Predicting the Unpredictable in Iranian Politics

8 MINS READMar 8, 2017 | 10:02 GMT
The head of Iran's Assembly of Experts walks past a TV screen at the opening session of the Majlis in Tehran. The assembly is preparing to weigh in on who should compete for the country's highest elected office.

The head of Iran's Assembly of Experts walks past a TV screen at the opening session of the Majlis in Tehran. The assembly will doubtless discuss the impending presidential and supreme leadership successions during its March conference.

(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • With the support of Iran's reformists and moderates, President Hassan Rouhani is poised to win a second term in the country's presidential election in May.
  • Nevertheless, his more conservative opponents will do their best to find a candidate who can unite their political bases and unseat the incumbent president.
  • No matter who wins the race, Iran's foreign policy will largely stay the same.

With a presidential race only two months away, Iran's Assembly of Experts is getting ready to weigh in on which candidates should compete for the country's highest elected office. Many of Iran's most powerful political figures are attending the organization's biannual conference on March 7-9, where the assembly — primarily tasked with selecting the successor of aging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — will doubtless discuss the approaching election as well.

Though Iranian politics can be somewhat unpredictable, the May 19 election probably won't be. There are many economic, political and social forces keeping the country on its current course of modernizing its economy and re-engaging with the international community. And though President Hassan Rouhani, the man who set Iran down this path, has not publicly announced his intention to seek another term, he is likely still the favorite for the job. Even so, that will not deter his more conservative rivals from mounting a challenge against him by fielding a new candidate of their own.

The Incumbent's Advantage

Since taking office in 2013, Rouhani has carefully led his country through a series of difficult economic reforms and the beginnings of a diplomatic re-engagement with the West. Though both efforts still have room to fail, Rouhani can point to real progress that has been made under his watch. Iran's oil production, for instance, has jumped from 2.8 million to 3.8 million barrels per day since Western sanctions were lifted in January 2016. And during Rouhani's tenure, inflation has plummeted from 45 percent to 8.7 percent.

To be sure, the Iranian economy's performance has also been uneven in that time, and the country is still grappling with high levels of youth unemployment. (About 30 percent of the country's youths and 20 percent of its university graduates still don't have jobs.) These issues will certainly weigh on Iranians as they head to the polls. Still, it would be unusual for an incumbent president to be defeated in Iran. After all, the last Iranian president to fail to win a second term was Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was assassinated in 1981 just four weeks after assuming the presidency.

Iran's political factions

The country's traditional and hard-line conservatives are still hoping to unseat Rouhani, who has championed several social reforms that do not align with their agenda. But first they have to agree on a candidate to represent them. During the last presidential election, in 2013, Iran's conservative forces were extremely fragmented and split their vote among four candidates. As a result, conservative runner-up Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf earned just 16.5 percent of the vote, trailing well behind Rouhani's 50.9 percent. With the support of both reformists and moderate conservatives, Rouhani was able to win a slim majority and narrowly avoid what could have been a much closer run-off vote. (According to Iranian electoral law, the top two candidates must compete in a run-off election if neither receives 50 percent of the vote in the first round.) In the years since, reformists and moderates have made even greater electoral gains, eking out additional seats in the Assembly of Experts and the Majlis, Iran's parliament, last February. Their coalition, though constantly shifting, is now a large and widely appealing movement that appears ready to join forces with Rouhani once again.

A Natural Spoiler

With such a powerful coalition behind him, Rouhani will not be easy to defeat. But on Feb. 23, Iran's conservative Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces held its first national convention in hopes of doing just that. So far, the party has floated 21 potential nominees, including hard-line stalwarts Ghalibaf, Mohsen Rezaei, Saeed Jalili and Hamid Baghaei. But the most popular candidate by far was the highly respected Ebrahim Raisi, who has served as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi — one of Iran's wealthiest charities, responsible for managing several religious sites and organizations across the country — since March 2016.

