[On 19 May 2017 the Islamic Republic of Iran conducted its twelfth presidential election since the monarchy was overthrown in 1979. After a variety of candidates were prevented from participating or withdrew in support of a different candidacy, the election was essentially a contest between President Hassan Rouhani, in office since 2013, and conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi. Jadaliyya turned to Arang Keshavarzian of New York University to interpret Rouhani’s decisive victory in the context of Iran’s political system. Some of these points were developed in an essay co-authored with Naghmeh Sohrabi in Middle East Report.]
Jadaliyya (J): Iran is regularly described as having an authoritarian political system. Can you tell us a little about the position of the president in relation to other centers of power?
Arang Keshavarzian (AK): Iran’s political system is notoriously difficult to describe. This is in part because it has two types of institutions that exist parallel to one another: appointed and elected offices. This dualism is the product of the attempted synthesis between divine and popular sovereignty enshrined in the constitution, written less than a year after the 1979 revolution. It is manifested in several areas, but is critical to understanding the executive branch in particular. As your question suggests, the president only retains some of the powers we typically associate with this office. This is what leads many US pundits to comment that Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory is inconsequential and that the presidency is hamstrung by the will of the Leader, Ali Khameini.
The principal executive in the Islamic Republic is the Leader (or rahbar), who combines religious and temporal authority in accordance with the theory of velayat-e faqih (or “Guardianship of the Jurisprudent”). The position, which seeks to safeguard the Islamic nature of the state, was tailor-made for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, who was recognized as both a high-ranking cleric and a charismatic political leader central to the mobilization that toppled the monarchy in 1979. By 1989, however, none of the clergy who had the requisite learning shared his notions of theocratic rule or his political aspirations. Consequently, in April 1989, Khomeini appointed an Assembly of Experts to revise the constitution to relax the religious requirements of the office. When he died a few months later, this Assembly chose Ali Khamenei, who had been president for eight years but was a low-level cleric, as the new Leader. The Assembly of Experts is a council of eighty clerics, who are popularly elected every eight years, and has the authority to appoint and dismiss the Leader. However, assembly members must be approved by the Leader.
The Leader appoints some key figures, such as the head of the Judiciary, the director of the state radio and television broadcasting monopoly, the heads of a number of wealthy economic foundations, the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), and half the members of the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is in charge both of ensuring that all legislation is compatible with the constitution and Islamic principles, as well as vetting candidates for national elections. The Leader also plays a pivotal role in setting Iran’s foreign policy agenda. These powers are typically exercised after consultation with other officials and confidantes, but this process is neither transparent nor necessarily consensual. Finally, the Leader’s office has independent resources that are used in conjunction with his claims to religious authority to nurture and protect circles of supporters in seminaries, universities, security apparatuses, media, and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the president is elected by universal suffrage every four years. He must be Shi‘a (specifically Twelver Shi‘a) and only men have been allowed to run for this office. This last point is constitutionally vague, and a number of women over the years have registered to run for the presidency, but have been prevented from doing so by the Guardian Council. This Council reviews all people who register to run and typically only approves a half a dozen or so. This year, over 1600 Iranians of all ages and backgrounds registered, but only 6 candidates were allowed to run. Among the disqualified were members of parliament and former ministers, and even past presidents. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, was disqualified in April 2017.
Until 1989 (i.e., the end of Khamenei’s two terms as president), the presidency was a largely ceremonial office. But in 1989 a constitutional revision abolished the office of prime minister, making the president the chief executive. The president heads the executive branch except in matters reserved for the Leader; his administration writes the budget, signs bills into law once they have been approved by the legislature, presides over the pivotal Supreme National Security council, and appoints the Cabinet and provincial governors, subject to parliamentary approval. He can be impeached by parliament, at which point the Leader can dismiss him. The president does not have to be a cleric, but four different members of the clergy held the office for two consecutive terms each, including Hassan Rouhani, who was just re-elected.
