Iranian elections 2017: Domestic surprises and the inevitability of foreign developments


There is no doubt that the second-term reelection of President Hassan Rouhani, who has cast himself as a ‘moderate reformist’ in the international arena, will present Iran with many problems since the regime faces a large number of difficulties in striking a balance between quelling domestic turbulence and coping with regional and international pressures. Iranians are well aware of the regime’s struggle to resolve the country’s domestic and external affairs, with the leadership attempting to maintain an acceptable diplomatic face in light of the international crisis and to prepare for its possible exposure to future waves of international sanctions that would return Iran to the same stage it was at prior to the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with the P5+ 1 nations.
» Surprises inside Iran:
The surprises from Iran’s presidential election began more than a year before the election on May 19, 2017, in a series of disdainful mutual criticisms in 2016 between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei strongly condemned Iran’s economic performance of the country during the Rouhani era, going so far as to assert that Rouhani was the most unsuccessful president in the Islamic Republic’s history in both domestic and foreign policy. Khamenei’s remarks triggered a flood of similar condemnations from his fundamentalist acolytes, who launched a string of stinging attacks on Rouhani and his government through official state media platforms controlled by Khamenei (it should be noted that all media in Iran are state-approved). This, in turn, resulted in recriminations from Rouhani’s “moderate” supporters. Mutual hostilities continued to escalate as the hardline “fundamentalists” disclosing the astronomical salaries paid to Rouhani administration officials, with the “moderates” responding by revealing details of the fundamentalist mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf’s, distribution of billions of dollars’ worth of prime real estate in the capital to family members and friends. The tensions continued intensifying throughout this period, to such a degree that leading members of the fundamentalist lobby aligned with Khamenei began discussing ways of ending Rouhani’s rule and preventing him from running for a second term. Ultimately, it took the intervention of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and another senior regime figure Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri to mediate between the two blocs in an effort to calm the tensions, which were heightened by concerns among “reformists” over the announcement by former “hardline” president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his candidacy for the 2017 presidential race; the “reformists” were worried about a recurrence of the events of the Ahmadinejad era, which saw severe repression of political and social “reformists”, seeing it as essential to focus on neutralizing the potential threat posed by Ahmadinejad’s candidacy.
The concern among the “reformists” was ameliorated with the announcement by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei advising Ahmadinejad not to run in the election. This declaration was met with great relief by the “reformists” who were unable to conceal their satisfaction at Khamenei’s decision, although they attempted to suggest that the reform movement had already been responsible for defeating the populist Ahmadinejad and his political supporters in the second half of Ahmadinejad’s presidential term after the “hardliner” lost the support of the Supreme Leader following a number of disputes between them.
Not long after Khamenei’s announcement recommending Ahmadinejad’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Rouhani carried out a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle, one that had often been called for by his “reformist” partners, particularly in ministerial portfolios related to economic activity. The president’s choices of replacements to fill these posts, however, came as a surprise to everyone, with Rouhani also appointing more fundamentalist figures to the culture, education, youth and sports ministries On arriving at parliament to ratify the new appointments, Rouhani announced that the ministerial changes and choice of appointments had been made on the advice of the Supreme Leader; this was a means of pacifying the “reformists” who viewed the reshuffle as a political deal made in return for Khamenei’s instructions to Ahmadinejad to withdraw from the presidential race.
Rouhani continued his rapprochement with the “conservative” bloc thereafter, using his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to urge the United States to fulfill its obligations under the terms of the nuclear agreement, then achieving tangible success in achieving assurances from European partners and the Russian Federation, returning to Iran after attaining extremely positive results.
Despite all this, however, condemnation of Rouhani’s policies by Iran’s “conservatives” have not subsided, with the fundamentalists launching scathing attacks on him in parliament and across media. There has also been some speculation over the timing of the sudden death of former president and Rouhani supporter Hashemi Rafsanjani in early January of 2017 following his criticism of both the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its missile program, and of the unlimited power of the ruling Guardian Council and its ability to eliminate the political future of any Iranian political figure. The attacks on Rouhani and the loss of Rafsanjani were viewed among “reformists” as marking the resumption of the “conservatives’” efforts to undermine Rouhani.
