Iran’s incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, is not only running against 5 people who survived vetting by the Guardian Council. He is also contending with a hostile state-run broadcasting authority.

A trend visible in recent months has been the effort by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) to downplay the achievements of the Rouhani administration. IRIB has hosted administration critics and not invited any one from the government to give an opposing view.

The state broadcasting authority has also chosen not to air live broadcasts of Rouhani’s travels inside Iran or his press conferences and speeches. Over the weekend, IRIB did broadcast a campaign video for the president – as required for all the candidates – but edited out a key mention of Mir Hossein Mousavi. A popular former presidential contender, Mousavi has been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging fraud in the 2009 elections. References to reformist former president Mohammad Khatami were also cut from Rouhani’s ad.

The critical view of Rouhani is in contrast to the posture of the IRIB during the time of Rouhani’s predecessor. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, national TV hardly ever criticized his government or ministers and did not talk about major deficiencies of Ahmadinejad’s performance. Instead, it usually gave him a lot of air time to talk, insult and accuse others. This was especially evident during the 2009 campaign, when Ahmadinejad had ample opportunity to defend his record while others were barred or received just a few minutes on air. 

IRIB and Ahmadinejad had a symbiotic relationship and repaid each other with favors. During his last month in office, the state broadcaster was given possession of Tehran’s exhibition center free of charge, just after the IRIB held a ceremony thanking Ahmadinejad for his  accomplishments as president.

The reason for this favoritism is that the IRIB is controlled directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and thus is not subject to scrutiny over its performance or how it manages its budget and 46,000-strong workforce. Although the Leader and Ahmadinejad grew estranged during the latter’s second term and the Guardian Council blocked Ahmadinejad from running again this year, Khamenei’s views are considered closer to Ahmadinejad than many of the former president’s rivals.

Even though Rouhani is a pillar of the establishment, he is considered a close friend of the late Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who became distant from Khamenei and Iranian conservatives and who supported more moderate and reformist elements. Therefore, Rouhani is considered unwelcome at the IRIB, which strives to weaken him in any way possible.

Ironically, however, these efforts by the state broadcaster have made Rouhani more popular. A substantial number of Iranians get their information not from IRIB but from social media and a variety of cellphone apps such as Telegram and Instagram. A recent government raid on administrators of reformist groups has also backfired.

Ordinary people alongside celebrities have taken to social media to praise the Rouhani administration and suggest that it is better for the country and its people if the president is given a second term. The other candidates do not have such a base of popular support and have suffered lately, while Rouhani and his vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, have outperformed them in televised debates.

Jahangiri’s decision to run alongside the president has enabled the administration to gain more air time to respond to critics; the vice president, a former minister under reformist Mohammad Khatami, has fortified the present administration’s position among the people with a vocal and frank style of speaking.

Rouhani’s chief accomplishment has been the negotiation of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Although Iranians expected more results from the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, the reality is that there was so much economic damage during the Ahmadinejad period, that it is taking more time and effort to repair the economy and get back on track. With the current crisis in Venezuela, the Iranian people have witnessed what might have befallen Iran if Ahmadinejad or another populist were to run the country for another four years.

There have also been some symbolic actions that have helped Iranians see the benefits of more trade and exchanges with the world, such as the deals between national carrier Iran Air with AirbusBoeing and ATR. Conservative media outlets have tried to undermine these achievements and to brand the recently acquired aircraft as “second hand.” But Iranians know that the last time Iran bought new planes was around 37 years ago and are anticipating deliveries of new aircraft next year.

Rouhani is also being boosted by the weakness of his two major challengers: Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran and former chief of police, and Ebrahim Raeisi, Custodian of the powerful Astan Quds foundation and a former top member of the Judiciary. 

Ghalibaf was badly humiliated by Rouhani in the first debate over his advocacy of harsh crackdown on student protesters in 1999 as well as his mishandling of the Plasco Building fire and corruption cases in the municipality.

Raeisi also has a dark past. At the age of 28, he was a member of the commission that oversaw the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. Also, Iranians generally have a negative view of the Judiciary, which is plagued by reports of corruption and mismanagement of funds.  Although Raeisi has been employing populist techniques such as distributing free food through his foundation, his close relations with the ultra-conservative cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda, his father-in-law, hasn’t boosted his popularity. Raeisi has also performed poorly in the debates.

Given their harsh experience under Ahmadinejad and their concerns about the unpredictability of the new US president, Iranians are looking for leaders who think before speaking or acting. History has shown them that they are better off choosing individuals who prefer moderation and collaboration with the world rather than hardline religious figures who favor radical politics and isolation.

Sirous Amerian is a PhD Candidate and tutor at the Center for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University in New Zealand. He received his MA in Indian Studies from the University of Tehran working on Sino-Indian-American trilateral relations. While in Iran, he worked as a Policy Analyst for the Institute of Iran Eurasian Studies (IRAS).