Iran: Nationalists versus Internationalists (again)

Summary: As has been the case recently in the US and Europe, Iran’s 19 May presidential election can be seen as a choice between nationalists and internationalists, with a significant degree of uncertainty around the outcome.

Today we welcome back as guest editor Alastair Newton, a former career diplomat and immediate past-President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Alastair runs his own consultancy, Alavan Business Advisory, based in Livingstone Zambia.

Shortly after this post was written news broke that another of the electoral candidates, Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, has withdrawn from the presidential race.

We welcome all your comments, either for circulation or for our consideration only. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

Iran: Nationalists versus Internationalists (again)

Iranians go to the polls on 19 May to vote in the first round of the presidential election (as well as local elections. If no candidate crosses the 50% mark, a second round run-off will he held between the top two candidates on 26 May. At the time of writing, five candidates — all vetted and approved by Iran’s Guardian Council — were still in the race, following the withdrawal on 15 May of the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

Keeping in mind that they are not necessarily reliable, opinion polls give the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, seeking a second four-year term, a clear lead in the first round of around 20 percentage points over the field. However, they also suggest that he will garner no more than 25 to 30 percent, pointing to a second round. Nevertheless — and bearing in mind the surprise first round outcome in 2013 when Mr Rouhani won 50.88 percent of the vote — it is worth keeping in mind that 25 to 40 percent of voters are reportedly ‘undecided’, with a further ten percent categorised as ‘won’t say’. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Mr Rouhani will spring another first round surprise victory.

Hassan Rouhani

This being said, the fact that around 50 percent of voters have declined to express a preference to pollsters could cut either way, ie to the advantage of Mr Rouhani’s main rival, the relatively unknown conservative/principalist Ebrahim Raisi. A senior cleric who is currently head of Iran’s largest charitable foundation, Astan Quds Razavi, Mr Raisi is widely believed to enjoy the backing for the presidency of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as members of the clerical establishment who previously supported former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who was barred from standing in this election earlier this month by the Guardian Council). Indeed, some experts consider that elderly and infirm Mr Khamenei is trying to position Mr Raisi as his successor.

Ebrahim Raisi

On the side of the reformists Eshaq Jahangiri, a close ally of Mr Rouhani who is currently First Vice President and who openly concedes that he is running in order to present more strongly the case for a Rouhani second term, is likely to follow the conservative Mr Qalibaf by withdrawing before voting takes place.

In common with Mr Jahangari, the other two candidates — ultraconservative Mostafa Mirsalim and former minister and unsuccessful 2001 presidential candidate Mostafa Hashemitaba — are polling below five percent. So, if they stay in the race until 19 May they are likely, at best, to be first round ‘spoilers’, increasing the probability of a second round run-off without any real hope of making the cut themselves.

This view is supported by recent shifts in cyberspace activity around the election, according to the experts at Predata. Following a lacklustre performance in the first of the three televised debates among the candidates, Mr Rouhani has gone on the offensive against his (then) two main rivals, Messrs Qalibaf and Raisi, with the result that the reformists’ internet signal has recently spiked significantly, consistent with an energising of their voter base. (Mr Raisi, on the other hand, has seen a softening of internet interest in his campaign.) To quote Predata’s (subscriber access only) 15 May report:

“Perhaps recognizing that his opponents’ criticism of Iran’s economic performance may be getting traction, Rouhani moved beyond defense of his management of the Iranian economy to a frontal assault on the conservatives’ record on political and social freedom in Iran. This approach was evident in the third and final debate held on May 12, when Rouhani criticized Qalibaf’s human rights track record, the campaign support that Raisi has received from Iran’s security establishment, and the damage to Iran’s economy from the business empire of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).”

On 15 May, I discussed Mr Rouhani’s decision to take the fight to his opponents with Iran expert Meir Javedanfar. He stressed that, in his opinion, Mr Rouhani’s public attacks on rivals and ‘the system’ were entirely unprecedented, crossing any number of Iranian ‘red lines’ (including pressing again for more women’s rights, an issue on which he has previously clashed with Mr Khamenei).

