Rouhani Owes His Victory to His Rivals

by Ali Reza Eshraghi

Iran decided to stand on the side of France, The Netherlands, and Austria rather than Turkey, the United States, and Britain in yet another election that had all the frustrating signs of twisting the fate of a nation. The majority of Iranians have chosen a path not a person. But the person who should pave that path is Hassan Rouhani who is now safe to assume the presidency for another four- year term, barring some form of human or divine intervention.

Rouhani’s victory in 2013 was the result of smart politicking by a reformist, centrist, and conservative coalition as well as a campaign that, although small, managed to breathe enthusiasm into an uncertain and downhearted body of voters. But this time, Rouhani owes his victory to his conservative/principlist rivals who had the opportunity to at least drag the election into a second round. But a series of decisions on their part worked in favor of Rouhani, despite his lazy and hazy campaign.

Although securing several key achievements over the past four years, the Rouhani administration did a poor job of communicating its success stories to the public and barely engaged their sympathies for the problems the nation faced. Neither the poor nor the rich are satisfied with an economic situation that, as Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has explained, became the Achilles’ heel for Rouhani in the 2017 election.

A Narrowing Race

Rouhani’s strongest rival could have been Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who still has a strong voter base among the marginalized stratum. But the Guardian Council—which is completely controlled by principlists—prevented him from running in the 2017 election for fear of the controversy that contumacious Ahmadinejad would create. Media reports and the few available polls pointed to a loss of motivation to vote among Ahamdinejad supporters—a group whose abstention no doubt benefited Rouhani.

Priniciplists took up Ahmadinejad’s torch by focusing their campaign on the malaise of economy: unemployment, unaffordable housing, corruption, and rent-seeking. If the principlists had fielded a charismatic, moderate, and less controversial candidate they would have had a better chance of making Rouhani sweat. But instead, their two favored candidates were Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a two-time loser of presidential elections, and Ebrahim Raeisi, an incompetent public speaker who’d only served in the judicial branch, an institution with one of the lowest approval ratings in public surveys.

Despite their clumsiness, both rival candidates managed to corner Rouhani in the ring before the third and final televised presidential debate. Rouhani’s campaign advisors initially suggested that their candidate refrain from preemptively attacking opponents and also delegate the responsibility of defending his campaign to Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. But this strategy soon hurt Rouhani and emboldened his rivals to indulge in unsubstantiated smears and throw out dazzling but empty promises.

If both of Rouhani’s rivals had stayed in the race, the chances of a runoff would have been much higher. But with one week left until the vote, Ghalibaf suddenly withdrew his nomination in favor of Raeisi. This untimely and miscalculated all-in only contributed to Rouhani’s easy victory. As I previously wrote, principlist candidates together had a better chance of challenging Rouhani, since if one dropped out in favor of the other he wouldn’t necessarily bring all of his prospective votes to the new camp. Moreover, with only Raeisi remaining in the running as Rouhani’s rival, the election became highly polarized. Raeisi’s dreadful past and the fact that he enjoyed the endorsement of the most hardline faction of principlists swiftly mobilized the reformist rank-and-file to energize weary Rouhani supporters.

Was the principlists’ decision a mere lapse in judgement? Did their powerful hardline faction force others to follow, as Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar, Esfahan’s Friday Prayers leader has indicated? Perhaps fear of the election going to a second round, and the further frenzy of the public, made them prefer the cost of a possible loss. The rhetoric of both sides had already become exceptionally radicalized. Rouhani directly accused the Revolutionary Guards of meddling in the election and implicitly brought up Raeisi’s record of executions. His rival’s campaign published millions of handouts falsely accusing the administration of teaching children about sex in schools.

