Iran’s brief, intense presidential campaign has come to a close, and the late-stage withdrawal of two conservative candidates has narrowed the race and raised the stakes. Instead of a three-way standoff and the near certainty of a run-off ballot, Iranians are now facing a stark choice between the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, and the sole remaining serious challenger, hard-liner Ibrahim Raisi. These developments strengthen Rouhani’s lead in independent polls, but the intangibles that have driven Raisi’s candidacy to date—namely, his rumored place in the pecking order to succeed the supreme leader—heightens the volatility surrounding the campaign, its outcome, and by extension Iran’s future.
Round two interrupted
On Monday, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf ended his quixotic third bid for the presidency and threw his support enthusiastically behind Raisi, jolting a race that had settled into an uneasy equilibrium between the president and his two chief challengers. Unlike most other conservative contenders, Qalibaf originally refused to shelve his ambitions in deference to Raisi, who is seen as a prospective successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and around whom the right wing sought to marshal its resources and its constituency.
As the campaign played out, Qalibaf’s fierce attacks against Rouhani and his expansive campaign pledges—to triple cash subsidies, boost GDP, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs—strengthened his candidacy and offered him a valuable opportunity to play spoiler by forcing the race into a second round. The only prior instance of a run-off ballot for Iran’s presidency, a dozen years ago, provided the springboard for another little-known hardliner (and Tehran mayor), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to defeat a stalwart of Iran’s post-revolutionary political system, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In this sense, Qalibaf’s candidacy might have generated a plausible scenario for an unprecedented defeat of an incumbent Iranian president and the elevation of a rising star within the regime.
Instead, his withdrawal flipped the script, making the race a head-to-head competition between Rouhani, the architect of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy and its re-engagement with the world, and Raisi, whose career in Iran’s judiciary has intersected with some of the bloodiest episodes of domestic repression. As the presidential campaign winds down, the outcome is too close to call—but the signposts increasingly suggest that the ballot may have been engineered to facilitate Raisi’s elevation.
The case for Rouhani (again)
Only a few months ago, Rouhani’s second term appeared to be preordained. Every Iranian president has sailed into a second term, in most cases against only the most cursory opposition. (On the single occasion of a serious challenge, in 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a helping hand across the finish line). However, Rouhani’s claim stands on more than simply precedent; he has delivered on his central campaign promise of 2013—to end the nuclear crisis and the debilitating sanctions associated with it. Three decades of corruption and mismanagement will not be undone quickly, but the past four years have reversed an epic slump by taming inflation and reviving oil production as well as foreign trade and investment.
Beyond his track record, the president is clever on the campaign trail, with stump speeches blending soaring rhetoric with wonkish specificity on policy prescriptions, delivered at rallies that artfully mimic opposition demonstrations. His messaging sharpened noticeably in the final days of the race, when he scorned Raisi’s brutal record as a revolutionary prosecutor and remonstrated the security services against interference in the vote. That dexterity could still pay off: Reliable public opinion polls show Rouhani with a healthy lead among those voters who have made their choice.
Perhaps more importantly, he serves the interests of Iran’s ruling system. Rouhani is a trusted insider, someone who has spent his entire political life as a post-revolutionary functionary, and his election four years ago regenerated the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy at home as well as on the world stage. During his four years in office, he steered clear of any steps that might have caused a serious breach with the supreme leader or the broader political and security elites. Although the nuclear negotiations provoked internal debate, the JCPOA reflected both regime consensus and the leader’s approbation; any uncertainty on that point was quashed by the unanimous support for the deal by all the contenders in the current race.
And yet none of this may suffice to ensure Rouhani a second term. His remaining challenger is the surprising beneficiary of an assiduous effort to coalesce around a single conservative candidate. Most of Raisi’s career was spent in the judiciary—perhaps the most pivotal institution for the Islamic Republic’s longevity, but not one that has typically served as a springboard to national office. That he is now the recipient of this formidable advantage can only be explained by his simultaneous status as one of a handful of clerics vying for an even more momentous position, that of the supreme leader—the Islamic Republic’s ultimate authority.
In his inaugural foray into soliciting popular support, Raisi has proven reasonably effective. He is not as quick or as charismatic as his rivals in the race, but over nine hours of televised sparring in formal debates and three weeks of barnstorming the country, Raisi managed to hold his own in advancing a narrative that Rouhani’s government is an epic failure for all but the richest Iranians. In doing so, he has tapped into the disappointment of many Iranians whose expectations for economic improvements were stoked by Rouhani’s championing of the nuclear deal.
But it is more than simply buyers’ remorse; Raisi’s populist messaging resonates in contemporary Iran, where social justice served as one of the revolution’s most resonant themes and economic debates have repeatedly served as a proxy for a broader competition over institutions and ideology. With the singular exception of the 1997 reformist upset, every presidential campaign has been waged around economic issues, but never has the critique generated as much traction as in this race. Even if Rouhani wins, the narrative of ruin and corruption now associated with him will be heavy ballast for his second term.
By its conclusion, Raisi’s campaign for the presidency had taken on an air of insistent inevitability, with hard-line press agencies touting favorable polls and massive rallies echoing in exultation over Rouhani’s imminent defeat. “Akhreh hafte, Rouhani rafteh—by the end of the week, Rouhani will go,” jeered his supporters. Qalibaf and another conservative who also ran, Mostafa Mirsalim, joined forces with Raisi in his final days on the stump, amidst headlines proclaiming an “enormous tsunami” of popular support. His campaign’s absurd appropriation of the (mostly secular) symbols of Iran’s vibrant youth culture hints at a comprehensive, and expensive, endeavor to generate fervent electoral momentum—or, at least, the façade of something like that.
An air of intimidation is lingering in the backdrop to this election week.
What to watch
An air of intimidation is lingering in the backdrop to this election week. While that is never far from the surface in Iran, Khamenei’s stern warnings against disruption or manipulation of the ballot evoked unnerving parallels to the 2009 election, which was widely perceived among Iranians as a rigged outcome and provoked historic protests across Iran. There are other worrisome omens, including Thursday’s announcement that Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, a traditional conservative who helped facilitate a broad coalition of elites in support of Rouhani, had resigned as an advisor to the supreme leader because of his electoral advocacy.
The genius of the Raisi campaign has been the careful choreography of a sense of authenticity around his electoral surge. Should he win, the question of whether it was real or it was rigged will be ultimately unanswerable. It may also be irrelevant. What will matter is how Iran’s politicians and its public choose to respond, and that may be more difficult to predict than the election itself. The repression of the 2009 uprising and the chaotic aftermath of opposition activism elsewhere in the region may have chastened Iranians’ determination to confront official injustice. Still, given the polarization of Iranian opinion that has been evident throughout this campaign, an Iranian eruption that is accelerated by the election’s intense social media engagement seems possible, perhaps even inevitable.
Rouhani’s foreboding remarks suggest that he is already anticipating a defeat. He is too shrewd to react without forethought, and the specter of Iran’s last contested election must loom large in framing his options. Two prior presidential candidates, a former prime minister and speaker of parliament, have spent more than six years under severe house arrest for their defiance of Ahmadinejad’s purported triumph. That they have announced that they will vote for Rouhani from their detention only heightens the paradox facing him at this juncture.