The Islamic Republic Is Heading for an Identity Crisis

As Iranians go to the polls, the divide between the country's octogenarian ayatollahs and its young population is wider than ever.


When Iranians pick a president on Friday, they will do so through gritted teeth. The Islamic Republic’s election campaigns, fought only among regime-screened candidates, do little to fire up the imagination. They are deliberately short and low-key, lasting just a few weeks. Having allowed a democratic choice, the regime believes time spent analyzing the contenders and the country’s future should be limited.

This year’s highlight has been two televised debates — showdowns that at times were as polarized and fiery as those in the United States last year. Iranian state television bosses didn’t want such a public spectacle and initially tried to nix the debates, but they were forced to retreat after a public backlash. The U-turn illustrated how far Iran’s hard-line institutions remain estranged from a population that wants a greater say in how their country is run. The election result is likely to magnify that gap.

Today’s poll rests on whether Hassan Rouhani, a 68-year-old cleric from Iran’s more moderate wing, can convince voters they would be better off under him than his main hard-line opponent, Ebrahim Raisi. The nuclear deal with the United States and other powers has lifted some sanctions, but most Iranians have seen meager economic improvements. Cash still cannot easily flow into the country because of other non-nuclear sanctions, many of which were imposed decades ago after the Islamic Revolution. Rouhani, admitting his job is only half done, has pledged to use the next four years to lift them. A tall order, especially with Donald Trump in the White House.

Raisi’s strategy, in contrast, seems to be one of denial. He has said he supports the nuclear deal, but favors a “resistance economy” built on domestic production rather than partnerships with foreign companies. This shtick is synonymous with that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who says outsiders cannot be trusted — the United States least of all.

But recent years have shown isolationism to be dangerous for Iran. Despite Khamenei and Raisi’s support for self-reliance, such an effort failed when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried it. Instead of experiencing a resurgence, factories closed when the West’s trade and banking sanctions over the nuclear program kicked in. An oil embargo followed — and when crude prices collapsed, so did Iran’s economic lifeline. Iranian companies found themselves unable to import high-quality goods and machinery parts because of the sanctions, forcing them to slash jobs because there was no money to pay workers.

These economic failures still bedevil Iran — but they are the doing of the hard-liners, not Rouhani. It is a sign of Iran’s slowly changing politics that Ahmadinejad was barred this year from entering the presidential election. The Council of Guardians, which is composed of clerics and jurists who decide who can run for public office, knows his presidency was a failure. And while fans of Ahmadinejad’s handouts still think he did some good, most believe the opposite. Money was wasted. Corruption spiked.

Raisi, a 56-year-old cleric whose graying beard and dour demeanor make him look much older, would likely herald another era of isolation. His clerical credentials appeal to the pious — he was taught at seminary college by the now-supreme leader. Raisi, however, is a political novice; he appeared wooden in the televised debates. Like Rouhani, he has a history of high-ranking official positions — but this includes posts where he approved death sentences, including thousands of political prisoners killed in the 1980s. Iranians do not forget such a past, and Rouhani was not afraid to point it out. “The people of Iran shall once again announce that they don’t approve of those who only called for executions and jail throughout the last 38 years,” he said on May 8.

Stopping Raisi should have been easy, given the president’s superior political background. But the challenger has friends in high places. He was appointed last year by Khamenei as the head of Astan Quds Razavi, an ancient institution established to help the poor. Its modern composition, however, is as a business conglomerate that carved up information technology, banking, construction, and agriculture businesses through takeovers largely seen as flawed. It owns most of the commercial property and land in the holy city of Mashhad, and its annual incomes are estimated in the billions of dollars. In Iran’s closed system, no one really knows where the money goes. Such a role is at odds with Raisi’s mantra of being a “poor people’s champion.”

Raisi’s economic strategy also appears to be drawn from Ahmadinejad’s disastrous playbook. His campaign promise to triple state handouts to the nation’s poorest is a direct copy of the former president. During Ahmadinejad’s administration, such payments proved ill-directed, took inflation above 40 percent, and set Iran on a path toward bankruptcy.

But the hard-line camp appears deaf to the economic and political lessons from this episode. The popular backlash to Ahmadinejad’s policies, which were seen as impoverishing regular Iranians while enriching a small elite, were severe. The hard-line camp lost the presidency to Rouhani in 2013, and its candidates were again routed in last year’s parliamentary elections following the nuclear deal.

A pro-Raisi rally in a Tehran prayer hall on May 16 underlined that there has not been any recognition, let alone a reckoning, among hard-liners on the causes for their electoral defeats. A video at the event showed women in black robes firing rocket-propelled grenades — propaganda that is a far cry from the peaceful engagement that Rouhani espouses. The president may say that Iran is not a danger to any country, but missiles that carry slogans pledging to wipe Israel off the map suggest otherwise.

The talk at the Raisi rally was of problems caused by outsiders. There was no acceptance among the crowd that the nuclear agreement was necessary only because the covert elements of Iran’s atomic and missile programs led to sanctions in the first place. Such displays of revolutionary dogma play well among the converted, but it is the votes of the unconvinced that Raisi needs on polling day.

More basic differences between the moderate reformists and hard-line camps illustrate Iran’s fundamental divides. While pro-Rouhani events have seen smiling mothers and daughters in colorful headscarves working side by side with men, Raisi’s gatherings have seen strict gender segregation and near uniformity among women, mainly older, of the head-to-toe black chador. While loud music is often played at reformist rallies to keep the crowd happy, an austere atmosphere akin to a sermon prevails when conservatives meet. One campaign has spoken of future hopes, the other complains about the past.

Such constraints are becoming untenable. Just as the internet can no longer be banned — the hard-liners’ campaigns embraced Telegram and other mobile channels this year — basic changes in Iran’s population cannot be ignored. While the ruling elite emphasizes the “Islamic” in the Islamic Republic, fewer people than ever are going to the mosque. Most of the young population — two-thirds of Iranians are under 30 — want an iPhone more than a Quran. Yet they are ultimately ruled by old men, the most powerful of which are almost all octogenarian ayatollahs.

Such men seem far removed from ordinary workers and make Rouhani, also a cleric, seem very moderate. The economy may be his biggest political weakness, but most Iranians know he was not the author of its misfortune. But if the president is reelected, it would be further confirmation of the split that continues to mark Iran’s politics. While one side wants to modernize, the other is obsessed by past grudges that are irrelevant to present-day problems.


Arthur MacMillan is a Paris-based journalist for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Until last summer, he was the agency’s deputy bureau chief in Tehran. He is also an international security fellow at New America. Twitter: @arthurmacmillan

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