Principlists Up Their Game

Yet compared to past elections, the principalists did a better job of campaigning. Despite serious and bitter quarrels among Raeisi, Ghalibaf, and other factions, including the Islamic Coalition Party candidate Mirsalim, they largely succeeded in containing their disputes. Unlike past elections, this time the principlists were as good as the reformists in engaging voters through social media, particularly Instagram. However, their biggest shortcoming was copying without adapting from such diverse sources as Bernie Sanders’ 99 percent campaign in the US election to the folksy style of Ahmadinejad in his 2005 campaign.

But more interestingly, Principalists even tried their hand at appropriating the discourse of the reformist movement promoted since 1997 when former President Mohamamd Khatami was elected. During the second televised presidential debate, for instance, it was Ebrahim Raeisi, not Hassan Rouhani, who said, “People should be able to express their opinion [even] if what they say is not right […] Why should we shut anyone’s mouth? We should allow students, journalists, parties, and various ethnic groups to be active.” Yet Raeisi’s campaign was backed by hardliners proud of quashing popular protests in 2009 and arresting political activists, journalists, and students.

Nor was this an isolated incident. Take the Civil Rights Charter prepared and ratified by the Rouhani administration at the end of 2016. Until very recently, principlist media criticized it as a Western-influenced manuscript at odds with Islamic doctrines. But during the campaign both Ghalibaf and Raeisi accused Rouhani of merely talking the talk, claiming that they alone could actually implement this charter.

In Raeisi’s hometown of Mashhad, concerts have been de facto banned under pressure from the city’s Friday Prayers leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, who’s also Raeisi’s father-in-law. But in the last week before the vote, Raeisi’s Tehran campaign headquarters hired DJs to play club music at nights. In 2009, when popular underground rapper Tataloo endorsed Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign, principlists called it a sign of the reformist’s immorality. But this year, the same principalists began circulating pictures and videos of Tataloo, with his forearms tattooed, meeting Raeisi, who is also the custodian of Iran’s most sacred religious institution: the shrine of the 8th Shia Imam.

The Role of Women

Another example is women’s issues. For decades, principlists have been promoting the image of an ideal and virtuous Islamic woman as a homemaker and family caregiver. During the campaign, Rouhani accused his opponents of wanting to isolate women and force them to stay at home. In response, however, the hardliner daily Kayhan mocked Rouhani because his wife is a homemaker while the wives of his rivals Ghalibaf and Raeisi are both university professors. On state TV, Raeisi not only defended employment for women but also tacitly criticized Rouhani for not even having a single female minister in his cabinet.

The visual representation of women has also changed in the principlists campaign. In the past 20 years, the reformist campaign used images of young women whose hair was not completely covered by their hijabs and who did not conform to the regime’s strict dress code. On the other hand, principalists would show the same images of women and girls, who in their popular slang are known as “bad-hijab,” to emphasize the reformist indifference to family values and morality. But this year, even the hardline media affiliated with the principalists’ campaign began to show images of bad-hijabs who supported Ghalibaf and Raeisi.

For women who do not follow the strict dress codes of the regime, the election is their only opportunity to appear in principlist outlets. Even state TV becomes inclusive during the short campaign period and broadcasts their images to encourage participation in the election and foment nationalism. The mistake reformists make in their analysis is assuming that a person’s appearance describes their whole socio-cultural identity and political aspirations.

No one believes that principlists have had a sudden and genuine change of heart. Indeed, soul-searching has already begun over these inconsistencies. It is another indication that even the most sclerotic and fanatical groups are forced to pander to voters in order to win. But the strategies and tactics used by principlists in this election show that they’re trying to rebrand their parties. The next four years of Rouhani’s presidency will be a critical period for such adaptation as it coincides with Iran entering the 15th century, according to the Persian solar calendar, with an aging, enfeebled Supreme Leader guiding the way.

Ali Reza Eshraghi

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Projects Director at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.



  1. Very interesting comment, but PLEASE, PLEASE: stop writing “principalist”!
    The conservatives never claimed to be “principal”, but rather of adhering to principles.
    So, principlist, not principalist.

  2. Thanks for providing such a nuanced and thoughtful analysis. Mr. Eshraghi should write more.

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