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Can Principalists Unite to Challenge Rouhani?

On April 20, 2017, the Guardian Council announced the names of six candidates approved to run in the May 19 presidential elections. Given the opposition of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it came as no surprise that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rejected by the Guardian Council.

Among the six candidates approved to run, only three are considered to be serious contenders: Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, prosecutor and cleric Ebrahim Raisi, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Begher Ghalibaf. The other three certified candidates, current Vice President and Rouhani ally Eshagh Jahangiri, ultra-conservative Mostafa Mirsalim, and Iranian Olympics Committee head Mostafa Hashemitaba, are all expected to drop out of the race and throw their endorsements behind one of the three top contenders. This is a common practice in Iran’s post-Revolution presidential elections.

There are some aspects of this year’s presidential elections that are unique, and which throw further uncertainty on the outcome. In an effort to unify the Principalist conservative bloc behind a single presidential candidate, the movement formed the Popular Front of the Islamic Revolutionary Forces, JAMNA, earlier this year. On April 6, they held a mass referendum and anointed five potential candidates, with Ebrahim Raisi drawing the most votes. But Tehran Mayor Bagher Ghalibaf was also among the top five vote getters, and there are no guarantees that he will step down and endorse Raisi if that is the emerging consensus of JAMNA. In 2013, Hassan Rouhani was able to win the presidency by a narrow margin because several Principalist rivals—including Ghalibaf—refused to drop out. Four years ago, the most credible challenger to Rouhani was Raisi. Will the rivalries within the Principalist camp wreck the changes of a conservative victory again four years later?

The Raisi candidacy is further complicated by the fact that he is widely seen as a likely successor to the Supreme Leader Khamenei when Khamenei either dies or is forced by illness to step down.  Khamenei was a two-term President of Iran and his presidency was his stepping stone to being chosen as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini upon his death. Opponents of Raisi could use a defeat of the former prosecutor, who was part of the 1988 team of jurists who ordered the mass executions of Revolution critics, to block his accession to the Supreme Leader’s post. While the official Iranian state media has downplayed Raisi’s notorious role in those 1988 executions, the issue has been all over the Farsi language internet and could emerge as a problem if it comes down to a close two-way race between Rouhani and Raisi.

And Raisi is not an active figure in the Principalist faction. He has remained outside of the harsh factional conflicts, and could have easily been sponsored as a presidential candidate by other more moderate conservative factions. In fact, should Raisi be elected President on May 19, he would likely not radically alter the path set by moderate conservative Rouhani.

Another complicating factor is a simmering revolt among genuine reformers, who have been pressed to throw their support behind a Rouhani re-election, despite the fact that Rouhani is not considered “one of us.” On March 12, the Reformist Council for Policymaking, chaired by Majlis member Mohammed Reza Aref, held a meeting, in which it was agreed that the organization would back Rouhani’s re-election. 

However, on April 19, a letter was released, signed by a number of Reformists, decrying the decision to choose between “bad and worse.” That letter was posted online and now has over a thousand signatures. The letter argued that, with city council and other local elections taking place the same day as the presidential vote, the endorsement of Rouhani could jeopardize the ability of genuine reform candidates to win their local races.

A second letter, issued two days before the Reformist document, signed by nine leading reformers, warned that their camp had, in the past, been infiltrated by conservatives who betrayed the movement once in office.

This potential split within the genuine reformist camp, mirroring potential splits among the Principalists, offers a warning to incumbent President Rouhani: Do not take the reformist endorsement for granted.

As reported last week (“The `Trump Factor’ Impacts Iran’s Elections: Will Rouhani Lose?”), the Principalist cause is being further aided by the harsh anti-Iran rhetoric coming out of the Trump Administration. Even though the Trump Administration delivered a letter of certification to the United States Congress, acknowledging that Iran is in full compliance with the P5+1 deal, the letter also informed Congress that the Trump Administration is conducting a 90-day review, to determine whether the sanctions against Iran should be lifted or maintained due to overriding national security concerns. The letter, signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, made clear that the sanctions review is based on Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which both Houses of Congress voted up in 2015, President Trump is obliged to certify Iran’s compliance with the P5+1 accord every 90 days.

The day after the certification letter was delivered to Congress, Tillerson told reporters that “The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state. This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”

On April 20, President Trump personally weighed in, declaring that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the P5+1 deal. “They are not living up to the spirit of the agreement. I can tell you that. And we’re analyzing it very, very carefully, and we’ll have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future. But Iran has not lived up to the spirit of the agreement.  And they have to do that. They have to do that.  So, we will see what happens.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was a strong opponent of the P5+1 agreement when he served as the head of the Central Command, until he was removed by President Obama for vocally bucking the White House on its Iran policy, did say that the P5+1 agreement stands and should not be abandoned. But, he added: “That in no way mitigates or excuses the other activities of Iran in the region, to include its support of the war in Yemen that grinds on thanks to their support—to the Iranian support—or what they’re doing in Syria to keep Assad in power and continue the mayhem and the chaos and the murder that’s going on there.” Mattis made those remarks to reporters during a visit to Israel.

All of these Trump Administration criticisms of Iran are music to the ears of hardliners, who hope the tough talk will translate into votes for the Principalist candidate on May 19—if they can get their own act together and unify behind a single person.

April, 27 2017

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