Iran is set to hold its next presidential elections on May 19, when President Hassan Rouhani, who is being supported by pragmatists and reformists, will be running for a second term. HisOsulgarayan (Principalist) opponents have been working on plans to defeat him. They have two potential strategies but given current circumstances, it is likely that Rouhani will secure a second term with no major hurdles.
It will be difficult for the Principalists to unify behind a strong and willing candidate. At this writing, they have yet to coalesce behind a single candidate who can pose a serious challenge to Rouhani. Nevertheless, two individuals have the potential to pose a challenge to the sitting president, Saeed Jalili and Ebrahim Raisi.
Jalili is a former nuclear negotiator, and a member of the Expediency Council, a body tasked with resolving disputes among government branches. While he has not officially declaredhis candidacy, he is believed to be at the top of the list of people who will run against Rouhani. He has kept a high public profile, and actively used his Twitter account to criticize Rouhani’s foreign policy. Jalili has the support of Jebhe-Paydari (the Resistance Front), one of the hardline wings of the Principalist camp. However, he has little charisma and did poorly as one of a half dozen hardline candidates in the 2013 elections.
The current Custodian of Imam Reza Shrine (Astan-e Ghods e Razavi) in Mashhad and a former prosecutor, Raisi is one of the rising stars of Osulgarayan, and some reports suggest that he is being considered to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once he passes from the scene. While Raisi has so far rejected calls to run in the next presidential election, it seems that he is viewed favorably among the majority of conservatives. Should he run and lose, however, it might hurt his chances to succeed Khamenei, who was president before he was supreme leader.
There is also the possibility that the Principalists fail to coalesce behind a strong candidate as they did in 2013. If so, it is very likely that they will bring a large number of candidates to try to “break” Rouhani’s votes, and drag the elections to a second round. This strategy would allow Osulgarayan to unite behind the strongest candidate in the second round, thereby increasing their chances of success. This is similar to the strategy that led to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, when he defeated the late president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In addition to Jalili and Raisi, there are at least five other likely presidential contenders for the conservatives:
Mostafa Mir-Salim will be the official candidate of the Islamic Coalition Party (Hey’ate Mo’talefeh Eslami). One of the mysterious faces of the Islamic Republic who served as the minister of culture and Islamic education under Rafsanjani, Mir-Salim has had a long career in the Islamic Republic’s politics, and has avoided media attention. There is not much information on his personal life; however, one source claims that he is married to a French woman, which could hurt his chances.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran anda former chief of police and Revolutionary Guard Air Force commander, is a conservative politician who in 2013 elections came in second after Rouhani. If he decides to run, he will have the support of the traditional wing of Osulgarayan, Jame’eye Rouhaniat Mobarez (Society of Combatant Clergy). Recent allegations of corruption, and the mismanagement of the Plascobuilding fire could affect the chances of his success.
Mohammad Baqai recently announced his decision to run in the coming presidential elections. He is part of a “triangle” with Ahmadinejad and former vice president Esfandiar Mashaei and served as the head of Cultural Heritage Organization, and later as the deputy for executive affairs to Ahmadinejad. Baqai’s eligibility in the presidential elections remains unclear; he faces strong opposition from both reformists and Principalists and could be disqualified by the Guardian Council.
Parviz Fattah is currently the chairman of Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, and has maintained cordial relations with different wings of Osulgarayan’s camps. He is a close friend of Ahmadinejad and served as his energy minister from 2005 to 2009. Fattah has announced that he has no political ambitions; however, given a recent high public profile, it is likely that he decides to run at the last minute.
Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi is the first female minister of the Islamic Republic, serving as minister of health under Ahmadinejad. She is also a former member of parliament. There are increasing reports that she may decide to run in the upcoming elections. However, she would need to pass through the Guardian Council’s vetting process. The Iranian constitution specifies that the president must be a Rijal-e Siyasi (statesmen); however, it does not clearly define the meaning of Rijal. The Guardian Council has so far barred all women from running in the presidential elections. Therefore, it is not clear whether she will be allowed to run against Rouhani.
Under current circumstances Rouhani does not face a serious challenge from any of the above candidates and could well win in the first round of voting as he did in 2013. The only viable strategy for Osulgarayan to seriously challenge Rouhani is to drag the elections to the second round, and then coalesce behind the opposing candidate.
However, except for the first two presidents of the Islamic Republic – one of whom was impeached and the other assassinated — all Iranian presidents have completed their two constitutionally permitted terms. Therefore, it is likely that Rouhani will be re-elected. Nevertheless, as history has repeatedly shown, nothing is impossible in Iranian politics.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83