As Iran’s May 19 presidential elections approach, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is still favored to win. But he faces five opponents, including two conservatives who have the potential to pose a real challenge to him – Tehran mayor Mohamad-Baqer Qalibaf and Ibrahim Raisi, the custodian of Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad.
A former chief of police and Revolutionary Guard Air Force commander, Qalibaf is making his third try at the presidency, and has adopted a populist slogan — “the administration of people” — for his campaign. During a television program broadcast on April 27, he went so far as to quote – without giving credit — the famous speech by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, saying that God willing “people will choose a government of the people, by the people, and for the people…”
Qalibaf is also promising monthly cash payments of 2,500,000 Rials ($77) to any unemployed Iranian of 18 years or older; a proposal that seems impractical. Despite his extensive managerial experience and popularity, Qalibaf has been undercut by allegations of widespread corruption, and the mishandling of the Plasco building fire, which destroyed a Tehran landmark and cost the lives of many firefighters.
Qalibaf’s security background could also hurt his chances in the elections. During a live broadcast presidential debate in 2013, then-candidate Rouhani accused Qalibaf of an “iron-fisted” style in dealing with major student protests in 1999. Rouhani said, “Mr. Qalibaf! I am not a colonel, I am a lawyer… you said, ‘let’s wait for the students to come out, we have a pincer attack plan [for them]…..’ There are issues here that I cannot discuss here.”
One should also keep in mind that in the Iranian political psyche, Hokoumat-e Chakme Pooshan, (literally government of boot-wearers), does not have a good reputation, and military commanders are considered less likely to attract voters.
Qalibaf is facing another challenge, as elections for city councils will be held concurrently on May 19. If conservatives lose their majority on the council, Qalibaf may lose the mayoralty. One can argue that his decision to run for both positions is a major political gamble – a fight for one or nothing.
Still, Qalibaf, as mayor of Tehran since 2005, enjoys greater name recognition than Raisi, who was relatively unknown prior to his appointment as custodian of a major Shi’ite shrine. Qalibaf has been successful in portraying himself as a forward-looking candidate and technocrat and is credited for urban projects such as new highways and tunnels and beautification efforts, including murals on building walls and flowers and trees along major thoroughfares in Tehran. He has also endorsed the landmark nuclear agreement reached under the Rouhani administration. On April 27, he called it a “national document and commitment.”
Raisi, however, is a rising star in the conservative camp and reports suggest that he is being considered to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. One can argue that Raisi’s presidential campaign is a bid to gauge his popularity. A successful campaign could boost his chances of becoming the next Supreme Leader; a defeat would weaken the cleric’s prospects to assume Iran’s pre-eminent post.
Raisi has stated that he is running as an independent and has avoided criticizing Rouhani directly. However, his website has published photos of a meeting between him and Saeed Jalili, a hard-line member of the Principalist camp and former nuclear negotiator who is a strong critic of Rouhani. Jalili, who did poorly in the 2013 elections, decided not to run again. While the details of his meeting with Raisi remain unclear, it could signal the strong support of the Principalist camp for Raisi. It could also demonstrate a future alliance between the two. In fact, some Iranian media outlets report that if elected, Raisi might choose Jalili as his vice president.
Raisi, like Qalibaf, has adopted a populist stance and vowed to triple monthly cash payments to indigent Iranians – a proposal that also looks impractical. Raisi has adopted the slogan “administration of jobs and dignity” and conservative media have been publishing photos of him visiting underprivileged rural areas, something former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to do. However, Raisi has little administrative background and lacks charisma. In addition, allegations of his involvement in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s could seriously undercut his chances of success.
Another potential black mark is a recent meeting between Raisi and Rustam Minnikhanuv, the leader of Tatarstan, a part of the Russian Federation, and an envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Raisi has stated that he met the envoy in his capacity as the Custodian of Imam Reza Shrine, it sparked concerns over foreign interference in the elections. Given Russia’s long history of meddling in Iran’s affairs, this could potentially be harmful to Raisi’s campaign. In fact, Qanun newspaper published an article about this meeting, calling it “Russian Roulette.”
Rouhani’s opponents have been taking advantage of the country’s economic problems to harshly criticize his administration. While Rouhani has been able to stabilize the economy, reduce inflation and achieve some sanctions relief through the nuclear deal, the general population has not benefited and unemployment remains high. This could explain the populistic approach of both Raisi and Qalibaf.
Given Raisi’s lack of administrative background, and his reputation for harshness in Iran’s judiciary, Qalibaf seems in a better position to challenge Rouhani. At the moment, however, it appears unlikely that either of the two major challengers to Rouhani will drop out and support the other; both see their political futures at stake and seem determined to fight to the end.
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