Ahmadinejad’s registration defied advice by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that he not run, apparently out of fear that he would prove to be an excessively divisive figure. His candidacy further complicates the hardline opposition to Rouhani, who has been harshly criticized for his outreach to Western powers in the form of nuclear negotiations that concluded in June 2015. Reuters notes that more than 850 candidates had registered alongside Rouhani and Ahmadinejad as of Friday, and that hardline opposition to the incumbent remained diffuse.
Nevertheless, the aggregate opposition to Rouhani’s candidacy is so serious that some hardliners have even put forth the idea of having his candidacy disqualified by the Guardian Council, which will vet all prospective candidates by April 27 for their perceived loyalty to the theocratic regime and the principles of the Islamic Republic. Although it is unlikely that an incumbent would be disqualified after having previously passed the vetting process, hope for Rouhani’s ouster has presumably been bolstered by critical commentary that has emerged from the supreme leader’s office in recent months, particularly focused on the slow pace of economic recovery following the nuclear deal.
Still, Reuters notes that the lack of hardline unity in the run-up to the election has been preserved in part by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s declining to intervene or express specific support for one hardline candidate. This could be taken to indicate that Rouhani retains the tentative backing of the clerical head of the regime, and thus that he is unlikely to be barred from standing for reelection by the Guardian Council, half of which is appointed directly by the supreme leader.
The hardline faction of Iranian politics is generally close to Khamenei, and his refusal to disavow Rouhani is further evidence of the latter’s lack of reformist credentials, despite his generally being supported by reformist politicians. In another Reuters report published on Friday, one former senior Iranian official was quoted as saying, “Rouhani is a regime insider. He is loyal to the establishment. He is not a reformist but a bridge between hardliners and reformists.”
The report also quoted the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst Ali Vaez as saying that in spite of the hardline backlash against Iran’s shifting relations with the international community, “the system will be in vital need of Rouhani’s team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats” in order to preserve the sanctions relief that was acquired under the nuclear agreement, especially in the wake of the newfound threats posed to that deal by US President Donald Trump.
In light of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s firebrand reputation, he can be expected to reverse Rouhani’s inroads with the international community in the event that the former president reclaims his office. But the same is apparently true of the individual who appears to be emerging as the main opponent to both Rouhani’s and Ahmadinejad’s candidacies.
The Iran Project reports that Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, formally registered as a candidate on the same day as Rouhani, although he had announced his intention to run one week earlier and shortly after he emerged as the first choice among the conservative coalition known as the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces. As a former prosecutor, head of the Iranian judiciary, and attorney general, the well-known cleric has established hardline credentials, and his economic policy seems to reflect the preoccupations shared by Rouhani’s declared opponents and the supreme leader.
In remarks to the media following his registration, Raisi said he believed the Iranian economy should be insulated from fluctuations in the global economy, a position that is reminiscent of Khamenei’s recent calls for return to a “resistance economy” based on national development at the expense of re-engagement with foreign and Western markets. His comments suggest that Raisi would be quite willing to reverse the progress that Rouhani has made in decreasing Iran’s global isolation. Furthermore, Raisi’s domestic track-record may give Western governments and various non-governmental organizations more incentive to push for resumption of that isolation.
According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Raisi’s candidacy alone is “a serious setback for a country striving to rejoin the international community” because of his “leading role in crimes against humanity during the 1980s,” including the massacre of up to 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. The CHRI says that by allowing Raisi to run, the regime is dealing another blow to victims’ families who are still seeking justice as well as simple acknowledgement of where the bodies are buried.
The 1988 massacre gained new prominence in Iranian public discourse last year when Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the only prominent regime official who opposed the killings, released an audio recording of his father’s conversations with the leading players in the mass execution. The CHRI recently interviewed Montazeri over Raisi’s candidacy and quoted him as saying, “If any of the candidates had attacked a person with a knife, he would have had a criminal record and would not get clearance from the authorities, never mind Mr. Raisi, whose record is very clear.”
Human rights issues, including the ongoing house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were a significant part of Rouhani’s presidential campaign in 2013, but he failed to follow through on any promises in this area. Furthermore, the Iran Human Rights website and other critics of the clerical regime have argued that domestic conditions have grown worse in some areas since Rouhani’s election, as evidenced by the higher number of executions during his first term than during either of his predecessor’s terms in office.
This sidelining of human rights issues may have helped to insulate Rouhani from the threat of disqualification. And in light of the human rights records of both Raisi and Ahmadinejad, it seems that these issues will not be a major factor in the forthcoming campaigns, which will last from April 28 to May 17, two days before the actual election. If that proves to be the case, then national pride and economic policy will likely be the major points of contention, and the challenge for the Rouhani administration will be to demonstrate that the nuclear agreement has had a significantly positive impact on the country’s recovery.
Toward that end, Agence France-Presse reported on Friday that the administration had announced that 20 billion dollars’ worth of development projects would be going into effect in the coming week. This comes shortly after the announcement that cash subsidies to the poor would triple or even quadruple – a move that AFP reported as being “immediately criticized by opponents as a transparent attempt to buy votes.”