Therefore, the president does have important powers and occupies a pivotal position in Iran’s system, which depends heavily on consensus building across diverse institutions. Moreover, there have been significant policy disputes and ideological differences within the political establishment, and the popular mandate that the president holds becomes a critical tool in factional disputes and setting the agenda in many policy areas. Since the late 1980s, as politics have become more contentious even among those who accept the premises of the Islamic Republic, this has translated into more competitive elections drawing greater participation from Iranians, thus enhancing the president’s extra-constitutional profile. It probably has also raised the electorate’s expectations and desire for the president to deliver on his promises.
A final point to recall when thinking about elections in Iran, whether for the president, parliament, or councils, is that these practices are embodiments of the revolutionary roots and credentials of the regime. The Islamic Republic was created out of a protracted, multi-class, and national mobilization, rather than a coup or colonial tutelage. And mass participation in elections is the most vivid way to manifest this popular legitimacy. So unlike some other regimes in the region, the political establishment is not content with either a turnout of 15 percent or obviously concocted figures of 99 percent. Even the Leader, whose claim to authority is religious knowledge, calls for and valorizes participation in elections as a marker of the regimes strength.
It is however equally true that elections for the presidency all takes place in a context in which the Leader and other critical dimensions of the state, such as the judiciary and security apparatus, place very real limits on what the president and his allies can do. What is important to remember is that it is not only academics or pundits who understand the cross-cutting forces that constitute and limit participatory politics in Iran. The fifty million eligible Iranian voters are also aware of this when they decide whether or not to vote, and for whom to cast their ballot. While some understand reformism in Iran as changes to policies and laws, other reformists demand a renegotiation of the boundaries and relationships between the institutions of the leader and the authority of the president and his cabinet. Of course, there are Iranians inside and outside the country who argue that the regime is unwilling and incapable of reforming itself and engaging in free elections, that participation in such polls is foolhardy at best, and that they in fact enhance the status quo that is defended by the Leader and his allies, collectively known in Iran as the principlists.
J: Who were the main candidates competing in the presidential elections, and how can you describe their social bases and/or political allies?
AK: The Guardian Council approved six candidates to run in the 2017 presidential elections. They can be grouped into two camps: the moderate-reformist alliance with Hassan Rouhani, Eshaq Jahangiri, and Mostafa Hashemitaba; and the conservative or principlist faction with Ebrahim Raisi, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Mostafa Mir Saleem. However, a few days before the election Jahangiri and Qalibaf withdrew, leaving Rouhani and Raisi as the main candidates.
Rouhani’s campaign rested on a coalition fashioned after the 2009 election crisis, which saw large segments of Iranian society take to the streets to question the election results that allowed Ahmadinejad to be re-elected. The regime’s response to what is called the Green Movement was brutal, arresting and using violence against ordinary citizens and political activists alike. Consequently, a group of political personalities and strategists associated with distinct administrations and political projects came together to forge an alliance between centrists and reformists. Former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Khatami (1997-2005) were leading representatives of the respective groups. Bringing the moderates and reformists together was no simple task since for much of the late 1990s and 2000s these parties, journalists, parliamentarians, academics, and others associated with the two camps were staunch critics and bitter rivals. However, in the crisis-ridden era of Ahmadinejad, there was a factional realignment that led the Greens, pragmatic technocrats and even conservative politicians to build a new consensus on election lists for local and national campaigns. This alliance first demonstrated its might by supporting the 2013 campaign of Rouhani, a cleric with a history of expertise in the foreign policy and security organizations of the regime, and who was closely associated with the Rafsanjani faction. The coalition continued in 2016, when centerists and reformists gained a large share of the parliament and even peeled off support from conservative voices. Despite the death of Hashemi-Rafsanjani earlier in 2017, the alliance not only put their weight behind their incumbent president, but issued lists for local government elections that were held on the same day. Again, it is critical to note that these lists were products of negotiations, and left out some potential candidates who were more independent of elite circles, hailed from grassroots organizations, and claimed expertise in urban affairs.
