The most prominent example of this trend on Wednesday was the surprise registration of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served two terms as president but is legally permitted to run after a gap of at least one term. Despite this basic permission, it was taken for granted that Ahmadinejad would not challenge Rouhani in May, since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously urged him not to do so.
The supreme leader’s advice regarding Ahmadinejad’s potential candidacy was apparently based on the perception of the former president as an excessively divisive figure, his 2009 reelection having been the spark that set off the Green Movement protests.
Even up until Monday, it was still being reported that Ahmadinejad had no plans to personally run for election, having instead endorsed his former deputy, Hamid Baghaei, to run as an independent candidate in his place. This endorsement was not the only signal that Ahmadinejad had given to indicate that he would abide by the supreme leader’s advice. Whether Tuesday’s move was the reversal of that position or the revelation of longstanding plans, Ahmadinejad was still joined by Baghaei as both registered for separate candidacies, as reported by IranWire.
It is possible that this joint action was aimed at setting up Baghaei as a running mate for Ahmadinejad if the latter’s candidacy is approved. But it may also suggest that the independent hardline candidates are pursuing a similar strategy to that which was laid out by the newly formed Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces, a conservative coalition that selected a shortlist of five candidates, just days before registration opened. The shortlist was generated on the understanding that four of the five would withdraw from the race before Election Day on May 19, in order to solidify for the single candidate deemed to be most capable of unseating Rouhani.
But Al Monitor reported on Monday that not all of the candidates favored by hardliners had formally agreed to this scheme, leaving open the possibility that some of them would end up running against one another right up until Election Day. This contributed to Al Monitor concluding that the conservative factions were continuing to go through a “rough patch” in their bid to obtain the power to reverse Rouhani’s outreach to the US and the international community, as showcased in the 2015 nuclear agreement.
While apparent disagreements over strategy raised the prospect of a divided ticket in the days leading up to registration, the newfound presence of both Ahmadinejad and Baghaei in the campaign makes that division virtually certain. Al Monitor also called attention to the fact that one of the shortlist candidates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, had signaled that he would register as an independent, “a statement that does not appear to be good news for the conservatives or for [the Popular Front], which would then be at risk of collapse.
Furthermore, the Popular Front’s top choice and the first major challenger to register on Monday, Ebrahim Raisi, also eschewed formal alignment with the Popular Front or another party, although this reportedly underscored his emerging alignment with the hardline Endurance Front, for which independent candidacy is a familiar strategy. According to Al Monitor, that affiliation harms Raisi’s chances of electoral victory because the Endurance Front lacks broad support and clearly alienates the moderate and pragmatist voters who are likely to go for Rouhani. Presumably, the negative effects of that affiliation would only be amplified by severe divisions within the hardline faction, which may still be accumulating.
This is not to say that Rouhani has an easy road to reelection. A recent report by Time highlighted the lackluster economic recovery following the nuclear agreement as a major reason for Rouhani having lost much of the support that carried him to victory in 2013. Other sources including human rights organizations and the National Council of Resistance of Iran have called attention to his betrayal of a variety of campaign promises regarding free speech and civil society. Expatriates returning to Iran have continued to be singled out for arrest despite specific promises that they would face no punishment for living abroad; widespread restrictions on the Iranian internet and independent media remain in place; and the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain under extra-judicial house arrest despite Rouhani’s claim that he would see them freed.
All of this seriously weakens Rouhani’s reelection campaign. But Time suggested that in addition to dividing the hardline camp, Ahmadinejad’s registration on Tuesday might have helped to encourage Rouhani’s base to support him, even if it is as the lesser of two – or several evils. This perspective arguably validates the supreme leader’s concerns, which led him to advice Ahmadinejad to remain on the sidelines. That is, for moderates and reformists, perhaps no one is seen as a bigger threat to economic and social change that Ahmadinejad.
However, at the same time that that threat might spur more reformists to vote, it may also greatly inspire part of the conservative faction. As Time put it, “There is probably no single individual who polarizes Iranian society more than him. Some believe he is a true revolutionary intent on fulfilling the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ideals of social justice for the poor; others believe his two term stint as president was the worst calamity to befall the country in decades if not more.”
But although there may be some uncertainty as to which perception will prompt the respective faction to more serious action, it seems unlikely that Ahmadinejad’s popularity among hardliners will be sufficient to overcome the effects of such a cluttered field of candidates. And his ability to seriously compete with fellow hardliners is dependent upon his passing the vetting process of the Guardian Council, of whose 12 members half are directly appointed by the supreme leader.
In its reporting upon Ahmadinejad’s surprise registration, Reuters emphasizes that it appears to be a direct challenge to Supreme Leader Khamenei, which follows upon the former president’s alleged efforts to advance a uniquely Iranian version of Islam, which would apparently be based on a blend of religion and nationalism as well as being an unwelcome alternative to the highly traditional, fundamentalist view of Islam espoused by the regime’s clerical leadership.
Opinion seems to be divided as to whether Ahmadinejad will be ultimately permitted to run for the presidency against Rouhani. But Reuters suggests that blocking him would be difficult, though not impossible, in part because his disqualification would imply that the Guardian Council is not independent but is instead a mere mouthpiece for the supreme leader.
Reuters goes on to claim that according to informed sources, Ahmadinejad might respond to his own disqualification by taking the strange turn of directing his supporters to back Rouhani’s reelection. That is, Ahmadinejad might ultimately be more interested in defeating his hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi, regardless of the apparently incompatible approaches to foreign policy that have been advanced by the prior president and the current one.
Although this possible outcome would improve Rouhani’s chances to an even greater degree than has already been accomplished by the infighting, it would also serve to reinforce the arguments of reformists and dissidents like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which maintains that elections in the Islamic Republic are little more than political theater aimed at resolving infighting within the regime, but without the real prospect of substantive policy shifts.