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Iran Votes: Between Moderation and Conservatism

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Commentary, 19 May 2017
Iran, International Security Studies, Middle East and North Africa
Today's presidential election in the Islamic Republic pits moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani against Ebrahim Raisi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's favourite and his possible successor.

Iranians go to the polls today to vote in the twelfth presidential elections since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The last elections, in June 2013, led to the victory of moderate Hassan Rouhani who, after eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, guided Iran towards engagement, rather than confrontation, with foreign governments.

In line with his electoral promises, during the past four years Rouhani and his administration focused on the resolution of the nuclear dossier, which they portrayed as the key to the solution of all other issues, including the recovery of the Iranian economy.

Following intense negotiations with France, Germany, the UK, the US, China and Russia, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was finally announced in July 2015, twelve years after negotiations began.

Following the implementation of the deal in January 2016, Rouhani and his team focused on fixing Iran’s economy, capitalising on the lifting of sanctions and trying to open up the Iranian market to foreign investors.

Today’s election thus represents, first and foremost, a referendum on Rouhani’s achievements during his first term and an indication of whether the population has felt the trickle-down benefiits of the nuclear deal in their daily lives.

Four-Year Cycle

Iran goes to the polls every four years to vote for a president, one of the three institutions in the country (together with the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts), which is directly elected, rather than appointed.

Between 11 and 15 April, more than 1,600 Iranians registered with the Ministry of the Interior as presidential candidates. Of these, only six were approved by the Guardian Council, which is comprised of six clergymen appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and six jurists elected by parliament (from a list provided by the head of the judiciary). Among those excluded were Ahmadinejad and his Vice President, Hamid Baghaei.

A total of 56.4 million Iranians are eligible to vote. Turnout for presidential elections is generally high. In 2013, 72.7% of eligible Iranians voted, while in 2009 this figure reached 85.22%.

If no candidate reaches an outright majority in the first round, a run-off will take place on 26 May between the two candidates with the most votes. The last time a second round took place was in 2005, when Ahmadinejad stood and beat Ali Akbar Hassan Rafsanjani, who died earlier this year.

Jockeying for Position

Of the six candidates vetted by the Guardian Council, two (conservatives Mostafa Mir Salim and reformist Mostafa Hashemitaba) seem to have little chance of being elected, while two others, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Eshaq Jahangiri, withdrew just days before the elections.

Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran and a former commander of Revolutionary Guards’ Air Force, previously stood for president, in 2005 and 2013, gaining 13% and 16% of the votes. Following his withdrawal, he endorsed Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who recently became the custodian of the Islamic Republic’s holiest shrine and is thus believed to be a possible successor to Khamenei.

Jahangiri, the current First Vice President and close to the reformist camp, was perceived as a placeholder candidate since the beginning of the race, and, once he withdrew, he announced his full support for Rouhani.

This means that the election will essentially be a two-horse race between Raisi and Rouhani. Still, it cannot be taken for granted that Rouhani will win a second mandate.

It’s All About the Economy

During the three weeks of election campaigning, the economy emerged as the main theme for  the candidates’ platform. Rouhani defended his administration’s achievements in improving the Iranian economy.

During his term, inflation plummeted from 35% to 9.5%, the economy stopped contracting and is now growing at about 6% a year, oil exports returned to pre-sanctions level and foreign direct investments increased to about $11 billion in the past year.

Living standards have not increased, however, with unemployment remaining high (about 12%) and energy prices up by 50%. Conservative candidates have thus promised to create five million more jobs, together with an increase of cash handouts to low earners.

Why Do Iran’s Presidential Elections Matter?

The general assumption is that the supreme leader is in charge of all security and foreign affairs issues in Iran and that the president’s role in shaping foreign policy is secondary.

Still, while Khamenei, together with the other heads of the ruling system, is in charge of defining Iran’s ‘red lines’ on all foreign policy matters, the president has a role in framing the tactic adopted to meet these red lines.

This is why, for instance, there have been different postures, some more engaging and some more confrontational, towards the international community during the past five presidencies.

On the nuclear deal, all candidates have expressed a consensus on the need to preserve and defend the JCPOA, considered a ‘national document’. However, different presidents are likely to adopt different responses to US President Donald Trump’s position on Iran, as well as varying attitudes towards a possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, or the current proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Banner image: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote in today's presidential election at a polling station in Tehran. Courtesy of Xinhua/Meng Tao.

Author

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Research Fellow

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is a Research Fellow at RUSI. Her research is concerned with security in the Middle East, with a particular focus... read more

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