Rouhani Gets a Hard-line Challenger for Iranian Presidency

Rouhani Gets a Hard-line Challenger for Iranian Presidency

Hard-line Shiite cleric Ebrahim Raisi announced his bid for the Iranian presidency Sunday, emerging as a potentially serious challenger to the country’s current president, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani, a reformist candidate who won in 2014 largely with the support of young people and women, has disappointed many of his followers with his inability to fix the Iranian economy, despite the lifting of some Western sanctions in the wake of the 2015 nuclear deal brokered between Iran and Western powers.

Raisi, a well-known conservative figure, has had an extensive political career serving most recently as Iran’s prosecutor general, while also maintaining close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In 1988, he was one of the judges who oversaw the killing of thousands of left-wing dissidents and political prisoners. Perhaps most importantly in a political system where mullahs wield plenty of behind-the-scenes influence, he also has the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Raisi is “by far the most formidable challenger,” in the race, said Ahmad Majidyar, director of the Iran Observed project at the Middle East Institute. Majidyar also noted that while Rouhani’s base would be unlikely to vote for the cleric, he could garner support in rural areas and emerge a consensus candidate for conservatives, much like former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And that’s if Rouhani is even allowed to run. The sitting president needs the approval of the Guardian Council — an influential body of power in Iran that is currently controlled by conservatives — to run for reelection, and the conservative body could keep Rouhani from running again. But Majidyar said such a move could cause a backlash. Instead, if there’s a decision by the supreme leader in consensus with hard-liners, “you’ll see rigging in the elections” to ensure Rouhani does not win, he said.

Raisi is sure to hone in on the stagnant economy while also touting his extensive experience in government to challenge Rouhani. But his presidential bid is also somewhat of a political gamble. The announcement came as a surprise to the Iranian public, who saw Raisi as a promising successor to Khamenei as supreme leader. A lost election could hurt his prospects in that regard.

Raisi called it his “religious and revolutionary responsibility to run” in a statement Sunday, citing the need for a “fundamental change in the executive management of the country” and a government that “fights poverty and corruption.”

Looming over the election will be Iran’s relations with the United States, largely toxic since the 1979 Iranian revolution, but which showed signs of a thaw late in President Barack Obama’s second term. Since President Donald Trump took office, after vowing on the campaign trail to tear up the Iran nuclear accord, he has moved to improve relations with Sunni states in the Persian Gulf worried about Iran’s aggressive behavior.

And in Syria, both parties will find fodder for political arguments that look like the mirror image of debates inside the United States.

“Conservatives will argue that the strikes in Syria show engagement with the U.S. has been a failure,” said Majidyar, while moderates will argue there is an even greater need for diplomacy and communication to defuse the tension.

Elections are scheduled for May 19.

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