However, and for all the fact that Mr Rouhani’s change of tactics (from trying simply to defend his economic record) appears to be having some impact, it is by no means certain that it will be sufficient ultimately to carry the day. As Mr Javedanfar also noted to me, the withdrawal of Mr Qalibaf begs a number of questions. Admittedly, this withdrawal is, on the face of it, consistent with the agreement among conservative candidates that those less likely to prevail would withdraw before polling day in order to avoid splitting the vote, as happened in 2013 to Mr Rouhani’s advantage. But, even putting Predata’s latest findings to one side, logic suggests that it is not likely that the relatively unknown Mr Raisi (whose public profile compares to Mr Ahmadinejad’s in the run-up to the 2005 election) is better placed to beat Mr Rouhani than high-profile Mr Qalibaf would have been, all other things being equal. This leaves one to wonder whether the Iranian ‘deep state’ is being mobilised to try to ensure a solid turn-out for Mr Raisi (whose campaign has featured a number of populist — and almost certainly unaffordable — economic policy commitments), especially in rural areas.

This is where the ‘internationalist versus nationalist’ divide comes into play. Or, as Chatham House’s Sanam Vakil put it in a 15 May Expert Comment in terms which are perhaps more familiar in the Iranian context, “resistance’ versus reformist.

As Dr Vakil makes clear, conservatives in Iran have argued in favour of “resistance” since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This was underlined in Mr Khamenei’s new year address this year when he called for a “strong, reliable and self-sufficient economy”, linking this to national security; and by Mr Raisi’s campaigning in favour of “the activation of a resistance economy” as the way to end poverty.

Mr Rouhani, on the other hand, is looking to build on the July 2015 nuclear pact with the P5+1, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), by campaigning for Iran “to continue engaging in honourable interaction with the world”. However, this is something of a hard sell when, despite a boost to GDP growth driven primarily by the lifting of restrictions on the sale of oil, the economic benefits which were supposed to accrue to Iran through the nuclear pact have so far largely failed to materialise.

To illustrate the point, although the World Bank is forecasting a 5.2% GDP growth rate for 2017 (compared to 4.6% last year) and inflation has fallen to nine percent (from 40 percent four years ago). But youth unemployment remains high at 26 percent. And the boost in economic growth has been achieved largely as a result of oil output jumping to 3.8 million barrels per day of which 2.3mbpd is exported (compared to just 1.1mbpd pre-JCPA); this increase in so short a space of time is remarkable but expert opinion is that growth in production will now flatten out in the absence of major investment in new fields.

In this respect in particular, Mr Rouhani is not being helped by the United States; indeed, quite the contrary. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether it is a coincidence that Donald Trump’s first overseas visit as president will be to Riyadh on the very day of Iran’s elections, followed by Tel Aviv. What sort of signal this is intended to send to Iranians is not entirely clear. But, coupled with US secondary sanctions which have left Iran largely cut off from international financial markets despite the nuclear accord and a high probability that the Trump Administration, overloaded with Iran ‘hawks’, will bring in new sanctions very shortly against both Tehran and its regional allies such as Hizbollah, it must raise serious question marks as to whether the “honourable interaction” option is actually available. In effect, therefore, the Trump Administration appears to be acting as a cheerleader for the conservatives, which the Financial Times’s David Gardner argued (rightly, in my view) in an 11 May article (subscriber access only) risks effectively starving the nuclear deal to death and further inflaming the region as a whole.

On the other hand, Mr Rouhani’s prospects have likely been boosted by a ringing endorsement from former president Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, which has been disseminated widely on social networks (with state media barred from given Mr Khatami any coverage since he came out in support of the protests which followed the reelection of Mr Ahmadinejad in 2009). Such public support must be particularly welcome to Mr Rouhani after the sudden death earlier this year of another of his high profile supporters, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This being said, whoever ultimately emerges as the winner of the election, in the immediate future at least Iran is unlikely to abandon its regional aspirations and there is a respectable argument that a stronger economy is likely further to enhance Tehran’s ability to pursue them. However, it is ironic that the conservatives in Iran, including Mr Khamenei, remain highly resistant to opening up economically not only because of vested economic interest (the importance of which should not be underestimated) but also because they believe that it would ultimately undermine the system’s ideological values. Taking a longer-term view, therefore, it is hard to believe that, despite his own strong ‘nationalist’ leanings, Mr Trump should be doing anything other than trying to smooth Mr Rouhani’s path to a second term.

As it is, forces within and outside Iran do seem to be conspiring, albeit unwittingly, to push up the probability of Mr Rouhani becoming Iran’s first president since the Islamic Revolution to fail to win a second term despite the fact that he probably remains today the ‘level playing field’  favourite to prevail.

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