Most observers believe Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has a very good chance of being re-elected next May to a second four-year term.
But it would be foolhardy to discount the possibility of a victory by the conservative camp, which remains deeply entrenched in the power structure of the Islamic Republic in organizations such as the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the large paramilitary Basij militia, the police forces, the Guardian Council and the judicial system.
At present, the conservative camp is divided into two factions: moderate conservatives – not to be confused with the moderates who support Rouhani — and hardliners, who refer to themselves as Principlists. Both oppose liberal interpretations of Islam, follow the religious guidance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and seek to maintain the status quo. Although Khamenei tries to maintain an appearance of nonpartisanship, he generally leans toward the hardliners when heightened conflicts between them and the moderates and reformists appear.
A heated debate exists among the Principlists regarding two key questions about the 2017 presidential elections: First, who should represent them? Second, on which platform should they enter the race?
The hardliners and moderate conservatives may not agree on a common candidate. However, influential Principlists are trying hard to avoid introducing multiple candidates, which would certainly reduce any chance of defeating Rouhani.
In 2013, hardliner candidate Saeed Jalili received only 11.4% of the vote, or about 4 million votes. Notably, Rouhani even defeated Jalili in Qom, Iran’s theological center and presumably the base of conservatism in Iran.
The hardliners also experienced a heavy defeat in this year’s parliamentary elections. Sources in Iran say that the hardliners are looking for a candidate with a chance of winning the presidency as opposed to a like-minded person such as Jalili.
Principlists see an opportunity in the coming elections. Khamenei’s recent instruction to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to run effectively eliminated a major challenger to Rouhani. However, the move also created an opportunity for the Principlists to attract Ahmadinejad’s potential voters.
A July 2016 survey of Iranian popular opinion by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that Ahmadinejad, in a theoretical matchup with Rouhani, trailed him by only eight points (37 against 45 percent).
The primary reason Ahmadinejad has regained some popularity is because of widespread disappointment with the benefits brought so far by the nuclear accord Iran reached with the United States and other major powers.
According to the University of Maryland survey, “a year ago, when the nuclear deal was signed, 63 percent of Iranians said they expected tangible improvements in people’s living conditions within a year. Today, however, three in four (74%) Iranians say that people’s living conditions have not improved as result of the nuclear deal.” Eight in ten said the economy is not improving, while three in four said Rouhani has been unsuccessful in reducing unemployment.
Rouhani deserves blame for unrealistically raising expectations by linking the solution to all economic and even non-economic problems to the removal of sanctions. In June 2015, for example, he said, “The oppressive sanctions must be removed so that investment can come and the problems of the environment, employment, industry and drinkable water are resolved.”
The Principlists’ highlighting of disappointment with Rouhani’s economic performance will likely occupy center stage in their campaign. To attract Ahmadinejad’s voters, they will most likely revive Ahmadinejad’s discourse about combating corruption and seeking social justice – although his administration turned out to be exceptionally corrupt – that led to his unexpected initial victory in 2005. They will also assert that they can bring greater benefits to the poor and working class.
The second key question remains: Who will challenge Rouhani?
A large number of familiar names have been discussed in the Iranian media and largely dismissed as has-beens and also-rans. Among them are Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who has been embroiled in recent corruption scandal; Jalili, who lost in 2013; former commander of the IRGC Mohsen Rezaei, who has run for president and lost multiple times; advisor to Khamenei and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who ran and lost in 2013; and former speaker of the parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.
A report on September 21 by the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), put forward a new name: conservative economist and former member of the IRGC and parliament, Elias Naderan. Naderan was introduced as the likely candidate of the Principlists by the semi-secretive Society of Devotees of the Islamic Revolution (SDIR). SDIR is one of the most powerful and least discussed conservative organizations in Iran and was the base from which Ahmadinejad rose to power.
ILNA’s report read, “In the last few days, the darkest [most opaque] part of the Principlists [camp] revealed the name of its candidate, Elias Naderan, as Rouhani’s challenger in the 2017 election.”
In another report entitled “SDIR: The Principlists’ think tank,” ILNA asserted that the organization is “one of the most powerful and influential political organizations in Iran.”
Naderan, who reportedly received his PhD from the French University Clermont-Ferrand, is a left-leaning economist but culturally and politically closer to hardliners. He was in constant friction with Ahmadinejad and was the person who revealed corruption in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle.
He and Ahmad Tavakkoli, an outspoken former member of the parliament and another left-leaning economist, have also been critics of what they call Rouhani’s “neo-liberal economic policies.” They argue that the Rouhani administration, like other Iranian administrations, has not pursued a pro-poor growth model and is indifferent to the widening income and wealth gap in Iran.
Such populism has proved to be a potent political force in Europe and in the United States, where Republican Donald Trump claims to speak for those left behind by globalization. Who is to say that the same phenomenon might not take place again in Iran, particularly if Iranians continue to feel that the nuclear deal has not brought the economic benefits that Rouhani and his team promised? While Trump is not expected to win, the outcome might be different in Iran.
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless