Photo illustration by John Lyman

Q&A about Iran’s Presidential Election

As Iranians prepare to head to the polls on May 19, they have a slate of six candidates to pick from: Hassan Rouhani, the current moderate president, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mostafa Hashemi Taba, Eshaq Jahangiri, Mostafa Mir-Salim and Ebrahim Raisi.

The election in Iran is engineered and the candidates are accredited by the Guardian Council. Ahmadinejad, the former president, is not nominated for this election since he was not approved by the Guardian Council. Despite the great control imposed on the election process and the announcement of the results, what is certain is the war within Iran’s political system over power and wealth. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing three experts on Iranian politics regarding the upcoming election: Alex Vatankhah, Senior Fellow at Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C, and an expert in Iranian domestic and regional policies, Ali Ansari, Professor in Modern History at St. Andrews University in Scotland and Misagh Parsa Professor of Sociology in Dartmouth College.

Why is Ahmadinejad’s participating in the election, even though he knows he would be disqualified? Do his opinions reflect nationalism, messianic religious views, or is he an opportunist?

Misagh Parsa: He probably registered for presidential elections to be disqualified because that would put him in opposition to the establishment. He realizes that he will have a greater chance of success in opposition to the system than within the system. He appears to be an opportunist who wants to regain power.

Alex Vatankhah: He is a populist at heart and politically driven by a desire to remain relevant. His candidacy, however, was to a gesture to pressure and to make sure Ayatollah Khamenei let Hamid Baghaie qualify.

Ahmadinejad fears that his faction is being pushed out by the Khamenei and Rouhani camps and that’s the motivation for him and Baghaie to run for the presidency.

Ali Ansari: Ahmadinejad harbours a world view that may be best described as millenarian, that is he combines in an eclectic fashion ideas that are drawn from both nationalism and religion and he mixes them with little reference to rationality. In fact the less clear and reasoned the better. His entrance into the election reflects a degree of opportunism resulting from his belief in himself as a man of destiny.

Why is Ahmadinejad not able to mobilize his supporters and the rural and marginalized population? Do you think he has faced political death, or might he have chance running in the next four years?

Misagh Parsa: It would not be easy for him to mobilize the downtrodden in his favor. To mobilize the marginalized masses, he would need to have a nationwide organization in urban slums and rural areas on the country. Being out of power and no access to the national media, he is in a disadvantageous position. But, he may be waiting for future opportunities.

Alex Vatankhah: He is young relatively. And he has his supporters. He will remain marginal while Khamenei is alive but can seek to revive his political standing once Khamenei is gone.

Ali Ansari: This is in all probability a result of his self-belief, and indeed his belief in his own popularity conflicting with the realities of everyday politics. Ahmadinejad has always believed in his own charisma, but the limits of his charisma are now all too apparent.

Why do you think Raeisi participated in the presidential election? Does he have any chance against Rouhani? Wouldn’t he be an alternative for the supreme leader’s successor in case of losing the election?

Misagh Parsa: In general, reformists have a larger national support than the conservatives. So, if they mobilize their supporters in favor of Rouhani, Raiesi will not win. Losing the election, would undermine his chances of getting appointed to the position of the Supreme Leader. Unless they have hidden plans, this does not make a great deal of sense for him to join the presidential elections.

Alex Vatankhah: Raisi is a weak candidate on all levels except one, and that is the perception that he is Khamenei’s hand-picked successor. For Raisi to win, Khamenei and Sepah have to do a lot of election engineering and that is risky which we know from the 2009 Green protests.

Ali Ansari: This has been one of the most curious developments of the current election. It would seem that the hardline conservatives have been struggling to find a competitors to go up against Rouhani and they finally settled on Raisi who they are promoting vigorously and spending a lot of money on. The trouble is that Raisi has shown himself to be a poor public speaker and so it is unclear what impact he will have. That said I cannot imagine he would have entered the race to be humiliated, so at the very least, if he does not withdraw early, he will need to push Rouhani into a second round.

If Rouhani wins the election, do you think there will be a chance for democratization in Iran?

Misagh Parsa: To promote democracy in Iran, Rouhani would have to undertake monumental changes in the economic, political and social spheres, as I have argued in my recent book, Democracy in Iran, Harvard University Press, 2016. It is a daunting task that would require much more than a president in the Islamic Republic.

Alex Vatankhah: Not really. Rouhani has proven very loyal to Khamenei and Khamenei does not want democracy. The next four years will be like the last four years.

Ali Ansari: In Iranian politics, second term Presidents are normally weaker than they may have been in their first term. There is much expectation that Rouhani will be able to do more in his second term but history suggests otherwise.

Given the fact that Trump is the president of the United States, do you think Rouhani will be able to negotiate with him? What do you think about the future of the Nuclear Deal? Will this agreement be dismissed?

Misagh Parsa: The agreement has held so far, but it is hard to see what Trump might do in the future.

Alex Vatankhah: The deal is safe. All factions in Tehran support it, even the likes of Saeed Jalili. In Washington they need the deal too. Neither side has a Plan B.

Ali Ansari: I don’t think the deal will be cancelled, but I do think the deal is not going anywhere and has effectively stalled. What this means is that outstanding issues such as access to the US dollar and Iran’s proper integration into the global economy will not be resolved and the economic dividend that was promised will not materialize. The JCPOA which was meant to be the start of constructive process will have become stillborn.

Will there be religious and nationalist movements from the extreme right? Why is Iran society prone to develop extreme right movements?

