressively to bring Iran into compliance with the guidelines of the Financial Action Task Force, an international body that sets standards for banking practices that are key to Iran’s access to international credit markets. Among the steps taken by Rouhani has been the refusal of two prominent Iranian banks to maintain accounts from an IRGC front company that is on international sanctions lists.

At the same time, Rouhani backers were relieved that, the day before the President’s address to the UNGA, the US Treasury Department granted licenses to Boeing and Airbus to sell a large number of commercial jetliners to Iran Air. Eurasia Group President Cliff Kupchan called the licensing decision a “big win for Rouhani.” The plane sale, worth billions of dollars to Boeing and Airbus, involves the deliver of 200 commercial planes to the Islamic Republic, under restrictions, barring their use for any military purposes.

In a further reflection of the growing internal tensions in Iran in the run-up to next spring’s presidential elections, a bitter fight recently erupted between one of Rouhani’s most important backers, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President, leader of the Khomeini Revolution and the current head of the powerful Expediency Council, and military and hardline opponents. On August 10, Rafsanjani delivered a speech at a conference hosted by the Ministry of Education, in which he openly attacked the bloated military budget, and told the audience that “without military expenses,” much needed money could go “to science-based economy.”  He said he expected that the military spending could be greatly reduced, and the economy boosted during a second Rouhani term as President.  As soon as the transcript of the Rouhani speech was made public, he came under a torrent of attacks. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Command, blasted Rafsanjani, accusing him of “saying or doing anything to achieve his political objective.” Two days after the statement by General Hajizadeh, on September 10, Javad Karimi Ghodoosi, a hardline Majlis member, denounced Rafsanjani’s remarks as “good news” for the United States: Iran is disarming.

Kayhan editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari was even more violent in his attack on Rafsanjani in a September 3 editorial, accusing Rafsanjani of issuing an open invitation for Daesh (the Islamic State) to open up a further terrorist front inside Iran. Daesh will only be encouraged, he wrote, by Rafsanjani’s call for Iran to disarm.

While President Rouhani was traveling abroad, first in Latin America and then in New York for the UN General Assembly, two prominent Iranian reformist journalists were arrested for publishing documents indicating corrupt real estate dealings of the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf. Yashar Soltani of Memari News and Sadra Mohaghegh, of Shargh Daily were arrested within 24 hours on a complaint by the Tehran Mayor and others, charging that they unlawfully published documents obtained from the General Inspection Office, about property sales by the Tehran city government to private contractors, allegedly well-below the market value. 

The upcoming presidential elections are one clear focus of the ongoing factional battles in Iran. Another looming issue is who will replace the aging Supreme Leader when he is either incapacitated or dies. Hardliners are actively promoting 56-year old Ibrahim Raisi, who is clearly emerged as the IRGC leadership’s choice to replace Khamenei. A prosecutor general, head of the General Inspections Office and head of the Special Court of Clergy, Raisi is considered to be the top choice of both the hardline/IRGC grouping and the Supreme Leader himself.  Khamenei recently named Raisi as the head of the Astan Quds Razavi charity in his (and Khamenei’s) hometown of Mashhad.  The charity is believed to be worth $15 billion, much of it in the form of vast tracts of real estate.

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