People gather at the tomb of Cyrus the Great on 28 October 2016 chanting nationalist slogans despite official restrictions to express increasing popular frustration with religious government. Photo SIPA Press
The next Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for 19th May 2017, may prove to be a turning point in the complex and turbulent politics of the country. The degree of hostility between the two main rival camps — the hardliners headed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the moderates and reformists dispersed into several factions without a united leadership — has reached new heights. Almost every week a new scandal makes headlines as news of corruption in one camp or the other are leaked to the press by the opposing faction. The quality and the number of revelations are staggering and unprecedented in Iranian history. They certainly mark a new period in the Islamic Republic’s internal power struggle.
The incumbent, Hassan Rohani, is by all accounts eager to run for a second term. He claims to represent the middle option between the hardliners and the reformists. Now serving the final year of his first term, however, he has ended up driving both camps away. The recent resignations of three ministers, including the Minister for Islamic Culture and Guidance, Ali Jannati, have shown the tension between the president and the opposing political factions. Jannati, the focus of the media for his rather poor handling of cancellations of concerts by non-governmental clerics, was heavily criticised by both camps. His departure and those of his two colleagues from the cabinet strengthen the belief that President Rohani has fallen far short of the expectations he had produced as a go-between candidate in his election campaign four years ago.
Though Rohani is still favoured by some reformists and other loosely-defined groups such as pragmatists or moderates for a second term, he is unlikely to enjoy the support of hardliners in the coming elections. The powerful Revolutionary Guards, who are opposed to the president and the reformists, have been working hard to expose the corruption of the Rohani’s camp that has included the publication of astronomical salaries for many government officials. The intelligence section of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, is now competing effectively with the Intelligence Ministry (believed to side with the current president and the reformists) in the tit-for-tat leakages that aim to tarnish each other’s political allies. The outcome of next year’s elections may well be influenced by the extent of those leaks.
The arrests of dual nationals by the IRGC have also been viewed as politically motivated. Several dual citizens of Iran have been detained in the past year on unsubstantiated charges. Espionage, relations with hostile countries, acting against national security and the like have been used to justify arrests that could hurt Rohani’s image abroad and potentially impede the arrival of much-needed foreign investments.
On the reformist’ side, no candidate has been introduced yet and some observers, such as university professor Sadegh Zibakalam, believe that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may represent a better chance for the camp than the incumbent Rohani. Zarif’s popularity has prompted some powerful circles to seriously consider him for the top job. Mohammad Reza Aref, the uncharismatic former minister in President Mohammad Khatami’s cabinet and a current deputy in Majles, is also mentioned as a possible candidate, but Aref’s rather pliable and conformist approach is unlikely to earn him a place in the final list of the reformists.
The hardliners have not fielded any candidates, either. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s prospects were unmistakably damaged when, in a private meeting with the supreme leader on 30th August 2016, he was told in no uncertain terms he should not run. Although that cannot completely rule out Ahmadinejad’s candidacy (he has stood up to the supreme leader in the past) it makes it very improbable. Of those mentioned, the former nuclear negotiator and current representative of the supreme leader in the National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, is a possibility, though his brisk and uncompromising demeanour is hardly a vote winner. His 11.3 percent of the votes in the 2013 elections is a good indicator of his popularity.
Others, such as Mohsen Rezayee, former head of IRGC, who is close to the supreme leader, and Gholami Ali Haddad Adel, former speaker of Majles, who is related to Khamenei through their children’s marriage, would fail to attract voters away from Rohani as their records have left a less than perfect impression in Iranian people’s collective memory. The current Mayor of Tehran and former revolutionary guard general, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, would have been one of the most obvious front runners for the hardliners. However, recent leakages of alleged corruption in Tehran municipality have somewhat dimmed his chances.
Parviz Fattah, the minister of energy in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, is one figure who could possibly attract some of the votes from the other camp as well. Almost all factions agree on his productive term as a minister, and Fattah actually crossed factions by lobbying for President Rohani’s minister of energy, Hamid Chitchian, to be approved by Majles. His support may have contributed to the 272 “yes” votes for Cheet Chian, one of the highest in the history of the Islamic Republic. Currently Fattah is appointed by the supreme leader as the head of the Imam Khomeini’s Relief Foundation.
As for President Rohani, the deteriorating economy could prove to be his Achilles heel for re-election. The economic slowdown even after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement with the Five plus One (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China and Germany) in 2015 has failed to show any tangible sign of improvement for the average family. Despite the resumption of oil exports to a degree and the tentative agreements for foreign investment and trade (for instance, Boeing reached one such deal with Iran worth $17.6 billion last June ), prices keep rising and the official rate of unemployment stands at a staggering 11.8 percent (unofficial figures are much higher). Even government officials are now acknowledging the enormity of the crisis with the rising number of those out of work.
However, as pointed out earlier, the intensity of inter-factional power struggle illustrated by the constant leakages of corruption against rival camps together with the increasing frustration of people with religious government (expressed by tens of thousands of people who gathered at the tomb of Cyrus the Great on 28th October and chanted nationalist slogans despite official restrictions) could finally expose the Islamic Republic to the consequences of its own internal contradictions.