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Iranian conservative missteps may cost them another presidency

Iran's economy may be flailing, but with the wrong candidates and campaign tactics, the conservatives fail to take advantage

The campaigns of the six Iranian presidential candidates are heating up as the 19 May election draws near. Of the six candidates, the real competition is between the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, and the two conservative candidates, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ebrahim Raisi.

Gahlibef is Tehran’s mayor, while Raisi is the former deputy chief justice of Iran and the current custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of the Shia Twelvers, which manages the assets of the conglomerate with 20,000 employees. 

Rouhani hoped that with the culmination of the nuclear deal, the economy would flourish. That hasn't happened

The Rouhani administration has succeeded in bringing inflation down - which at one point during the tenure of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, surpassed 40 percent - to single digits.

Yet Rouhani hoped that with the culmination of the nuclear deal in 2015 between Iran and the world’s six powers and the lifting of sanctions, foreign investment would flood into the country after more than three decades of isolation and the economy would flourish.

But that hasn't happened, primarily for two reasons.

First, the US sanctions unrelated to the nuclear issue – those related to Iran’s alleged human rights violations and support of terrorism – were not waived. Therefore, foreign companies and banks remained wary of doing business with Iran, fearing that they would be penalised by US authorities for violating the non-nuclear sanctions.

Second, the constant friction between Iran and the US could potentially escalate at any moment, leading to the collapse of the nuclear deal or, even worse, a war. Ayatollah Khamenei, who needs the hardliners’ support, continually attacks the US and perpetuates the “enemy narrative”. Khamenei is certainly one of the primary reasons behind Iran’s economic and political isolation, and thus Iran’s economic abyss.

Deep recession

Interestingly, and unprecedentedly, during the current presidential election, Khamenei has not shied away from any opportunity to discredit the incumbent president.

He has both attacked the nuclear deal – a deal that he previously endorsed – and criticised the current administration’s economic performance. In doing so, Khamenei has sought to demote the centrist Rouhani and indirectly promote his cleric student, Raisi, in the upcoming election.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a meeting with Iranian senior officials in June 2016 in Tehran (AFP)
Despite reduced inflation, the economy is in a deep recession. Unemployment, particularly among young people, is rampant. According to official statistics, 32 percent of young Iranians between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed, while total unemployment has reached 13 percent.

Almost two-thirds of respondents to an April poll maintain that Iran's economic situation is somewhat bad or very bad

Almost two-thirds of respondents to an April poll maintained that the country’s economic situation is somewhat bad or very bad, while 52 percent believed that the economy is getting worse.

In response to the question of “to what degree President Rouhani has or has not been successful in resolving the country’s economic problems?”, 37 percent thought that he was somewhat successful, while 55 percent believed that he was somewhat or very unsuccessful.

'Greatest crime' of rival

Many observers in Iran have argued that such a backdrop - Iran's not-so-recovered economy under Rouhani and Khamanei's pointed attacks - present a conservative with an ideal opportunity to unseat the incumbent president.

However, it seems that they have made two fatal mistakes that could potentially lead to another loss (absent of vote rigging). The first is the selection of their candidates. The second is the tactics that their candidates have adopted in their campaigns.

Even if people were to ignore his dark past, Raisi’s largest problem is his absolute lack of charisma

The primary conservative contender is Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate with a very bad record. Raisi was a member of a group of four known as the “death committee,” which in a span of two months in 1988, issued execution orders for thousands of political prisoners based on their opposition to the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was then appointed to succeed the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, fiercely condemned the killings and told the members of the committee, “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the [1979] revolution and history will condemn us for it. … History will write you down as criminals.”

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi during a campaign rally in Tehran on 29 April 2017 (AFP)
Even if people were to ignore his dark past, Raisi’s largest problem is his absolute lack of charisma. Additionally, he is unknown as a political figure – he was, until a year ago, a member of the judiciary – and appeared in the current race seemingly from nowhere. Sources in Iran say that Raisi’s sudden presence in the Iranian political arena is a result of Khamenei signalling to the conservative elite to prepare Raisi for his succession.

In his campaign, Raisi has concentrated on the lowest income groups by promising to increase their cash subsidies by 300 percent. The tactic could buy him votes among those voters. However, it brings with it a major obstacle.

►READ MORE: It's the (Iranian) economy, stupid

Ali Larijani, the chairman of the parliament and one of the most influential figures within the conservative camp, was quick to respond to Raisi’s proposal. “Where do the candidates want to find resources to fulfill their promises [of tripling cash subsidies]?” he asked.

“Those who make such promises should bear in mind that decision-making about the payment of direct subsidies is not under the authority of the government,” stressing that it is the parliament’s responsibility to weigh in on subsidy policies.

Weak discourse

Tehran’s mayor, Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), is running for the third time in the last 12 years. Some observers in Iran have jokingly stated that his second profession is as a presidential candidate.

Ghalibaf, imitating the 99 percent movement in the US, has invented a new discourse in Iran: the wealthy four percent against the deprived 96 percent. He has fiercely attacked Rouhani, accusing him of protecting the interests of the four percent while presenting himself as the representative of the 96 percent.

There is no doubt that Rouhani and his administration are supporters of “trickle-down economics”, but Ghalibaf’s performance as Tehran’s mayor is no better.

Iranian conservative presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf greets supporters during a campaign rally in Tehran on 2 May 2017 (AFP)
In their tense televised face off, Rouhani responded to Ghalibaf by saying, “Didn’t you give permission [to construct] a 33-story building to a person who stole the people’s assets?” He was referring to Babak Zanjani, the Iranian billionaire who is sentenced to death for allegedly withholding billions in oil revenues channelled through his companies.

Ghalibaf, inspired by the style used by former president Ahmadinejad, fearlessly accused Rouhani and his team of corruption

Aside from social networks, the televised debates play a significant role in presidential races in Iran. That is because only 30 days separate when campaigns begin and election day.

In the first two debates, the last one occurring on 5 May, Ghalibaf, inspired by the style used by former president Ahmadinejad, fearlessly accused Rouhani and his team of corruption and mismanagement.

However, he ignored the fact that, for a large section of Iranian society, such a style is reminiscent of Ahmadinejad’s deception, his empty promises, and the calamity that his presidency and mismanagement brought to Iran. While this worked once before, it is unlikely to work again.

- Abraham Nematzadeh is an political analyst focused on Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye 

Photo: Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attend a campaign rally in the capital Tehran on 29 April 2017 (AFP)

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