Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was officially chosen by the country’s Reformist Association on 12 March as its candidate for the presidential race taking place on 19 May. It called Rouhani the best candidate to stand on behalf of the parties and movements wanting to see further reform in Iran.
Despite their anger and frustration at Rouhani’s rapprochement with the West and particularly the Iran nuclear deal, the country’s conservatives have not yet managed to find a strong candidate who could be a serious competitor to Rouhani.
They said they needed two weeks more in order to agree on their main candidate. Thus far, none of the names put forward by the conservatives have captured popular imagination or triggered public excitement.
Among the conservative candidates are the ambitious former Revolutionary Guards commander and now mayor of Tehran Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf, who ran unsuccessfully in the last presidential elections in Iran, and Saeed Jalili, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s who also led the nuclear talks during the time in office of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It is not just the lack of candidates that has made these presidential elections so predictable, as there is also the role that Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been playing in the race.
Khamenei indicated some months ago that he does not want to see “polarised” elections, meaning that these elections should see little public excitement and no surprises or the election of a popular candidate who could threaten the country’s hierarchy.
The experience of former president Mohamed Khatami’s election 20 years ago in 1997 is still seen as a referendum against the established power of the clergy in Iran. Even the election of Ahmadinejad after a contest with the late Hashemi Rafsanjani was typical not that of a fully groomed revolutionary trusted by the system.
Ahmadinejad was a conservative candidate, but he introduced new ideas and appealed to new generations who thought differently to those who had lived through the Islamic Revolution. There was also the trauma of the disputed 2008 elections in which clashes broke out between the public and supporters of Ahmadinejad.
The choice for Khamenei was either to dismiss the elections or put the opposition leaders in prison, and it turned out that the second course was the easier to pursue.
In order to prevent any such problems this time round, Ahmadinejad has been told to stay away from the elections. The country’s establishment has little trust in him and his group of neoconservative supporters, and Ahmadinejad is even seen as a threat to the establishment much like Khatami and his supporters.
As a result, a moderate like Rouhani looks like an attractive choice for Khamenei, and a short election without controversy and a marginal victory for Rouhani is the preferable outcome.
International changes from the White House to Iran’s neighbouring countries of Syria and Turkey, together with signs of changes in Europe ahead of the elections in France and the Netherlands this year, all speak of possible threats to Iran in the next few years.
As the man who successfully led the talks with the West and saved Iran from further clashes over its nuclear programme, Rouhani is looked on by many as the most favourable candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.
Should Rouhani be elected for a second term in May, few in the West will worry about any new policies being pursued in Iran. The visible economic improvements that have come about as a result of his moderate policies should also give people the feeling that their living conditions will improve further in the next four years.
The Iranian Guardianship Council has to approve the candidates in the elections, and it is likely to reject any candidate not conforming to Khamenei’s wishes.
The next two months will determine not only the fate of the Rouhani administration, but also whether Iran’s leaders will continue to accept his vision of diplomacy.
Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal, its constructive interactions with the rest of the world, and its improved perception in the eyes of the international community and perhaps public could all justify Rouhani’s re-election among Iranians, despite frustrations that he has not been able to open up the society further and increase individual freedoms.
However, many Iranians are saying that Rouhani saved their country from a possible confrontation with West and that he has improved the economy.