Meanwhile, in Iran’s far east, there has been a significant restructuring of economic institutions affiliated to Khamenei and the IRGC following the death of Awadh Tabasi Metwalli, the former director of these bodies, including Imam Reza’s seminary and related economic institutions, which are responsible for large portions of the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Rather than appointing one of the senior Mullahs in Qom to replace Metwalli in this high-level clerical position as expected, the Supreme Leader instead selected a cleric of “moderate” rank in the theocracy, Ebrahim Raisi, infamous for his participation in the ‘death committee’ responsible for supervising the execution of at least 30,000 Iranian political prisoners in 1988. This choice led to some speculation that this move signified that Raisi has been chosen to take over the post of Supreme Leader of the Jurist Leadership [‘Guardianship of the Jurist’, the theocratic doctrinal system governing Iran] following Khamenei’s demise, with 77-year-old Khamenei reportedly increasingly frail and suffering from cancer.
When the regime announced the registration period for presidential candidates in April, over 1,600 Iranian citizens submitted applications, including Raisi. The most surprising development at this stage, however, was the decision by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to register his nomination of Hamid Baghaei, considered to be one of his closest confidantes and effectively a proxy for Ahmadinejad himself, despite Khamenei’s previous request that he (Ahmadinejad) not run again for the presidency. The Supreme Leader did not immediately comment on Ahmadinejad’s decision, with Baghaei and Ahmadinejad quickly launching a campaign and issuing a list of election promises, including vows to increase cash support for citizens and to reintroduce Ahmadinejad’s controversial economic policies which resulted in catastrophically high inflation rates and the near-collapse of Iran’s currency. All of this led to a deep recession whose effects Iran has yet to fully recover from eight years later.
The Iranian public had barely got over the shock of Ahmadinejad’s candidacy-by-proxy before another, arguably predictable surprise as the Guardian Council refused the nomination of both Ahmadinejad and Baghaei, effectively closing the door on any return to political life by Ahmadinejad and his followers, who had adopted a fundamentalist ideological creed divergent from that agreed upon by both “conservatives” and “reformists” since the early 1980s. The official spokesman of the Guardian Council submitted no reason for rejecting Ahmadinejad’s candidacy except for stating that Ahmadinejad had not received enough votes from the council members to approve it. Although this should be sufficient justification to reject any candidate, even in the case of a former president, as had also been accepted in the case of another former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose application to stand again was rejected by the council due to his being considered too old for post, there was much speculation over the real reasons. With Ahmadinejad rejected, the campaign contenders were whittled down to six –Ebrahim Raisi, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, and Mustafa Mir Salim represented the “conservative” bloc, while the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, along with Eshaq Jahangiri and Mostafa Hashemi, were the Ebrahim “moderate” candidates supported by “reformists”.
In three televised debates broadcast during the final electoral campaign month, the six candidates focused on attacking their political rivals rather than on offering policy programs aimed at providing serious solutions to Iran’s ever-worsening problems as the country lapses back into recession. The most severe of these attacks during the three debates were the mutual recriminations between Raisi and Rouhani, the “conservative” and “moderate” frontrunners respectively.
» Rouhani’s electoral strategy
During his electoral campaign, Rouhani unexpectedly attacked the Iranian regime in general, asserting that Iran had experienced 38 years of oppression and injustice under the regime’s rule, with the country’s Sunni population suffering from marginalization and the violation of their rights throughout the regime’s lifespan. These statements were met with surprise by the public, going beyond the accepted red lines set by the Jurist Leadership. Many analysts suggested that Rouhani was reacting to what he saw as a deliberate intention on Khamenei’s part to promote Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency, with the incumbent president responding by raising the ceiling of confrontation with Khamenei to reach a showdown similar to the events of the 2009 election, as well as attempting to craft a policy platform to appeal to Iran’s ethnic minorities, women voters and young voters, all of whom have boosted the “reformists’” support base, especially after fundamentalists announced their intention to impose legislation enforcing gender segregation in universities and to introduce laws clamping down on already limited women’s rights and restrictive personal status legislation.
