By Jemma Tan
The 2017 Iranian presidential election officially commenced on April 11 with the registration of candidates. Although hundreds of office-seekers register every election, only a select few are approved by the Guardian Council who almost always eliminates female candidates and those deemed too radical. Incumbent moderate Hassan Rouhani is running for re-election and will face off on May 19 against his contenders, including conservative favorites Ebrahim Raisi and Hamid Baghaei.
Since his election to office in 2013, Rouhani has favored policies that center on bridging the country’s fraught relationships with the United States. The cornerstone of this platform is the passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, which lifted U.S sanctions on trade with Iran in exchange for international review on the development of the country’s controversial nuclear program.
A December 2016 survey conducted by University of Maryland found that a plurality of 47.2% of voters were likely to choose Rouhani over other heavyweight candidates. Despite this preliminary lead, Rouhani still faces a rocky path. Economic sanctions may have been relaxed, but qualms with inflation persist in Iran. Roughly 51.3 percent of those respondents believed the economy was getting worse even though predictions are pretty rosy, including by MENA’s Economic Monitor Report. Sure, recovery is not expected to be an instantaneous process, but if reformists are not careful, voters may grow vulnerable to the whims of populist promises of immediate gratification: a trend that has been observed in more democratically-secure countries than Iran.
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has also put an additional strain on the future of U.S-Iranian relations, as Trump has vowed to re-negotiate from the nuclear agreement. In spite of Trump’s victory, the Iranian reformists are still hoping to improve relations with America. The upcoming election will be a test whether their idealism is strong enough to resonate with the voters. Rouhani’s campaign will be critical to projecting the path of Iran’s relationship with a Trump-led United States. At the very least, Rouhani has the support of the parliament. In the 2016 parliamentary election, the Pervasive Coalition of Reformists took 119 seats, establishing a majority in the legislative branch.
Another optimistic factor is the divided conservative movement who favors policies that endorse a more combative approach when it comes to engaging with the United States. Ebrahim Raisi seems to be Rouhani’s biggest threat because the cleric is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Iran, the Supreme Leader more powerful than the President and appoints the heads of powerful posts in the military, the civil government, and the judiciary. But Raisi’s grip on the conservatives is being challenged by fellow conservative candidates.
If Rouhani can enthusiastically rally the moderates to support him, he will strengthen his chances of getting re-elected. In this one case, Iran’s theocratic/flawed democratic mixed state Constitution may help the moderates. Any reformist candidates considered to be straying too far from Islamic orthodoxy are screened out in the registration process, whittling down the number of potential reformist opponents.
Of course, the illiberality of the Iranian political system means that Rouhani must ensure the support of the Guardian Council and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s candidacy represents a steady hand in the face of tumultuous world politics and the Ayatollah even gave his seal of approval on the JCPOA. However, the reformists and the conservatives also have sharp disagreements, including whether to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Whatever the result is, the May 19 general election is a crucial race to watch in the coming months. In Washington, the new U.S. administration has raised the stakes of U.S hostility towards Iran, threatening the stability of the nuclear agreement. It remains to be seen whether those in Tehran will return those sentiments.
Jemma Tan is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying Political Science. She tweets @jemmajtan.