Iran’s Presidential Elections: Has Hassan Rouhani Met His Match?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Until only a few weeks ago, Iran’s hardliners lacked a candidate of any stature in Iran’s forthcoming presidential elections in May 2017. These principlists floated names of people such as Saeed Jalili, a former negotiator on Iran’s nuclear dossier during the Ahmadinejad presidency, and Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Baghir Ghalibaf (who contested the presidency in 2005 and in 2013), as well as a few even lesser known personalities. This paucity of any so-called heavy hitters in the principlists’ list of presidential candidates seemed to indicate that as has been the general practice in Iran, the current leader will be elected to a second term.

This still may be the case, and President Hassan Rouhani may yet serve another term. But that scenario is now complicated by the entry into the race of Hojatoleslam Ibrahim Raeisi, the head of the vast complex centered around the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam Ali ibn Musa al Riza and a candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as the supreme leader. Although Raeisi is not technically representing the principlists and is running as an independent candidate, he is more conservative than the reformist Rouhani. More important, his candidacy raises serious questions about the direction of Iran’s domestic politics and its foreign policy.

Raeisi’s entry into the presidential race undermines the prospects of Rouhani being elected for a second term. Someone of Raeisi’s stature and future prospects would not likely have entered the race if he were not sure of victory, especially given that he’d said several times that he had no intention of running for president. A defeat in the forthcoming presidential elections could and, most probably would, damage his image and thus undermine his chances of acceding to the exalted position of supreme leader. Moreover, he reportedly has the trust of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has generally had uneasy relations with various presidents in the past. Some strain in relations between the leader and any president is inevitable, especially when the leader sets all the policy priorities and defines the perimeters within which the president can operate and yet bears no responsibility for the outcome of his decisions. All the government’s shortcomings are laid at the door of the president and often its success is attributed to the guidance provided by the supreme leader.

Meanwhile, if the president becomes too successful or popular, it generates resentment on the part of the supreme leader. Thus, to be comfortable, the supreme leader must have someone whom he can completely trust and who will not try to steal the limelight. Of course, there is no guarantee that if he becomes president, Raeisi might not become less pliant just as, for instance, Ahmadinejad did. But at the moment, he is the most trustworthy candidate from the leader’s perspective.

There are other reasons why the leader might not want Rouhani any more. Rouhani’s presidency was directly related to the sense of crisis in Iran in 2013. The economy was reeling under the pressure of heavy sanctions, and with the unresolved nuclear dossier the risk of a US strike on Iran was ever-present. Rouhani was chosen to solve this problem. The leader reluctantly supported his efforts, constantly warning of America’s untrustworthiness.

Rouhani performed this task quite successfully. But as Iran’s expectations of the economic benefits of the nuclear deal did not materialize, the unhappiness of the supreme leader and the opponents of the nuclear deal increased. Hassan Rouhani as the personification of the nuclear deal thus became a target of their ire.

Most important, it soon became clear that to reap the full benefits of the deal, Iran would have to make other adjustments in its external behavior as well as open up the country’s political and cultural scene. But this is what the hardliners and those in charge of economic fiefdoms that have grown in the post-revolution period did not want.

As Rouhani talked about how Iran’s economic progress and revitalization required greater contacts with the outside world, the leader and the hardliners talked about an economy of resistance and the need for a “Jihadi” management to solve the country’s economic difficulties. Others became concerned about the negative cultural impact of the relative increase in the number of Western visitors to Iran. Some, like Rostam Ghasemi, a former Revolutionary Guard general and minister of oil, argued that Iran should focus only on visitors from Muslim countries.

The significance of these debates however, goes beyond the results of the forthcoming elections to encompass the future of the Islamic Republic. Will the system embrace reform and become a more progressive, national and inclusive version of itself, or will it persist in pursuing old patterns that have brought the country where it is now? In the past, the so-called system (Nizam) has experimented with limited reform to weather economic and political challenges—under Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani—only to fall back on old practices.

However, Iran can no longer afford such sharp swings as illustrated by the passage from Khatami to Ahmadinejad. The country has to choose one option and stick with it. The only option that makes sense and is supported by the majority of the people is that of reform and opening up to the outside world. The persistence of behaviors that have outlived their usefulness will only exacerbate the Islamic system’s many internal contradictions, and could ultimately endanger its very existence.

Raeisi’s candidacy, however, seems to indicate that the hardliners are not convinced of this view. They seem to believe that the preservation of what they call revolutionary values and behavior will be the salvation of the regime. Interestingly, in their argument they refer to the Soviet Union’s experience. Unlike the reformists, that saw in the USSR’s demise the need for reform, the hardliners believe that Gorbachev’s abandonment of socialist principles led to the Soviet Union’s demise. And they are determined to avoid it.

Of course, all this analysis might be wrong, and Raeisi’s candidacy might be for the purpose of getting him more national exposure and some government experience as part of his grooming for the Supreme Leadership. Whatever the real reason behind his candidacy one thing is clear, Iran as a country and people can no longer afford experimentations and gyrations in national policy.

Photo: Hojatoleslam Ibrahim Raeisi and Ayatollah Khamenei

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. I think there is a clear effort to perpetuate the myth that there are “moderate” and “hardline” factions within Iran’s government. It’s a myth that the NIAC and others have worked hard to foster because it allows them the freedom to make Rouhani for example look like a moderate. Unfortunately, like all myths, this one is false. There is no difference in Iran’s government when that government is constitutionally structured to abide by the decisions of the Supreme Leader and a religious governing council that controls the military, judicial, and economic life of the country.

  2. “..preservation of what they call revolutionary values and behavior will be the salvation of the regime”. What revolutionary values? The true values have been replaced by corruption, deceit, immorality, etc. The only thing the IRI values is their own pocket.

  3. The anger of the people is such…even the religious ones, one I would have called chadoriha, are even conscious that the first mission and priority of the iranian government is to steal iran’s wealth. The revolution has bankrupted ordinary people, they have a benchmark of comparison after 40 years, the day that chapter is closed for good is nearer than ever. May we live in interesting times

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