» Raisi’s electoral strategy
A major policy proposal by Ebrahim Raisi, very similar to Ahmadinejad’s, was a move to increase cash support for citizens, with the “conservative” candidate focusing and on attacking what he said were the failures of Rouhani’s economic program. Raisi also stridently condemned what he asserted was Rouhani’s failure to properly manage negotiations with Western countries on the nuclear issue.
Ebrahim Raisi relied heavily on support from the IRGC and the regime’s Basij forces, with campaign photos showing him posing with IRGC leaders as they kissed his hand. During his campaign, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy Rustam Minnikhanov, prompting a lawmaker in the Iranian Majlis (parliament) to submit a parliamentary request asking for clarification of the reason for this meeting and the nature of the talks which took place between Raisi and the Russian diplomat since Ebrahim Raisi holds no official position which would authorize him to hold meetings with foreign officials.
» Candidates lined up
Prior to Election Day, Tehran’s governor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf withdrew his support for Ebrahim Raisi, while Eshaq Jahangiri, the Iranian president’s assistant, withdrew his candidacy to strengthen Hassan Rouhani’s chances, making it clear that the real competition would be between Ebrahim Raisi and Hassan Rouhani. A number of analysts wrongly suggested that the clear disagreement between Rouhani and Khamenei had increased Raisi’s chances of winning, despite the tendency of the Iranian street towards supporting Rouhani; although the Iranian electorate is frustrated at the glacially slow pace of reform and fully aware of Rouhani’s already broken election promises from his first election, and realize that the regime’s structure means that all the real power rests in the hands of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council, voters are largely reluctant to repeat the experience of 2009 when Khamenei brutally cracked down on massive post-election demonstrations, with many protesters killed or wounded or imprisoned.
Some argued that the surprise resignation of a prominent senior regime official and Rouhani supporter Nategh-Nouri from his post as advisor to Khamenei during this period suggested an increased likelihood of a repeat of the previous election scenario, with some analysts suggesting that Nouri possibly felt that his enthusiastic public support for Rouhani, who he warmly lauded in speeches and lectures, would put him in a potentially awkward position given his closeness to the Supreme Leader. This unexpected resignation at such a sensitive time confirmed for many that something out of the ordinary was taking place behind the scenes with the Iranian regime.
» Foreign developments
Since the announcement of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidency early this year, Iran has faced a new reality that is a massive departure from the warm US-Iranian relations enjoyed during the era of former US President Barack Obama. It has become clear that one of President Trump’s primary priorities is to radically change the realities on the ground in the Middle East created by his predecessor’s policies. This has been demonstrated through several steps by Trump’s administration, the first of which was the formation of his administration, with all the figures in foreign affairs, along with defense and national security adviser, as well as his CIA head, publicly stating positions that clearly reflected perception of the danger in going too far in rapprochement with Iran and of allowing it to undermine the US’s and regional nations’ security policy and the stability of the Middle East region, and strongly condemning the Iranian regime’s support for armed militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Another clear demonstration of the new administration’s stance was its request that the United States Security Council discuss violations of Iran’s nuclear deal in the form of the regime’s ballistic missile tests and that the UNSC increase the limitations on Iran’s inventory of heavy water in accordance with the nuclear deal. The third step clearly showing the new administration’s sharply revised regional policy was the US missile strike at the Assad regime’s Shayrat Airbase in Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun, as well as another air attack on Iranian forces supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
» The Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh
The Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh began, propitiously, on the same day as the Iranian elections. This was the first foreign visit by President Trump as US President, as well as his first visit to the Saudi capital, with the choice of destination holding great symbolic value in underlining his commitment to reshaping the US’ Middle East policy. As well as the Saudi hosts, the summit was attended by top-level representatives from 17 other Islamic countries. The visit consisted of three separate conferences, including a bilateral summit between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and the American President, talks between the US President and the leaders of all the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and finally the main event, the Arab-Islamic-American Summit.
