Iranian conservatives are coalescing around a challenger to President Hassan Rouhani in upcoming elections. On April 11, presidential hopefuls began registering for the May 19 vote, with Rouhani set to declare whether he will pursue a second term in the coming days. The current president's path to victory is unlikely to be an easy one. Last week, after two months of speculation, highly respected conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi announced his own candidacy.
The rise of Raisi's profile over the past year, along with his unmatched potential to unite the conservative vote — especially if the election moves to a runoff — has positioned him as a potent threat to Rouhani, though a string of successes for the president during his first term mean the race is expected to be competitive. The biggest policy implications of vote are likely to felt in the economic realm, not when it comes to domestic social reforms or Tehran's foreign policy. But regardless of who prevails, Iran appears to be adopting a somewhat more cautious approach to its relations with the West.
A Two Man Race?
Raisi's announcement to run came during a convention of conservatives with the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, a political movement known by its Persian acronym JAMNA. Joining Raisi in the bloc's finalists for the nomination are former conservative lawmaker Alireza Zakani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Vice President Mehrdad Bazrpash, and former Education Minister Hamid-Reza Haji Babaee. However, Ghalibaf has already announced that he will not run in the elections, instead uniting behind a different candidate. Of the four remaining JAMNA contenders, Raisi is considered nearly a lock for the nomination.
Simply put, Raisi would not be running if he did not have tacit approval — if not a direct request to do so — from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi's political star has been steadily rising since March 2016, when he was picked to run Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran's wealthiest and most prominent charities. The appointment fueled speculation that Raisi is even being groomed as Ali Khamenei's eventual replacement as supreme leader. Since then, Raisi's stature has only increased; 50 of the 88 members of Iran's Assembly of Experts signed a petition supporting his candidacy in the race for the presidency, and conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi — not a JAMNA backer — has also endorsed him.
Rouhani and Raisi are not the only contenders. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in particular, has the ability to complicate the race. Though rifts between the former and the clerical establishment deepened during his second term, he remains broadly popular, and his endorsement of his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, may prevent the election from becoming a two-man race. (Notably, in 2013, the preferred candidates of Ahmadinejad's supporters were disqualified by Iran's Guardian Council, and Baghaei himself was arrested in 2015 on corruption charges. The council will decide whether to approve the current crop of candidates in the next two weeks.)
At this point, it remains difficult to gauge who Iran's electorate is leaning toward. Nevertheless, the Iranian political spectrum has been highly fragmented since Ahmadinejad was in power, and Raisi is seen as one of the few figures capable of uniting Iranian conservatives against Rouhani. As a result, a showdown between Rouhani and Raisi appears increasingly likely.
Potential Policy Implications
Much more is known about Raisi's political connections than his views on specific policies, since he has refrained from detailed public comments (and thus avoided alienating influential interest groups). One key factor to watch in the coming weeks — especially during upcoming presidential debates — will be Raisi's economic positions relative to Rouhani's. Economic policy is one of the few areas where the incumbent president is strong, unlike, say, foreign policy, which is driven more by the supreme leader and his appointees.
Broadly speaking, much of Iran's conservative establishment and Rouhani's moderate base agree on the general direction of the country's economy. There is also near-universal acceptance in Iran that the 2015 nuclear deal struck with Western powers needs to be kept in place. Recently, in fact, there have been rumors that the supreme leader has sided with Rouhani on preventing the IRGC from testing additional ballistic missiles — a move that would be intended to discourage U.S. President Donald Trump from pulling out of the nuclear deal and restoring exhaustive secondary sanctions on Iran.
However, the issue of how far Tehran should pursue economic reintegration with the West — and just how much the government should open the economy to foreign investment — remains disputed. Rouhani is more keen to liberalize the economy than most Iranian conservatives, who have generally sought to protect Iran's entrenched interests, particularly the business interests of the IRGC. As a result, Raisi may be compelled to pull back on key Rouhani initiatives like the Iranian Petroleum Contract, particularly the extent that it opens the oil sector to foreign investment. But particularly since energy exports remain Iran's lifeline, Raisi would likely maintain Iran's broad course toward gradual, if more cautious re-integration with the global economic system.
Differences between the two frontrunners on issues like social reforms and foreign policy are perhaps more stark. As a conservative cleric who has spent extensive time in Iran's judiciary, Raisi is highly unlikely to further Rouhani's attempts to promote liberal social policies or weaken the power of institutions appointed by the supreme leader. But the election is unlikely to affect these areas substantially anyway. Rouhani himself generally saw such efforts rebuffed by those he was attempting to weaken. For similar reasons, the vote is also unlikely to produce a major swing in foreign policy, which in Iran is not directly under the control of the president, but rather the Supreme National Security Council.
Ultimately, with the new U.S. administration adopting a more hostile position toward Iran, and having already secured the sanctions relief promised under the nuclear deal, Tehran will probably feel compelled to fall back to a more cautious approach toward dealing with the West. This dynamic may explain why Khamenei may be throwing his support behind a figure like Raisi, who would be expected fill his Cabinet with like-minded officials. This does not necessarily presage a return to the confrontational posture adopted by Ahmadinejad — who clashed with Khamenei on policy issues more than Rouhani has — but rather a more measured one. And even if Rouhani prevails in the election, his more liberal deputies, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, are likely to replaced by more moderate or even conservative figures as Iran adapts to a new reality in the Middle East.