Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff 

INU - On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic of Iran formally opened registration for its upcoming presidential elections. This move came less than a week after a newly-formed hardline coalition called the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces gathered to vote for their five top choices to challenge the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

It is expected that the candidates on this shortlist will all register for the campaign and submit themselves to vetting by the Guardian Council, a clerical body that is empowered to disqualify candidates and legislation it deems to be at odds with the Iranian constitution or sharia law. Afterwards, the Popular Front’s strategy calls for four of the five candidates to withdraw in order to make way for a unified hardline challenge to Rouhani at the time of the election, scheduled for May 19.

According to the Associated Press, the vetting process is supposed to be completed by April 27, leaving the confirmed candidates about three weeks to work out any remaining conflicts before Iranians go to the polls. The formal campaign period is even shorter, meaning the remaining challengers will probably need an aggressive strategy for defeating the incumbent.

The hardline faction of Iranian politics has become increasingly antagonistic to the Rouhani administration since it spearheaded nuclear negotiations with six world powers and especially since the resulting agreement went into effect in January 2016, exchanging limited restrictions to the Iranian nuclear program for relief from relevant economic sanctions. According to the Guardian, the animosity toward Rouhani has grown so severe that some hardliners are even pushing to have him disqualified by the Guardian Council before standing for reelection.

This appears to be an unlikely scenario, even though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has recently voiced his own serious criticisms of Rouhani, suggesting for instance that the nuclear deal has had insufficient positive impact on the Iranian economy. The clerical leader’s criticism is counterbalanced somewhat by the fact that he barred Rouhani’s divisive predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from making a run at reclaiming his seat during this election cycle. Khamenei has rejected the prospect of “national reconciliation” through the release of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, but he is evidently also fearful of exacerbating lingering popular resentments by showing a clear preference for distinctly hardline figures.

The supreme leader himself is generally regarded as representing the hardline, as evidenced by his close association with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has led the way in cracking down on activists and journalists ahead of the election, as well as in antagonizing US Naval forces and other Western entities in the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, it appears that the Rouhani presidency is tolerable, even if not preferable for Khamenei, thanks in part to the administration declining to pursue the Mousavi and Karroubi, who have been under house arrest without trial or charge since 2011.

Human rights groups and political opponents of the Iranian regime have been pointing out Rouhani’s failure to live up to this and other campaign promises throughout the four years of his presidency. This arguably leaves reformists without a serious voice in the elections, although some backed Rouhani’s original election bid. The Guardian says that they are expected to do the same in the forthcoming election, although it was also reported early in his presidency that Rouhani had lost a good deal of his original support over his failure to live up to expectations on virtually all matters other than the nuclear negotiations.

Thus, the president is struggling to defend his moderate credentials ahead of the election, while also striving to avoid further incurring the wrath of hardliners. Toward that end, he held a press conference on Monday which IranWire characterized as an unofficial launch of his reelection campaign. In it, he claimed that his administration was defending free speech and civil rights, and that it had promoted a freer and more open culture by granting permits for products and publications that might otherwise have been barred or kept in limbo. But this account of his four-year legacy is easily disputed by reference to ongoing and even worsening restrictions on free speech and freedom of assembly, especially in light of the law enforcement crackdown that has apparently been driven not only by the Revolutionary Guards but also by Rouhani’s own Intelligence Ministry.

Days earlier, the President directed Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to speak out against a recent slew of arrests including those of a dozen administrators for the Telegram instant messaging application. But this move came only after reformist lawmakers exerted their own pressure on Rouhani over this issue, and after reports emerged to indicate that the Ministry had carried out some arrests and had in any event taken no steps to diminish the IRGC’s domestic overreach.

Rouhani’s reaction to reformist outcry also included a public message to Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli asking him to explain the “suspicious arrests of a number of media activists on the eve of the elections.” But Rouhani arguably sent a mixed message by coupling this request with a directive to avoid “security violations.” The Center for Human Rights in Iran called renewed attention to Rouhani’s statement in the context of a report on more recent statements by Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani warning against any new protests like those that gave rise to the Green Movement in 2009, following Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection.

Regime opponents and human rights defenders have tended to highlight a distinct mismatch between Rouhani’s public statements and the actions he has taken as president. For instance, recent arrests have clearly targeted dual nationals solely on the basis of their having lived abroad, yet these arrests stand in direct contrast to Rouhani’s repeated claims that expatriate Iranians would be free to return to the country under his presidency, without consequence.

In other cases there may be positive trends that the Rouhani administration can highlight in order to argue that there has been domestic progress, but these arguments seemingly depend upon ignorance of other, contrary trends. For instance, Al Jazeera reported upon a recent Amnesty International analysis regarding the global use of the death penalty, which found that capital punishment had significantly decreased worldwide and specifically in the Islamic Republic. But the 2016 figure of at least 567 Iranian executions is still higher than any other country apart from China, and presumably higher than China’s execution rate on a per-capita basis.

Iran’s recent decrease in executions only had a positive impact upon world figures because of how staggeringly high its rate of executions is in comparison to global standards, and also because the previous year saw a more than 20-year high of approximately 1,000 hangings, in the very middle of Rouhani’s term as president.

But although these sorts of statistics indicate that Rouhani has not had a notably positive domestic impact and likely would not do so in a second term, there may be reason to believe that things would get worse in the event of his defeat by a hardline challenger. Last week’s meeting of the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces demonstrated the existence of a clear front-runner in the form of Ebrahim Raisi, a prominent cleric who had previously been identified as a potential successor to Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. His status as a potentially serious challenge to Rouhani was solidified on Tuesday when he reportedly became the first member of the hardline shortlist to register as a candidate.

The Guardian states that this move came as a surprise, but other sources including Al Monitor suggested that Raisi’s candidacy was all but a foregone conclusion well ahead of the opening of registration. But whether expected or not, it has met with consternation from some reformist figures and established critics of the clerical regime. The Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, as saying that Raisi’s candidacy is an “insult to the people of Iran,” in large part because of the role that he played in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners.

The younger Montazeri was arrested and initially sentenced to 21 years in prison last year as a result of his having released an audio recording of his father criticizing fellow regime authorities for the massacre – a confrontation that ultimately led to the ayatollah being ousted from the regime. Raisi was one of four clerical judges who ordered the mass execution, which was primarily aimed at destroying the resistance group called the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

That group, still an active opponent of the clerical regime, continues to call attention to the massacre and the ongoing presence of its perpetrators in positions of influence. On Tuesday, the PMOI’s parent organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, released a timeline of violently repressive activities for which Raisi has been responsible throughout his career. But in the past, the NCRI has also called attention to such facts as President Rouhani’s appointment of Mostafa Pourmohammadi, another leading participant in the 1988 massacre, to the position of Justice Minister.

This criticism of both electoral factions goes to show that for dissidents and many reformists, the forthcoming election presents no option that can realistically be expected to yield domestic reform. Some reformists have put forward the idea of fielding alternatives to Rouhani, but his administration has opposed the efforts. Ostensibly, this is to discourage the supreme leader from disqualifying Rouhani and leaving an untested candidate in its place. But there is little to suggest that Khamenei is interested in such a replacement, since Rouhani has thus far posed little real challenge to the hard line.

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