From the program of the US President’s historic visit to Riyadh, it is clear that the Saudi capital is a central city in the Islamic world, with the Saudi leadership able to establish an alliance among these nations to confront the dangers facing the Islamic world. Despite the dismissive public statements by Iranian regime officials, there is no doubt that the event and the announcements made there will force Iran’s leadership to reconsider their regional policies. In recent years, the Kingdom has proved its ability to rely on its own strength in the face of significant challenges, with Saudi Arabia now proving its ability to invest its leading Arab, Islamic and international status in establishing strong and friendly alliances regionally and internationally with the aim of strengthening and ensuring adherence to the rule of international law, emphasizing respect for the sovereignty of states with non-aggressive policies in order to counter the threat of global terrorism supported by some rogue states such as Iran.
These international changes will make it extremely difficult for Iran’s regime to continue the policies it pursued between 2009 and early 2017, the period of former US President Barack Obama’s presidency, which began with the Iranian regime publicly massacring peaceful protesters at demonstrations and continued with the Iranian regime deploying its sectarian forces and militias to murderous and devastating effect in three Arab countries. There is no doubt that the coming period will witness a decline in the deployment of these forces and a reduction in Iran’s expansionist policy.
» The results of the Iranian elections between the choice of the people and the decisions of Khamenei
The Iranians went to the polls on May 19 in numbers so large that they apparently exceeded their “percentage of the total number of eligible voters” voting in the last eleven presidential elections except for the 1997 and 2009 elections, when around 40 million Iranians from a total of 56 million eligible to vote were registered as voting. The voting hours on Election Day were extended until midnight, having been scheduled to end at 6 pm, with the arguments between the candidates and the struggle between Rouhani and Khamenei sending voters to the polls in larger-than-usual numbers. This fulfilled one of the Jurist Leadership’s primary goals in every election, namely to prove the legitimacy of the regime and of the elections themselves through ensuring high voter turnout.
Hassan Rouhani received 23.6 million votes with 57 percent of the valid votes, with Ebrahim Raisi far behind with only 15.8 million votes or 38 percent of the valid votes. The elections reportedly witnessed the largest number of invalid votes recorded to date, with one million of the ballot papers being voided. Some sources said that 800,000 of those votes were cast for Ahmadinejad, showing the insistence of some Ahmadinejad supporters, despite the fact that he had not even been allowed to stand as a candidate in the election.
The result of the vote was surprising to a degree due to the public unhappiness with Rouhani’s policies witnessed in recent months, especially during his visits to Iran’s provinces. In the end, however, Iranian voters chose Rouhani as a means of preventing Khamenei’s favored candidate, Raisi, from engineering elections through the Revolutionary Guards. There are suggestions that Iranians felt it was imperative to give Rouhani a major victory, turning out in such large numbers due to fears at the possibility of Raisi’s winning the election then being selected as Khamenei’s successor, particularly given Raisi’s blood-drenched record of overseeing the public executions of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents previously. There is no doubt that his defeat in the presidential elections will prevent him from being appointed as Supreme Leader. It’s widely believed that the main factor preventing Khamenei from using his customary Machiavellian strategies to engineer the election in Raisi’s favor was the sensitivity of developments in the wider region, which clearly confirmed the formation of an Arab-Islamic NATO to bring an end to Iran’s brutal aggression. It’ also likely that any win by Raisi could have been used by opposition groups in exile to have Interpol issue an arrest warrant for him in connection with his involvement in crimes against humanity, particularly in the mass killing of dissidents, driving the Iranian regime increasingly into international isolation and subjecting it to further international sanctions.
These factors suggest that the Supreme Leader deliberately allowed Rouhani to win while working to restrict his administration’s room for maneuver, the same policy used by Khamenei over the past four years, with Rouhani providing the moderate and reasonable diplomatic face for the regime to present to the international community, while it remains just as extremist, brutal and repressive in reality. There are also suggestions that Khamenei is grooming his own son Mujtaba to assume the Supreme Leader’s title once he (Khamenei) passes away, and that Mujtaba already takes executive decisions despite lacking the authority to do so.
The Iranian people remain in a state of yearning and hope for freedom that cannot currently be realized, under a regime which turned the office of elected president into a powerless puppet controlled by the same hybrid fundamentalist theocracy and military dictatorship which has ruled Iran by terror since 1979.

Editorial Team