Misagh Parsa: Iran is already in the far right, by international standards. In the absence of popular movements for democracy or in response to the rise of such a movement, it is also possible for the IRGC to directly enter the political arena and establish a military regime.

Alex Vatankhah: I think Iran could go in different directions after Khamenei’s death but there is little popular base for an extreme right wing religious rule. Iranian people are not extreme at heart and will eventually rise up to demand change.

Ali Ansari: I think we have already had this experience with the Ahmadinejad presidency. It is entirely possible, say with a Raisi victory in the elections that Iran will move further to the right, but populism has already been experienced with Ahmadinejad.

Are people like Ghalibaf, Soleimani, and other military characters able to attract the population and make a public movement through nationalistic slogans? Does Ghalibaf have a chance? Recent surveys has shown he has gained greater popularity than Rouhani.

Misagh Parsa: This is an empirical question that would have to be decided by the Iranian people. Given the extent of the corruption in his office and a great deal of mismanagement in the mayoral office, he may not have a great chance of defeating Rouhani.

Alex Vatankhah: Depends on the direction they choose to go. Soleimani is a hero from Iran-Iraq war but he is a dangerous adventurist today. Iranian people will not want to see their country entangled in decades of war in the Arab world. The Arab world will be at war for many years to come. Ghalibaf has a problem: he wants to appeal both to moderates and hardliners at the same time. It will not work.

Ali Ansari: Ghalibaf has performed much better than Raisi in the election debates and appears to be the stronger candidate. Much depends on what arrangements they make between themselves. If Ghalibaf can persuade Raisi to stand down in his favour then I think that Ghalibaf, with the support he will enjoy, may have a good chance of winning.

Some analysts believe that Iran’s international policy is not determined by the government, and victory of any of the candidates in the presidential election doesn’t change anything in Iran’s regional policy, especially regarding Syria, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Bahrain and the Yemeni crisis. What is your view?

Misagh Parsa: Such analyses are probably accurate, given the fact the president does not set the country’s agenda for foreign policy in such important areas of the Middle East.

Alex Vatankhah: Agreed.

Ali Ansari: These sort of policies are not made by the President and while he may have a voice at the table his is not the most important one.

Do you think there will be a chance for improving the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia should Rouhani win?

Misagh Parsa: Yes, he might attempt for such an approach.

Alex Vatankhah: No; neither side is really after dialogue and want tensions.

Ali Ansari: No I think if progress was going to be made it would have been made by now. The problems with Saudi Arabia run much deeper and now with Trump in office in the US, there is little need for the Saudis to compromise and at the end of the day for progress in bilateral relations you need both sides to make moves.

Will there be a repetition of events as in 2009 like street movements or interference of military forces in the election?

Misagh Parsa: Yes, of course. Given the political and ideological weaknesses of the conservatives, they might have to resort to the power and capabilities of the military to win the election. After all, Iranian elections are always characterized by irregularities and anti-democratic tendencies.

Alex Vatankhah: Yes; too much election engineering and “ghazanbori” tactics will backfire.

Ali Ansari: Highly unlikely. The repression that followed the uprising in 2009 has been extensive and the regime is very much on the lookout for potential signs of trouble. There is nothing at the moment on the horizon. I have little doubt that the IRGC and other organs of the state would intervene if they felt it necessary.

Trump has a twofold stance against Iran. On one hand, he states that Iran has violated the Nuclear Deal’s spirit, On the other hand, Tillerson believes that Iran has been committed to its obligations. The US government also considers Iran as the number one threat to the region. What position will Trump adopt toward Iran?

Misagh Parsa: The Trump administration has lots of inconsistencies in domestic and foreign policy. Most members of the administration would probably oppose improving relations. Would be best to wait and see.

Alex Vatankhah: Tehran can deal with Trump but the Iranian regime does not want dialogue with the US. If they do, they don’t really show it. All Washington and Americans see is “Death to America.” Iran deliberately makes itself into an enemy for the US and no American president can close his eyes on such open Iranian hostility.

Ali Ansari: The Trump administration is still trying to find its feet as far Iran policy is concerned. I doubt very much they will tear up the agreement but they will scrutinize it far more closely and seek to put further pressure on Iran in other ways. The problem for Iran and the future of the JCPOA is the very uncertainty at the heart of the Trump administration. This uncertainty is what is killing the JCPOA and the prospects for investment in Iran.

Will the Iran Republic Islamic Opposition reach an agreement with Trump? Reza Pahlavi wants to have a meeting with Trump, and Trump’s consultants are interacting with the Mujahideen Khalgh (PMOI). How much do you think they can affect Trump’s decisions?

Misagh Parsa: No, they have little influence over the Trump administration. The Trump administration might use them for its purposes. If the time comes Israel is the country that has a great say in US policy towards Iran.

Alex Vatankhah: No. Opposition inside Iran is the force to watch.

Ali Ansari: Again I doubt this very much. I am sure they will court the Trump administration but it is very unclear how the administration may react and if you look at his policy on other fronts Trump, ambiguity, calculated or otherwise seems to rule the day.

Do you think there is the potential of war between Iran and America or Iran and Israel within the next four years?

Misagh Parsa: Unfortunately, Yes, even though it would be tragic for all.

Alex Vatankhah: I don’t think so. I expects the same as the last 10 years.

Ali Ansari: There is the distinct possibility of some confrontation in the Persian Gulf or Yemen taking a turn for the worse but I doubt very much we will see anything approaching a full scale conflict.