Rouhani Goes to War Against Iran’s Deep State

Iran's president is vying for votes by attacking the country's unelected institutions. But votes might not be what decides the election.


Iran’s presidential vote is now a two-man race. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf’s 11th-hour withdrawal means that incumbent Hassan Rouhani will face the 56-year-old Ebrahim Raisi, a close associate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a man who was at the heart of the decision to mass execute political dissidents in the late 1980s.

Qalibaf not only withdrew from the race; he endorsed Raisi and is now campaigning on his behalf. The great unknown is how much Qalibaf’s populism (he was widely believed to have modeled his campaign on Donald Trump’s) will benefit Raisi, a drab figure who has emerged from the darkest corners of the regime to become the consensus candidate of the establishment’s hard-line camp despite very limited popular appeal. One possibility is that much of the populist vote behind Qalibaf — which, if his past campaigns are any indication, could be around 15 percent — could move toward Rouhani.

But the pro-Rouhani camp hasn’t been treating Qalibaf’s sudden exit as an opportunity to win votes, but as a sign that votes may not be the deciding factor in the election. It increasingly seems that Iran’s unelected but dominant centers of power — the Office of the Supreme Leader, the generals from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the wider security-intelligence apparatus — have consolidated behind Raisi and are determined to manufacture a victory for him.

This alignment poses a steep challenge for Rouhani. But the incumbent president can still bank on deep popular anger against the shadowy and corrupt regime circles that both Raisi and Qalibaf represent. Rouhani’s fate will depend on his ability to transform that widespread anger into authentic hope for his own presidency. It will also depend on whether the regime has already decided who the election’s winner ought to be.

Rouhani ups the ante

The presidential campaign has gotten ugly in recent weeks, and it has forced the normally cautious Rouhani into uncharted territory. Hard-liners have assailed the president’s government with accusations of economic elitism, mismanagement, fecklessness in the face of Western pressure, and tolerance for corruption. In response, Rouhani’s re-election strategy suddenly shifted into a full-fledged assault on the core of the opposition to him: IRGC generals, the powerful judiciary branch, and other elements in the country’s security-intelligence apparatus.

Using language that has not been heard since Iran’s turbulent 2009 elections, Rouhani began to explicitly question the powers of unelected institutions that nonetheless wield great control over domestic and foreign policy in the Islamic Republic. His message became a rather simple one: He wants to make serious changes to how Iran is governed, but “they” will not let him. No one in Iran is under any illusion about who “they” refers to. In a scathing attack against Raisi and Qalibaf and their supporters, Rouhani said, “The Iranian people will reject those who in the last 38 years have known noting but being executioners and jailers.”

Rouhani’s decision to employ such a colorful line of attack was risky — it quickly earned a stern response from Supreme Leader Khamenei — but also understandable. If the Iranian president hopes to win re-election, he will need to drum up enthusiasm among the vast but disenchanted part of the population that desires sweeping liberal reforms to transform the country’s politics and economy.

The conservative hard-line voting bloc has a rock-solid record of showing up on election days. The electoral habits of reformist voters, by contrast, depends on the candidates on offer. Rouhani, who has never labeled himself a reformist or been considered one by bona fide reformists, has struggled on this front. In 2005, Rouhani’s mentor, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, lost to an unknown far-right candidate by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as reformist voters mostly stayed away from the ballot box. Rouhani wants to avoid Rafsanjani’s fate.

That is why the Rouhani campaign opted to field his vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, as another candidate in the race. Unlike his boss, Jahangiri openly declared himself as a torchbearer of the reformists, quickly injecting some excitement into the election. He was never meant to be an alternative to Rouhani but instead to act as the president’s attack dog, assailing both Raisi and Qalibaf in Iran’s three all-important presidential debates. Once Qalibaf dropped out, Jahangiri also withdrew, having completed his mission to cast Raisi and Qalibaf as agents of Iran’s shadowy and unaccountable state within the state.

In fact, the reformist voting bloc appears far more galvanized than just a few weeks ago. Rouhani’s supporters have held a series of boisterous rallies, and the pro-reformist media’s election coverage now includes the kind of political buzz last seen in 2009. Whether Rouhani’s newfound bluster will translate into a greater voter turnout remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the inherent risk in such a strategy is an equally animated response from the other side. The IRGC in particular only knows how to double down when under assault. But Rouhani has no choice but to forcefully challenge his challengers’ claims that they are the real representatives of change in the race.

Raisi and Qalibaf: agents of change?

Though both Raisi and Qalibaf belong to the Islamic Republic’s networks of nepotism, their campaigns both centered on the theme of change. This anti-status quo message is almost entirely hollow. Both men joined the ranks of the Iranian government in their late teens and know nothing but life as regime foot soldiers. Unlike Rouhani, their long careers have never been propelled by public support but only the political sponsorship they draw from the unelected regime institutions they represent. The Office of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC have a long-standing practice of dividing the population into “one of us” (khodi) and “not one of us” (naa-khodi). This helps them maintain tight control over the government and power more generally in Iran — but it is also guilty of fostering incompetence and unaccountability throughout Iranian society.

One recent incident involving Rouhani’s unelected rivals was particularly telling. The case centered on the Jan. 19 collapse of Plasco, a high-rise historic landmark in downtown Tehran. After it caught fire, the 17-story building collapsed live on television within a few hours. Twenty people lay dead under the rubble.

This was a spectacle unlike anything Iranians had seen before. Iran’s leadership, which bombards its people daily with messages about the Islamist regime’s invincibility, proved to be thoroughly powerless in this hour of crisis. Horrified Tehranis scrambled to see if any officials would be held accountable. But the city’s 8 million residents are not holding their breath and for good reason.

Since 1979, the owner of the building has been the Bonyad-e Mostazafan, a religious foundation whose ostensible purpose is to distribute national wealth — including wealth confiscated from the pre-revolutionary elite, like the Plasco building — to the masses. Instead, the multibillion-dollar enterprise has morphed into a slush fund for regime insiders and particularly the generals from the Revolutionary Guards.

The head of the Bonyad is now a former IRGC commander appointed to his job by Khamenei. Tehran’s mayor, Qalibaf, who oversaw the bungling emergency response to the fire at Plasco, is also a former IRGC commander. Neither man has faced any punishment, and nobody in Iran expects them to. Ordinary Iranians are reduced to making light of the situation. As one person posted on social media: “Our missiles can reach Israel, but our fire truck hoses don’t reach above the 10th floor.”

The Plasco tragedy was a stark reminder for ordinary Iranians about the regime’s unaccountability. Tehran’s elected authorities had over the years repeatedly issued warnings about the state of the 55-year Plasco building, but the mayor never confronted his IRGC comrades in the Bonyad’s leadership about it. For 17 days, Qalibaf even refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, despite enormous public anger.

Inside the Islamic Republic, two competing states constantly wrangle for power, divided by their relative openness to releasing the government’s grip on society and the economy. The likes of Raisi and Qalibaf hail from the least accountable part of the regime, which wants to be protected from the scrutiny of foreigners and Iranians alike. The key to Rouhani’s re-election is whether he can underscore that fact convincingly — and whether Iran’s power brokers decide to take revenge by stealing the election from him.


Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow and the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola