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Iran Hardliners Prepare for May Elections

On February 18, 2017, Hamid Baghaie, who served as Vice President for Executive Affairs and as Tourism Minister under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced that he would be running for President of the Islamic Republic in the May 19 elections. Baghaie, who is aligned with the hardliner, is the first candidate to announce plans to run.

As earlier reported in MEB, another potential candidate for the Principalist faction is Tehran’s Mayor and former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohamed Baqr Qalibaf. He has not yet indicated whether he will seek the presidency.

But more important than the specific candidates seeking to oust President Hassan Rouhani from office, in early February, hardliners announced the formation of a Popular Front of Islamic Republic Forces, whose purpose is to rally all conservative voters behind a single candidate. In the last Presidential elections, Rouhani benefited from the fact that there were three contending conservative candidates, thus drawing away crucial votes from Qalibaf, who was the most formidable candidate of the conservatives.

It will be several months before the contours of the Iranian presidential elections become clear. The formal registration of presidential candidates with the Guardian Council occurs in the week beginning Tuesday, April 11 and runs for one week. The Guardian Council announces the approved candidates on April 26, and the vote occurs 24 days later. The Council members are appointed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with input from the head of the judiciary. Thus, the Council is solidly in the hands of conservatives.

Two recent events have weakened the position of incumbent President Rouhani going into the May elections. First, the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has created a tremendous vacuum at the top of the moderate and reformist faction. Second, the inauguration of US President Donald Trump has raised serious doubts about the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), otherwise known as the P5+1 agreement. In one clear indication of the fallout of the Trump election, the French oil company Total, which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to invest in and develop Iranian oil fields, announced on February 9, 2017, that they would wait to move ahead with the agreement until the summer, when President Trump must renew the Iran sanctions waiver, signed last year by President Barack Obama. If the US does not renew the waiver, this will significantly impact on European countries’ willingness to invest in Iran.

In January, the first oil shipment from Iran arrived in a Spanish port, aboard a ship owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). This was a dramatic accomplishment, because it involved an Iranian-owned ship getting the necessary insurance and other papers to permit the delivery.

However, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh has recently acknowledged that Iran’s oil production is stuck at 2.8 million barrels per day due to lack of capital investment in the country’s oil infrastructure. He estimates that a total of $100 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) is needed to boost production significantly.

In early February, reports from within the Trump Administration indicated that there was a push to have the IRGC placed on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Although this action was not taken, and the US military is still debating such blanket sanctions, the threat of such action, combined with the Trump Administration “putting Iran on notice,” has been used by hardliners to discredit Rouhani before May elections.

President Rouhani is clearly sensitive to his precarious position. On February 10, a key anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the President delivered a harsh warning to the United States: “Do not threaten Iran. Iran is not looking for tensions and conflict in the region or in the world, but it will stand strong against threats and violence.”

Rouhani’s strong words pre-empted his hardline rivals, but an earlier call by former President Mohammed Khatami on February 7, 2017 for national unity against the threats coming from President Trump struck a sour note and may have offset some of Rouhani’s timely intervention. Khatami called for a uniting of all Iranian factions in the face of the foreign threats, but added the demand that the two leaders of the 2009 Green Movement protests against the re-election of Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, be released from house arrest.

That provoked a direct reply from the Supreme Leader. Speaking on February 15 before a crowd in East Azerbaijan Province, he dismissed the idea of a need for a unity pledge, because “the people are united,” and there is a real war underway against Iran. That war, Khamenei declared, is both cultural and economic, and the threats of military action against Iran are a diversion, since the real warfare is already being conducted.

Two days before the Khamenei speech, Mohammed Reza Bahonar, a leading theoretician of the Principalist faction, declared that there could be no reconciliation with the 2009 protesters.

Another voice of the Principalist faction, the publication Vatan-e-Emrooz, declared in a mid-February editorial that the Trump election delivered a severe blow to those in Iran who favor engagement with the West.

While the immediate issue that will dominate Iranian internal politics for the next three months is the presidential elections, a deeper question is also lurking in the background: Who will emerge as the replacement for Ayatollah Rafsanjani as the leading figure defending the position of the moderate conservatives and reformists?

Four names stand out as possible successors to Rafsanjani in this vital, albeit informal position. They are: President Rouhani; Seyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic; Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who currently heads the Office of Inspection of Supreme Leader Khamenei; and Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani.

In many respects, Ali Larijani is the most qualified replacement. Having long established conservative credentials, and having served as the head of the Supreme National Security Council, Larijani broke from President Ahmadinejad, beginning a tack towards more moderate positions. When he ran for re-election to the Majlis in 2016, Larijani declared no party affiliation (although the reformists placed him on their slate without his permission) but enjoyed the strong backing of Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani backed his re-election as Speaker of the Majlis, over reformist candidate Mohammed Reza Aref. Larijani is close to both the IRGC leadership and the Supreme Leader.

The issue of who will be the replacement for Rafsanjani is a matter of intense concern for the reformers, who are being squeezed by the added pressures due to the Trump Administration’s hard line against Iran. One group of reformers floated the idea of establishing a four-man council to coordinate the efforts of the moderate and reform factions, comprised of the four individuals named above.

In his own public statement in response to the Trump warnings, Ali Larijani dismissed the war threats coming from the United States, expressing confidence in Iran’s ability to defend against any foreign aggressions, while at the same time calling for a calm response to the provocations. “Don’t be drawn into American psychological warfare by making panicked responses”, he said.

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