W hen millions of Iranians flock to the polls on May 19 to elect their next president, more than just their country’s future path is at stake. Whoever emerges as Iran’s second most powerful man, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will have enormous influence beyond the country’s borders.
Incumbent Hassan Rouhani’s toughest challenger is Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and protégé of the supreme leader who has promised to create millions of jobs and increase cash handouts to the poor, something the president dismissed as unrealistic. Out of around 1,600 people who registered, only six were approved by the Guardian Council, a powerful judicial body which vets all candidates.
Mr. Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric close to reformists, oversaw the signing of the landmark Iran nuclear deal in 2015, which eased sanctions in return for efforts to curb the country’s nuclear programme. Throughout the campaign, his opponents have accused the president of failing to boost the economy and undermining the Islamic establishment by opening up to the West. Nevertheless, as The World Weekly went to press, polls put Mr. Rouhani in the lead.
As the opening towards the West engineered by Mr. Rouhani showed, the president can within certain limits enact major policy shifts. However, when it comes to the country’s ballistic missile programme and foreign interventions in the region Ayatollah Khamenei calls the shots. Nonetheless, the president could influence the selection process for the next supreme leader if Mr. Khamenei, said to be in ill health, were to pass away within the next four years. Ghoncheh Tazmini, from the Centre for Iranian Studies at London’s SOAS university, says the president “informally” influences the election of a supreme leader.
If re-elected, President Rouhani will “exert more effort to rid his country of the remaining sanctions”, but the rivalry between conservative principlists and reformists will intensify, says Ali Hashem, a columnist for Al Monitor. A Raisi victory on the other hand would lead to more coordination between the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the foreign ministry with an increased focus on policies towards Syria and Iraq.
Speaking to The World Weekly before the election, Dr. Tazmini saw a Raisi victory as “entirely unlikely”.
At a time when the Iranian economy is still reeling and large parts of the Middle East are torn apart by conflict, a lot rides on the result. One thing is clear, however: while the system can evolve, clerical rule itself is not about to change.