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Rowhani’s re-election depends on Trump

Huda al-Husseini

Published: Updated:

The official registration of candidates for the Iranian presidential elections will begin on April 11. This is followed by an important step taken by the Guardian Council’s authority vetting the candidates on the 26th of this month. The list of candidates who will be eligible to run for presidency is then finalized. Then a 3-week campaign will start until the elections take place on May 19.

The method adopted by the Guardian Council’s authority is increasingly contrasting with the formation of the Iranian political elite, which includes many different circles of power. The Council vets the moderates, conservatives and reformists. Its ideology changes depending on the issue: the economy, cultural freedom, the role of women… but they all adhere to the principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The main idea behind vetting the candidates for the presidential elections was to ensure an ideological consensus, so anyone who does not support the idea of the Islamic Republic led by a supreme leader is excluded. Over the past 30 years, the Guardian Council’s authority has become the weapon of the elite factions. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appoints the members of the council and the head of the judiciary. So conservatives dominate the council and work on undermining the hopes of their reformist rivals and preventing them from running to avoid reaching the polls. There is a noteworthy interest by the conservatives and the hardliners, which has reached the level of questioning Khamenei himself, although some say President Hassan Rowhani was the target, perhaps to ease the impact of the questioning. Khamenei prevented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from running for presidency or supporting his candidate Hamid Baqai. On March 27, in the province of Ahwaz where poor Persians are more numerous than Arabs, Ahmadinejad said: Why are you the only one to be right and the other 80 million Iranians wrong?... Are you the only one who can know if someone is bad?... Can you provide us with evidence that you are better informed than the people?

Cultural breakthroughs

Ahmadinejad’s words have directly cast doubt on the Wilayat al-Faqih (Rule of the Islamic jurist). He did not deny that he meant Khamenei. At the same time, Tehran University’s preacher Ahmad Khatami, said on Friday that there is a need to be ready to deal with “cultural breakthroughs that will be tougher than dealing with military confrontations.” The regime fears repeating the experience of protests that took place after the disputed presidential election in 2009, this is why Khamenei said two weeks ago: “Regardless of the outcome of the elections, they are valid and legitimate.”

There is no doubt that the current President Rowhani will be one of the contenders, so the coming elections will partly be a referendum on his performance, especially his promises to enhance the Iranian economy after the nuclear deal.

While Rowhani’s government is armed with economic improvements and further promises, Rowhani’s rivals did not stop criticizing the nuclear deal. Hardliners confirm that Iran’s economy has not improved and that the Iranian political situation in particular has not benefited from the deal

Huda al Husseini

Who will face Rowhani? Will the conservatives agree on a single candidate who can present an alternative program and vision for Rowhani’s proposal? The economy remains a major factor regardless of Khamenei’s call for an “economic revolution”. This is why conservatives need to go beyond the real failures of Rowhani’s government and put forward a program of internal transformation with a smaller foreign participation, in order for the economic growth to make a difference for the Iranians.

None of the most prominent conservative politicians, such as Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (who attacked Rowhani in 2013 and said yesterday he is not running for presidency), or Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament (who is said to be supporting Rowhani), have not announced yet whether they are candidates or not. Rowhani will run his campaign after spending the majority of his first term trying to resolve Iran’s standoff with the West regarding Iran’s nuclear program. He strongly believed that the international community was on his side, because he and former US President Barack Obama had been willing to risk their political lives in order to open the deadlock that could lead to a military confrontation. Rowhani labeled the nuclear deal with the West as part of his campaign in 2013, considering that economic prosperity will definitely be the result of the deal.

However, since the implementation of the agreement, little has been achieved and economic gains have not been in line with the expectations. Foreign investments are slow and there are several reasons for that: the financial structure within Iran, such as banking standards, corruption and lack of transparency, as well as the continued concern about the US commitment under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Economic improvements

The uncertainty makes European banks and companies reluctant about making huge investments in Iran, where the economy is much slower than politics.

While Rowhani’s government is armed with economic improvements and further promises, Rowhani’s rivals did not stop criticizing the nuclear deal. Hardliners confirm that Iran’s economy has not improved and that the Iranian political situation in particular has not benefited from the deal.

Conservatives are playing their roles very well. There are those who are fully engaged in the internal political game, as if everything is fine, and those in the opposition stating that the wheels of democracy are moving forward without any hindrance. Last Friday, the head of the Quds Force affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, was inspecting the Iranian forces and militias in the suburbs of the Syrian city of Hama.

Rowhani had relied on the Obama administration, which lifted international sanctions on Iran without returning to Congress. If Rowhani thought the Republicans at the time of Obama would be willing to cancel the agreement but cannot do so because it is multilateral, President Trump has now come to throw all the American policies of Obama’s tenure out of the window.

Thus, the problem for Iran falls under two parts: the unpredictability of Trump’s intentions makes European companies more reluctant and pushes them to avoid investing in Iran. And there are those who claim Trump represents all that the extremists want in Iran, to the extent that Khamenei has recently said to the leaders of the Iranian air force: “We thank Trump because he made it easier for us to reveal the true face of the United States.”

Hezbollah is suffering

These allegations do not work for a thriving economy that 80 million Iranians need. Moreover, the hardliners may prefer that large numbers of Iranians resort to the swamps of drugs, rather than opening up, and this is a reality. Hezbollah is suffering from this same reality in Lebanon; Hezbollah is considered to have won the war in Syria, but lost it in its stronghold in Burj al-Barajneh, where drugs are stronger than the party’s victories abroad.

Former president Mohammad Khatami, who is not allowed to be featured on the news, tried to repair relations with his conservative opponents, urging everyone to face the threats posed by President Trump. He also called for national reconciliation and the release of opposition leaders. However, hardliners and Khamenei preferred to focus on Trump’s threats against their political interests, urging the Iranians to reject his call.

There is also the problem of corruption. In January, Rowhani tried to face the judiciary, criticizing the slow investigation into a 1-billion-dollars corruption case; so far, the investigation is said to be ongoing.

Add to Rowhani’s problems, the death of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was calling for the normalization of relations with the West, and thus with the United States. Rafsanjani has raised moderate politicians and reformists, according to the Iranian concept, most notably Rowhani.

These problems stand in the way of the re-election of Rowhani, but that does not mean he does not have any chance. Regardless of the first years after the revolution, all Iranian presidents served two terms. Despite the criticism of the hardliners, Khamenei has been supporting him, because the Supreme Leader is largely dependent on unity, popular support and continuity, especially that he does not want to repeat the 2009 experience because there is a new US president who is moody and unpredictable.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.