Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and rival candidate Ebrahim Raisi hold their posters at a election rally
“(Donald) Trump’s rhetoric towards Iran is so harsh that to have someone on the other side who is equally harsh might provoke an unintentional confrontation.” — Reza H. Akbari
This week, Iranians will decide what sort of president they want for the next four years. Polls suggest it will be a choice between a moderate reformist, the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, or a hardline conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi. It will be an important geopolitical decision. Iran, the citadel of Shiite Islam, sits in the amphitheatre of a combustible region, where it meddles in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and is accused of exporting terrorism. It competes with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia just across the Gulf for regional influence as exemplified by the fighting between their proxies in Yemen.
But the presidency is not the top job in Iran. The ultimate authority is the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has ruled since 1989, is 77 and is said to be in ill health. The presidency is viewed as the stepping stone to replace him when he retires. It is the post which makes all the major decisions and key appointments. Its power far exceeds the president’s.
More than 1600 people applied to be the next president, including 137 women. The 12 members of the Guardian Council — clerics hand-picked by the Supreme Leader — narrowed the choice to six male applicants, making sure that whoever won was acceptable to Khamenei’s vision for Iran. Although Iranians are free to vote as they wish, it is a subjective election rather than a democratic one.
According to Reuters, although Khamenei is guarded about his political preferences, Raisi appears to have his backing for the presidency and even as his possible successor. Raisi attended religious classes taught by Khamenei for 14 years. Last year he was appointed by Khamenei to run a billion-dollar religious foundation which is also a business conglomerate employing 19,000 people. But many Iranians remember him as one of the four judges who ordered the execution of thousands of dissidents in 1988.
The omnipresent Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — the defenders of the 1979 Iranian revolution — would certainly prefer Raisi to win. Their interest is not so much religious as business. “The IRGC are out essentially for their own corporate gains,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University in California. “They have a big share of the economy. They want a bigger share.”
They certainly don’t want Rouhani elected for a second term. He has clashed with the Guards repeatedly about their contracts and business interests. “The entry of the armed forces to economic temptations can distance them from their original duty and goal”, he said last month.
Rouhani won in a landslide last time. Since then, his key achievement was the agreement in 2015 to lift international sanctions in return for Iran to curb its nuclear program. However, the highly anticipated boost to the economy as a result has not eventuated due to a combination of plunging oil prices and foreign investors remaining wary of Iran’s reliability. Iranians feel let down, a grievance not lost on Rouhani’s opponents.
Whoever wins will face a major problem: unemployment, especially among the restless younger generation. The BBC reports the current unemployment rate at 12.7%, up 1.7% over the past year. The means 3.3 million people. But among those aged 15-24 the rate is 33%, including every other woman. That could mean a lot of frustrated and angry young people taking to the streets. The candidates have promised unprecedented number of new jobs or cash handouts — as if the election were an auction — without explaining how they will be created or where the money will come from.
Rouhani is probably the most pragmatic. He wants an Iran stable enough to bring back foreign investors to help modernise the oil, gas, transport and communications sectors after decades of neglect due to international isolation. He sees this as the means to create thousands of those promised new jobs. That may well require corporate American heavyweights. This would be a sensitive issue in a country that has condemned the US as ‘the Great Satan’ for years.
If Raisi wins it may create new tensions in US-Iran relations, which had eased during the Obama years, with hardliners now in both capitals. President Trump put Iran ‘on notice’ after it tested a ballistic missile in February. “Trump’s rhetoric towards Iran is so harsh that to have someone on the other side who is equally harsh might provoke an unintentional confrontation”, said Reza H. Akbari, of the Washington-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Khamenei has already made his views known. “Their evil has always been directed toward us,” he said soon after Trump was elected. Giulio Terzi, the former Italian foreign minister and UN ambassador, warned recently: “One should not expect a major shift in Tehran’s policies after the election. It will be a huge folly and total misguided approach by the West to pin any hope on the results of this election’.
In short, the politics of Islamic Iran remain as cloudy as ever.
The election coincides with a tactless US move: Trump’s first foreign trip as president, a visit to Saudi Arabia. Khamenei will not be pleased that he will be bearing gifts to his foe — a package of weapons deals, which, according to Time magazine, totals more than $100 billion, making it one of the largest single arms sales in US history. Not bad for a country Trump once claimed “blew up the World Trade Centre”.
*This article originally appeared in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations