Iran Experts: President Rouhani Facing Uphill Election Struggle as Impact of Nuclear Deal Dominates Campaign
As the Trump administration deliberates over the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, candidates in the Islamic Republic’s May 19 presidential election have turned its underwhelming economic impact on ordinary Iranians into a wedge issue.
A new campaign video released by hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi — who is said to be close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — portrays incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for re-election, as a stooge of the wealthy.
Images in the video dart between street children and substandard housing to mansions with swimming pools and Western-style apartments. The underlying message is that Rouhani — in his desire to bring foreign investment back to Iran following the July 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers — has ignored the needs of the most vulnerable members of society.
Yet, on paper at least, the Iranian economy is showing signs of recovery. “The World Bank Institute report showed that growth last year was at 6.4 percent,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, an Iran expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, DC.
“An important component of the recovery comes from the return to almost pre-sanctions levels of oil sales,” Ottolenghi told The Algemeiner. “The dark side of this is that the wealth hasn’t trickled down to the ordinary people, so there hasn’t been a boom effect on the economy.”
Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar pleaded in an interview with the Reuters news agency this week for Rouhani to be given “more time” on the economic front.
“He has to be given a chance to be able to continue his program,” said Ebtekar, one of a handful of prominent women politicians in Iran, who first achieved notoriety as a “spokesperson” for the radical Islamist students who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution.
“This opening up will create a better atmosphere, and I hope that they — particularly countries like the United States — will stand up to their commitments,” Ebtekar said.
Ebtekar did not discuss the fraught relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei. That relationship, observed Ephraim Asculai — an Iran expert at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv — could decide the outcome of the election.
“If the Supreme Leader is not for him, Rouhani faces a tough path,” Asculai told The Algemeiner.
Asculai noted that Iran was still some way from being regarded as a secure bet by foreign investors. “Investors are not sure if the nuclear deal will fall through,” he said. “President [Donald] Trump is inserting a note of uncertainty into the issue.”
Peter Kohanloo — president of the Iranian-American Majority (IAM) advocacy group — said the core problem in Iran was the “system itself.”
“Economic power is concentrated in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Kohanloo told The Algemeiner. “It’s not a free market, like here in the US, where a small business owner can start on his own and grow.”
Kohanloo accused Iran’s leaders of behaving like a “criminal syndicate.”
“All they care about is taking what they can, when they can — they are not building for future generations,” Kohanloo said.
Ottolenghi said that the Tehran regime has remained committed to the nuclear deal, despite the tensions it has caused in the election campaign.
“The deal is not unraveling,” Ottolenghi said. “The Iranians still desperately need it — it’s fundamentally not in their interests to break the deal.” He added that being “reasonably compliant” could leave the Iranians in a situation, when the deal expires in 2030, “where they have an industrial nuclear program, with Western scientists and a vibrant economy.”
The only circumstances under which the collapse of the deal would favor Iran, Ottolenghi explained, “would be if the US walks away from it, and other countries continue to trade with Iran — the deal falls apart without the sanctions returning.”
Former Senator Joe Lieberman — now the chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) — said in an interview with Jewish Insider published on Thursday that he “would guess that whoever wins the election in Iran will stick to the nuclear agreement to the same extent, because it benefits Iran so much.”
Lieberman, who spent the bulk of his political career as a Democratic legislator, expressed confidence in Trump’s skeptical attitude toward Iran. “Trump … has been a critic of the agreement from the beginning,” he stated. “And I think we can count on his administration to demand full compliance, not only with the agreement, but as he’s recently said, the spirit of the agreement.”