Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff  

INU - On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had recommended that a potentially divisive presidential candidate not run in next year’s race, in which President Hassan Rouhani is expected to seek reelection. Although the identity of that potential candidate was not initially disclosed by the supreme leader, it was generally understood that his comments referred to Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is eligible to run again after having served two terms and taken one term off. Recently, Ahmadinejad has reportedly been touring the country, fueling rumors of his plans to return to national politics.

On Wednesday, it was confirmed that Ahmadinejad had been the target of Khamenei’s recommendation, when the former president announced that he would abide by Khamenei’s will and avoid running to reclaim the office. The AP speculated that Khamenei’s reference to a “polarizing situation” that would result from an Ahmadinejad candidacy was indicative of the sensitive state that the Islamic Republic remains in, seven years after the Green Movement uprising. 

That nationwide protest was initiated in response to the disputed outcome of the 2009 election, in which Ahmadinejad was handed a second term. Four years later, the election of President Rouhani was seen in some circles as a partial vindication of the Green Movement, which had been violently suppressed by the regime, resulting in dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests, some of which led to sentences that are still being served to this day. 

Rouhani was quickly embraced by various Western policymakers and by some Iranian reformists who described him as a relative moderate. However, his moderate credentials were called into question immediately by some of the harshest critics of the Iranian regime, including the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran. Their position has steadily gained traction over the more than three years since Rouhani took office, with many of his former supporters turning against him in response to a lack of progress on central campaign promises, including the release from house arrest of Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. 

And as Iran News Update has pointed out in very recent reports, a number of Rouhani’s latest public statements reflect apparent alignment with the confrontational anti-Western positions of Supreme Leader Khamenei and other hardliners. Previously, the relationship between the Rouhani administration and the regime’s hardline faction had seemed more recognizably contentious, as evidenced by the apparently begrudging approval that the supreme leader had given for nuclear negotiations championed by President Rouhani. But following the conclusion of those negotiations, the two factions appear to have achieved common ground, with both striving to exploit the nuclear agreement for economic improvements while also remaining harshly critical of the US and its allies. 

Khamenei’s rejection of an Ahmadinejad candidacy may be further evidence of alignment between the supreme leader and the current presidency. This seems especially likely in light of the AP’s claim that such rejection will make it difficult for another hardline candidate to pose a credible challenge to Rouhani’s reelection. The report points out that Iran’s national elections have very short campaign periods, making it unlikely that a candidate who is not already in the public eye will be chosen by a major political faction and given sufficient clout to win the race against an incumbent. 

In other words, in rejecting a candidate who is reportedly favored by a considerable majority of hardline conservatives, Khamenei may in effect be viewed as endorsing Rouhani’s reelection. While fear of another uprising may be a motivating factor in this, it is also quite possible that Khamenei’s decision reflects his perception of Rouhani’s more nuanced approach to foreign policy as valuable for hardliners who are close to Khamenei’s office. 

The Ahmadinejad era had been characterized by firebrand speeches and more transparent defiance of the US, resulting in increased economic sanctions and other punitive actions. The Rouhani administration, by contrast, has generated tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, although it has also brought the regime face-to-face with the uncomfortable prospect of increased contact between the US and Iran, leading to what Khamenei has described as economic and cultural infiltration. 

On Tuesday, the World Policy Institute published an interview with Brian Edwards, the author of After the American Century: The Ends of US Culture in the Middle East. In it, he explained that American cultural influence has already been a strong trend in the Islamic Republic for many years, including during the period of heavy sanctions and outright government antagonism that characterized the Ahmadinejad era. This goes a long way toward explaining why Supreme Leader Khamenei and his associates have been noticeably anxious about the possibility of that influence intensifying in the post-sanctions era. 

This in turn helps to clarify the motives behind the widely-recognized crackdown on dissent, free exchange of information, and pro-Western attitudes in the months since the nuclear agreement. What’s more, in rejecting the prospect of returning to the earlier era, Khamenei has arguably expressed the belief that the crackdown is effectively serving its purpose. 

In fact, in an editorial in the Washington Post, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Ray Takeyh argues that Khamenei is successfully transforming the Islamic Republic into a police state, and that the intensified repression contradicts any previous expectations that Iran would become more moderate as a result of Rouhani’s presidency and his willingness to negotiate with Western powers. 

Furthermore, Takeyh predicts that the situation inside Iran may grow worse in years to come. While some commentators have expressed hope that Khamenei’s death might lead to the choice of a less hardline supreme leader and thus to the triumph of alternative foreign and domestic policies, Takeyh reports that the person currently being groomed as Khamenei’s successor, Ibrahim Raisi is “one of the most reactionary members of Iran’s ruling elite” and “could be the only person in the Islamic Republic who could cause people to miss Khamenei.”  

Takeyh’s article explains that Raisi was a crucial participant in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and mainly targeted the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. 

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