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April 20, 2017 3:50 pm

Iranian President Rouhani Faces Stiff Opposition in Upcoming Elections, as Islamic Republic Poised for Shake-Up

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces several serious challengers in his bid for re-election, with one regional expert explaining that the republic may be poised for a shake-up.

“Rouhani artificially elevated the hopes of the Iranian population when he [first] campaigned for the presidency back in 2013, and has earned the ire of some of the reformists who supported him since he has not pushed back considerably against the hardest of the hardliners in Iran,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Though Rouhani won his first race in a landslide, on May 19 he faces stiff opposition from hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, a judge and cleric who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and rumored to be his possible successor.

Though Taleblu said Raisi lacks the popular political support that Rouhani and his technocrat-reformist coalition have enjoyed, many Iranians have grown dismayed by the president’s failure to deliver on promises to end Iran’s international isolation. The economy has failed to grow — despite sanctions lifting in the aftermath of the 2015 nuclear deal — and the regime has not turned the country toward becoming a freer society.

“Should the regime deviate from the previously established trend of furnishing almost all incumbents with a second term, it would likely have to decidedly rig the election in Raisi’s favor,” Taleblu explained. “The regime does desire an increase in Raisi’s public stature and thus may be implicitly supportive of his candidacy, but if Raisi loses the presidency, then his chances of rising to supreme leader would face a commensurate decrease.”

Rouhani will also face off with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a Holocaust denier who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map —  who, last week, announced that he has filed to run again, despite calls by Khamenei not to do so.

“If I had to make an assessment now, I’d say [Ahmadinejad’s] registration is probably a calibrated gamble,” Taleblu said. “The former Holocaust denier-in-chief may be seeking leverage against the hardline political establishment by making a tacit bargain that would ensure that his former special adviser, Hamid Baghaie, remains in the race. It remains to be seen if Iran’s hardliners will even accept such a proposition.”

According to Taleblu, Iran’s presidential elections will likely have little impact on the issues most concerning to the international community, namely Tehran’s regional role, and the regime’s foreign and security policies. Those matters are decided by Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military force and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, while the president’s most significant impact is on domestic legislation, and tactical, not strategic, thinking.

Yet, despite limited presidential powers and a highly manufactured electoral process, the upcoming elections may provide considerable insight into the future direction of Iran.

“While I don’t find it particularly useful to partake in the ‘Do Iran’s elections matter?’ debate, the 2017 presidential elections will likely be critical for the regime,” Taleblu said, especially given the outsized role the president might have in selecting the next supreme leader, should Khamenei — 77 and battling health issues — die in the next four years.

Taleblu said the hardline elite will be looking for a president who is “firmly committed to the regime’s political, military, and ideological orientation” and would “extol those revolutionary virtues,” thus serving as a “key force in projecting stability during a time of potential crisis.”

Rouhani likely hopes to fill that role. As he registered for the election last week, he told reporters, “Once again, I am here for Iran, for Islam, for freedom and for more stability in this country.”

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