Over the past year, Raisi's public stature has risen substantially, leading to speculation that he may be groomed as Khamenei's eventual replacement as supreme leader. Of course, Raisi isn't the only one being considered for the job; judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani and his predecessor, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, as well as Rouhani himself have all been identified as potential candidates in the press. But Larijani and Rouhani have become embroiled in scandals and disputes with each other over the past year. Raisi, meanwhile, has remained mostly neutral, rising above the partisanship that has bogged down his competitors. Having avoided alienating any of Iran's biggest constituencies, Raisi has shown himself to be an obvious choice who may have the best chance of uniting the country's conservatives.

With such a powerful coalition behind him, Rouhani will not be easy to defeat.

This seeming strength could become a vulnerability in a political campaign, though. Should Raisi agree to run for the presidency, he would risk getting dragged into heated disputes with his competitors. And against a potentially powerful reformist-moderate alliance, he would face a very real chance of losing — an outcome that could damage even his vaunted status. Raisi might therefore choose to turn down the nomination, unless the supreme leader himself asks Raisi to accept it.

If Raisi refuses to make a bid for the presidency, conservatives will have only one option left: Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, the brother of Iran's judiciary chief. The Larijani clan is an influential force in Iranian politics, and as a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Ali Larijani still maintains deep ties to the military branch. Moreover, like his brother Sadeq and Raisi, Ali Larijani is extremely close to the supreme leader. Though he does not have the support of Iran's hard-line conservatives, Ali Larijani could bridge the divide between traditional conservatives and moderates better than Rouhani can.

The problem is that Ali Larijani doesn't appear to be interested in the position. In fact, he has been supportive of Rouhani's rule and will likely continue to back him in the approaching election. Given Ali Larijani's close relationship with Khamenei, this also suggests that the supreme leader is content with keeping Tehran's current administration in place for now. Contrary to what some may think, the IRGC might be satisfied with a second Rouhani win as well. Though the president and the IRGC's leaders disagree on a number of issues — especially social and economic reforms — the recent election of a U.S. administration that is hawkish toward Iran has virtually destroyed any possibility that relations between Washington and Tehran will warm over the next few years. And as long as tensions persist, so will the IRGC's clout in Iranian politics. (By contrast, the IRGC's standing took a hit ahead of the rapprochement between the United States and Iran as its interests in the oil and natural gas sector and its importance as a military bulwark against Western aggression were jeopardized.)

The Same Outcome

Regardless of whether Rouhani wins another term or is ousted by a more conservative challenger, Tehran's policies will not be changing much in the near future. Though Rouhani has tried to expand the powers of Iran's inherently weak presidency in hopes of better countering the influence of bodies that the supreme leader appoints, he has not made a great deal of headway. Today, the Iranian president still cannot independently set foreign policy, approve legislation or deploy the military. Instead, the country's direction is determined by overlapping — and at times, competing — institutions, with the supreme leader sitting at its helm as the arbiter of policy.

Iran's political structure

For the most part, Iran's moderates and traditional conservatives agree that the country should reconnect with the global economy. But social reforms are where they differ, and many of Rouhani's proposals in this realm have been rebuffed by other segments of the government, including the judiciary. Even so, the president has stood by his programs, and they are sure to come up for debate again among the Iranian public as the campaign season heats up in April and May.

The Assembly of Experts will no doubt be mulling these issues as well when it meets this week. Because Raisi is a member of the assembly, it will almost certainly weigh his potential (among others') for the presidency and the supreme leadership during the forum. The last time the assembly chose a successor for Iran's supreme leader was in the 1980s, when it named Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's successor. But when Montazeri later had a falling-out with Khomeini, his nomination was withdrawn in 1989. The fiasco underscored just how fraught the process of naming the next in line can be while the current supreme leader is still alive. But as Khamenei nears his 80th birthday, it will be difficult to keep Iran's presidential and supreme leadership successions from becoming more tightly intertwined.

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