Breaking Point – Why You Should Care About Iran’s Elections

Masses huddle tightly near Tehran’s city center. Noon strikes, and as such the all-important Friday prayer begins. At the front of endless rows, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei leads the congregation with the same passion as in 1980, when Ayatollah Khomeini first appointed him as Imam. His paralyzed right hand dangles in pious silence, an eerie reminder of the country’s violent past.

Yet just as namaz proceeds in unison, so too have moderate forces coalesced into a powerful mainstay of national politics under the pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, the List of Hope, a moderate-reformist coalition, claims a tenuous plurality of seats in both houses. All eyes now look to next month’s presidential elections, where Rouhani’s re-election would ensure long-term moderate dominance.

Verily, understanding the worth and implications of May’s contest is difficult. The Islamic Republic remains an enigma to most Western observers, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noting “Iran is a limited democracy, wrapped in a military autocracy, inside a theocracy”. Indeed, the Supreme Leader serves as autocrat for life, often undermining elected officials. As such, many Western observers pass off the country’s deliberative process as phony, citing rampant electoral fraud and rigorous candidate vetting by the Guardian Council, which systematically prohibits women and vocal reformists from running.

However, since Khamenei’s 1989 election, the Leader’s absolute power has been somewhat scaled back. Though he relies on the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards to crack down on opposition, the elected half of Iran’s unique polity now holds clear weight in decision-making. Notably, the recent Nuclear Deal was wholly negotiated by the government, with Khamenei’s only major act being endorsing the final proposal. 

Admittedly, the complexity of Iranian politics means that gaining a clear upper-hand is difficult. Indeed, Rouhani’s moderate allies have experienced difficulty in ruling via a plurality of the seats. They were notably unable to block the election of the hardliner Ahmad Jannati as Speaker of the Assembly of Expert, who received 17 of 52 possible votes from List of Hope-backed clerics. This is because many of its candidates were in fact only relatively pragmatic conservatives added on at the eleventh hour (often unbeknownst to them) to replace blocked reformist candidates. The ensuing weakness in the upper-house is particularly damaging, as the Assembly is entrusted in electing Supreme Leaders.

Nonetheless, such setbacks should not take away from the high probability of Rouhani’s re-election. Though disaffection over economic stagnation and backlash over a nationalist resurgence in the West may somewhat bolster the conservative camp, all indicators point towards a crucial moderate victory.

Indeed, his approval rating remains the envy of most world leaders at 82%, down less than 10% since the start of his term. The reformist-moderate coalition, which in the past has shown dangerous cracks in the form of electoral boycotts as in 2009, remains strong and steadfast. Crucially, while they have united behind Rouhani’s bid, the conservatives and principalists have yet to settle on a consensus candidate with only a month left before the vote.

This stems from the lack of a suitable high-profile figure who could pose a serious threat to Rouhani’s re-election. In an interview with CPR, Rohollah Faghihi, an Iranian journalist who has contributed to the Guardian, Al Monitor, and Entekhab among others, explained that “The conservatives are still trying to reach a single candidate”.

Notable names being floated include Ebrahim Raisi, former Attorney-General and a close associate of Khamenei’s, and Hamid Baghaie, Vice-President under Ahmadinejad (whose possible candidature was quickly shut down by the Supreme Leader). Yet, as Faghihi notes, “Raisi is an unknown and unrecognized person for people, and his only chance for attracting people's attention might be the presidential debates. However, I don’t think any of the conservative candidates would be able to overcome Rouhani in debates as Rouhani is skilled in giving speech”. He continues, stating “I believe Baghaie won’t be approved by the Guardian Council, and the conservatives are now just trying to use Ahmadinejad for his harsh talks against Rouhani to tarnish his reputation till the date of the registration of candidates for the election.”

                  However, moderate control over both the Parliament and the Presidency would not be unprecedented. Often forgotten are former moderate President Mohammad Khatami 8 years in office, presiding over a reform-minded Majlis from 2000 to 2004. Forgotten – precisely because the conservatives and hardliners were able to claw back from the abyss of opposition and reverse the minor changes they had implemented with Khamenei’s approval.

                  If the Supreme Leader’s power is unlimited, his time is not, and Khamenei’s nearly-octogenarian body certainly bears the marks of a hard-fought past. As such, a secret list of potential successors has already started being drawn up, former Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani asserting “Of course, they are preparing and researching and have put together a group who are reviewing individuals”. 

It is precisely this secret list of potential leaders that makes Rouhani’s re-election so crucial, as his name might well be included if he can continue to exert considerable political influence and gain the trust of Khamenei who himself was the sitting President when selected.

If Faghihi stressed that “the moderates don’t have the upper hand [in the Assembly]”, it would not be impossible (or even unprecedented) to outclass the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, the dominant conservative coalition in the upper-house. Khamenei himself was chosen over the Society’s designated candidate, Ayatollah Golpayeghani, after Rafsanjani claimed that Khomeini had designated the former as successor on his deathbed. Considering the trust Khamenei has already confided in Rouhani, in part since he acted for many years as Rafsanjani’s protégé, it becomes a bit clearer why such an outcome is not as far-fetched as it seems.

Were he to be designated by Khamenei as his successor, Rouhani could radically change the outlook of the Islamic Republic. With absolute control over the country’s institutions, he could streamline his currently unenforceable agenda.  

The Islamic Republic remains a mysterious mix of religious despotism and lively debate to the Western observer, its many political twists and turns blurring any pre-conceived understanding of its inner-system. Yet one thing is certain: this next election will be crucial for the future of Iran. Make sure you’re free this May 19th, Iran may soon be as well.