by Farideh Farhi
In the past two decades, Iran’s presidential election kickoffs have increasingly become occasions for comedy. It did not disappoint this time. During the five-day registration period, beginning on April 11, over 1,600 people signed up (1,636 to be exact), ranging in age from five to 89-years-old. Unlike for other offices, there are no clear minimum requirements to run for presidency in Iran—not age, not education, and not even gender even if no woman has ever been qualified. So the registration period has become an occasion for people of varying degrees of charisma to make their voices heard and faces seen.
The Iranian parliament has tried to introduce some sanity into the process. But, in order to maintain maximum flexibility for its vetting process, the Guardian Council has resisted any change in the very vague qualification criteria in the constitution, which basically states that the candidate must be among “prominent religious or political personalities” and be a “skillful” manager or administrator.
As a result, the registration process has literally become a joke, with reporters waiting at the interior ministry to take photos of the least likely or most hilarious presidential candidate. One woman was shown registering with a sign calling for the separation of religion and politics—in the Islamic Republic of all places. A man was caught coming in barefoot. Another man brought his five-year-old boy to register, presumably to make a point (a six-year-old girl also registered). I remember a 20-year-old young woman who had registered in one of the past elections and was among the 10 women registered in that particular election. She had come for a sit down with editors of a women’s magazine. She bluntly stated as her registration motive the fact that her photo had a better chance of making it on the cover of a magazine as a presidential registrant than as an actress. She was right!
The situation became so unwieldy this year—in 2013 there were only 686 registrants—that Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani for the first time blasted the Guardian Council for its refusal to act on legislation to specify more clearly the qualifications for the job. As a result, the conservative body was put on the defensive and accepted a degree of responsibility, with its spokesman stating that it is everyone’s fault including the body itself.
The 12-member Guardian Council has the impossible and self-imposed task of going through all of the files of the registrants in only five days. Although the timeline may be extended for a couple of days, the interior ministry must officially announced the qualified candidates on April 26, kicking off the very short 20-day campaign for the May 19 election.
At this point the only thing we know for sure is that the Guardian Council will reject almost all of the files after a few minutes each. Only about 20 files, including President Hassan Rouhani’s, will take up most of the time of the Council members. But choosing among these 20—a motley crew of former and current officials and politicians—is not an easy task given the completely partisan nature of the Guardian Council’s decision-making process and the tactical game various political parties and organizations have decided to play.
Rouhani vs. Everyone Else
Rouhani is the man to beat, and by all accounts this will be difficult task. His main opponent is cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a former judiciary official and recently appointed custodian of the Imam Reza shrine (reputed to be the richest religious foundation in the Islamic world). His late entry has turned the election into what most observers now see as a two-man race. However, the Guardian Council is likely to qualify more than these two, and given this knowledge both Rouhani supporters and opponents are playing a tactical game to increase the chances of their candidate winning.
Raisi insists that he is running as an independent candidate. To improve his chances of winning, his supporters will also coyly hint that he is really the candidate of Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his candidacy was pushed forth through a process initiated by an alliance of conservative organizations called the Popular Front for the Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF). He ended up on the top of the PFIRF’s list of five candidates, another three of which have also registered. Presumably the PFIRF hopes that one or two of these candidates will be qualified, giving them sufficient collective firepower to direct at Rouhani’s record during the short campaign period and presidential debates (the format for and number of which have yet to be decided). Once the debates are over, the backup candidates will likely withdraw in favor of Raisi. The kink in this plan is that at least one of the candidates—Tehran mayor and former presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf—may not withdraw in Raisi’s favor. His own presidential ambitions are well known and may keep him in the race. Based on his debate performance, he may also end up being considered a better Rouhani challenger.
Meanwhile, the reformist-centrist alliance that has solidly lined up behind Rouhani decided at the last minute to field candidates that would neutralize the PFIRF’s tactical moves. Immediately after Qalibaf’s registration, Rouhani’s first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, also registered. He will have the task of defending Rouhani’s record in the debates and has openly stated that he will withdraw in Rouhani’s favor.
Immediately after former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered, so did Mohammad Hashemi, the brother of the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The former president is unlikely to qualify, given that the judiciary spokesman has already stated that there is an open case against him in the judiciary. But if Ahmadinejad does qualify, Mohammad Hashemi hope is to qualify as well in order to defend his deceased brother’s record against attacks as well as to remind the public about his brother’s avid support for Rouhani.
The Guardian Council, chaired by conservative Ahmad Jannati, may also have its own tactical considerations regarding what combination of candidates will strengthen Raisi’s position and reduce Rouhani’s chances. It may decide to qualify a couple of less well-known reformist candidates who have registered independently in order to create competition in Rouhani’s own flank. As usual the Council will offer very little rhyme or reason for qualifying one former minister and not another.
At the center of the campaign, no matter what combination of registrants will be qualified, will be the Rouhani’s administration’s economic record. The Iranian economy has experienced an uptick in growth after the nuclear agreement mostly because of an increase in oil exports. But Rouhani’s opponents have made much of the higher rate of unemployment as more people enter the job market and a recession continues in the housing market and the associated construction industry, a key employer in the Iranian economy. Raisi is entering the campaign with the slogan of Work and Dignity while Qalibaf is promising to do magic by more than doubling the size of the Iranian economy and creating of 5.5 million jobs in four years (leading the reformist pundits to make fun of him for effectively promising a 20 percent yearly growth rate).
Overall Rouhani’s conservative opponents offer very few specific alternative policies. They argue that they will be better managers than Rouhani in pursuing largely the same policies. Even regarding foreign policy, they do not have the wherewithal to question the direction Iran has taken after the signing of the nuclear agreement. Some of the registrants may criticize the nuclear agreement for not delivering on its economic promises but, given the fact that the agreement was the result of a systemic decision and received Leader Ali Khamenei’s stamp of approval, they will have to deal with it as a fact on the ground, not subject to reversal from the Iranian side.
This is why Rouhani, in his post-registration speech, pointed out that his administration is the best one to steward the nuclear agreement. Using the sly humor he is known for, he compared his opponents to the competing and jealous wives “who had repeatedly made the decision to kill this child,” meaning the nuclear agreement, and hence could not be good custodians of it. “Rather, the same people who worked day and night for the agreement should continue on the path until the last step,” he stated. His reference to the people who worked hard for the agreement is also a not-so-subtle reference to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is very popular among more liberal urban voters. Rouhani is suggesting that they should come out and vote if they want Zarif to remain at his position. Finally, Rouhani and Jahangiri, in reminding people of the unstable political and economic situation at the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, will also point to the need for steady hands to continue at the helm.
In this sense, the challengers’ call for change at the top for the sake of improved management and more effective implementation of policies already put into place makes this election quite different from the previous three elections, which were largely focused on the country’s change of direction.
Given the volatility in voter participation in Iran—which in presidential elections has ranged from 55 to 85 percent—Rouhani may be in trouble if the people who supported him in the 2013 election show their disappointment in the slow improvements of the Iranian economy by not showing up at the polls in significant numbers. On the other hand, this election offers these supporters little incentive to go to the polls to vote for Rouhani’s likely opponents either.
Photo: Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad poses for photos after registering on April 12, 2017 for Iran’s presidential election.