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The “Trump Factor” Impacts Iran’s Elections: Will Rouhani Lose?

On April 12, 2017, former two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shocked many Iran watchers by formally registering as a candidate in the May 19 presidential elections. Ahmadinejad showed up at the Interior Ministry registration office arm in arm with his former Vice President, Hamid Baghaei, who also registered as a candidate for president.

Ahmadinejad’s move to run for president was shocking to many, because in September 2016, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had explicitly told the former President (2005-2013) not to run, because his candidacy would be divisive. Ahmadinejad has claimed that the Supreme Leader’s warnings, which he repeated on at least three public occasions, were opinions, and not orders. Ahmadinejad added further confusion to the process by telling reporters after his registration that “I registered merely to support Baghaei and I will act according to the Leader’s advice. I repeat that I am committed to my moral promise and my presence and registration is only to support Mr. Baghaei.”

The deadline for candidates to register for the presidential elections is Saturday, April 22. On April 27, the Guardian Council is expected to release the final list of approved candidates for the May 19 presidential elections. Given the Supreme Leader’s injunction against Ahmadinejad running again, the Guardian Council could reject his candidacy. Vice President Baghaei was briefly jailed in 2015, and this could lead the Guardian Council to disqualify him as well. 

In addition, on April 16, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for the Iranian Judiciary, announced that no final verdict had been reached in a long-standing series of law suits against both Ahmadinejad and Baghaei. The most significant of those corruption suits was filed by the Article 90 Commission of the Majlis, charging the former president and vice president of failing to meet obligations to finance the modernization of the Tehran subway system, and to revise articles of association for the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), which had both been mandated by the Majlis.

Ahmadinejad has been publicly visible in recent months, positioning himself as a populist hero, denouncing the United States missile attacks on Syria and telling the Associated Press that the bombing was in no way a threat or warning to Iran, because the United States “cannot hurt Iran”. He gave that high-profile interview to AP in his North Tehran offices on April 15. His apparent defiance of the order from Supreme Leader Khamenei to stay out of the elections could also resonate with those voters who are disillusioned with the structure of the Iranian theocracy.

However, Ahmadinejad’s other motive for registering in the elections is that his conservative faction has been greatly weakened, and would be wiped out altogether if there was not some visibility in the election season. His strategic adviser and former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai was blocked in 2013 from running for office by the Guardian Council, and Mashai was the most credible figure from the group. In contrast the former Vice President Baghaei is not considered to be a serious contender.

More mainstream conservatives held a mass meeting in early April, to organize support behind a single candidate. In that polling, Ebrahim Raisi polled far ahead of the next four candidates, including Tehran’s Mayor Mahmoud Bagher Ghalibaf.  Raisi is a former prosecutor, who was appointed in March 2016 by Khamenei as the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashad. He is a member of the Assembly of Experts.

If Raisi emerges as the only serious conservative candidate challenging incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, the election is expected to be very close. Rouhani’s position has been weakened by several factors, beginning with the fact that three prominent moderate clerics, including former President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have died in the past year. Rouhani only narrowly won his initial election in 2013, and in parts of the country, the economy has continued to sink, even after the P5+1 agreement and the lifting of some crippling sanctions. During the final two years of the Ahmadinejad presidency and the first term of Rouhani, the value of the Iranian real has fallen from 10,000 to the US dollar to 38,000. 

But the biggest spoiler factor in the May 19 elections could be the Donald Trump Administration in the United States. Both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei staked a great deal of their political status on the successful outcome of the P5+1 negotiations, which were expected to bring a significant economic relief to the country.

With the election of Donald Trump, the United States has taken a decisively harder line against Iran. While the Trump Administration is expected to abide by the P5+1 deal, the US is at the same time moving to impose harsh sanctions on Iran’s regional aggression. 

The Trump Administration has already ratcheted up enforcement of existing sanctions against Iran. On April 13, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against Sohrab Soleimani, the brother of the head of the Quds Brigade, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ special forces detachment, over alleged human rights violations when he was running some of Iran’s prisons. Eight IRGC-linked organizations were placed on an expanded sanctions list in February.

On April 25, representatives of the six governments that negotiated the P5+1 agreement with Tehran will be meeting with Iranian officials in Vienna for the quarterly review of the status of the accords. That meeting could see the US adopt a much more inflexible approach to the compliance issues under review.

The Trump Administration is considering other actions against Iran, that would further damage the economy and dissuade European and Asian governments and businesses from investing in Iran. Some Trump Administration officials, including Deputy Special Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, a member of Steven Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group, are pushing for the United States to sanction the entire IRGC. Other officials are arguing that businesses with minority holdings by the IRGC should also be added to existing sanction lists maintained by the Treasury Department. Up until now, Iranian businesses had to be more than 50 percent owned by the IRGC to be sanctioned.

The US Congress is also moving legislation forward in both the House and the Senate, to further sanction Iran. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (R-Cal.) and the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Eliot Engels (D-NY) have drafted legislation to sanction foreign companies and individuals that support Iran’s ballistic missile program. 

An even more aggressive bill has been introduced into the Senate by Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, targeting the IRGC as a terrorist organization, and sanctioning any companies that violate the US interpretation of the United Nations arms embargo of Iran.  Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a staunch supporter of the Senate bill, forced a change in language, to avoid any appearance of conflict with the sanctions that were lifted under the P5+1 agreement.

Whereas the Obama Administration, following the signing of the P5+1 deal, sent officials around the world to encourage other countries to resume trade with Iran, the Trump Administration has abandoned that practice, and this has already had a chilling effect on European countries and businesses that were looking to re-engage with Iran. Former US Treasury Department enforcement official Daniel Glaser recently told Foreign Policy magazine that “It’s not surprising to me that financial institutions all over the world are hesitant to re-engage with Iran” since Trump came in to office.

Will the “Trump Factor” de used by the hardline factions who may seek to turn the elections into a referendum against the P5+1 deal? This may prove to be one decisive question on May 19.

April 20, 2017

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