Meanwhile, the motley crew of clerics, security officers, businessmen with vested interests in sanctions-ridden economy, and citizens committed to velayat-e faqih make up the principlist current that unfortunately is too readily classified as conservative or hardline by Western commentators. For much of the past two decades this group, which is ideologically and institutionally aligned with Khamenei, has had difficulty in unifying behind a single candidate or election list. For instance, in 2013 they ran 4 different candidates for president and have been unable to agree on a unified list of candidates for parliamentary elections. This year, despite some disputes and missteps, they were ultimately successful in rallying around Ebrahim Raisi. A former prosecutor and judge, recently appointed by the Leader as the custodian of the wealthy Imam Reza foundation, Raisi was largely unknown to many Iranians until a few months ago when his name was mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. However, Raisi’s background as a graduate of the radically conservative Haqqani seminary in Qom and as a member of the committee responsible for the execution of three to five thousand political prisoners in 1988 is well documented, and raised concerns among segments of society. This background also allowed the Rouhani campaign to polarize the election and argue that if Raisi won it would be a return to a dark past.
It is difficult to define the social bases of these candidates. This is not simply on account of the lack of information or research, but due to the weakness of independent associational voices representing specific social classes, sectors, or demographic groups. This is due to a lack of legal protections for this sort of associational life as well as the ease with which they are coopted by political elites and factions. Thus, the election results and trends over time are what observers have to deduce the breadth of social bases. In an essay that Naghmeh Sohrabi and I wrote, we argue that the election results suggest that the commonly held notion that Rouhani’s support came exclusively from the urban, educated middle class and that Raisi’s was the rural poor is rather inaccurate. One area where Rouhani did very well, like other reformists and moderate candidates over the past two decades, was in the geographic margins of the country where the population is relatively less affluent, more rural, and has higher ratios of ethnic and religious minorities, such as Kurds, Arabs, Baluch, Azeris, and Sunni Muslims. This can be explained by the reformists’ and moderates’ emphasis on greater access to state institutions and resources for all citizens. Ultimately, Rouhani won about 57 percent of the vote, while Raisi received 38 percent. This was an improvement from 2013 for Rouhani, while Raisi received less votes than the four principlist candidates combined in the previous presidential election.
J: What were some of the main issues around which election campaigns were waged, and how do you think these measure up against the challenges faced by the regime and the average Iranian citizen?
AK: To begin with, international relations was not foregrounded in the campaign. This is partly because foreign affairs falls under the purview of the Leader, but also because the main topic of the past four years – the nuclear deal – was not challenged even by the principlist candidates, who recognized that the negotiations and agreement had Khamenei’s blessing. Rouhani floated the idea that if he received a mandate from the electorate, he will work on removing all international sanctions on Iran, implying that he was willing to negotiate with the US over a broader array of issues. He deftly added that this requires the Leader’s approval and the Trump administration’s good will. Both are questionable. While it is clear that Iranian citizens hoped that the nuclear deal would be more transformative for their everyday lives, especially in terms of providing a fillip for the stagnant economy, the majority of Iranians remain supportive of attempts to make international relations less confrontational. Sanctions and the shadow of war have directly hurt citizens and have also been used as a means to securitize politics, enhance the ability of the regime to accuse people of disloyalty or treason, and divert resources from development agendas.
Finally, there was no direct discussion of Iran’s policies in the Arab world and how the candidates would offer new directions. Instead there were a few reports and YouTube clips circulating of town hall meetings where audience members posed questions and made comments critical of Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war and Iran’s response to regional events. The topic of Iran’s involvement in Syria and Yemen was raised by a Gholam-Hossein Karbasci, a former mayor of Tehran and supporter of Rouhani. When he questioned Iran’s military strategy and called for using diplomacy, he was chastised by hardliners and indicted.
Instead, domestic concerns dominated debates and campaign rhetoric in this election. The range of issues was broad, including unemployment, inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, health care, and social and cultural freedoms. The candidates did not articulate specific and realistic policies, but rather made general statements that both tried to show they understood these were concerns of the electorate and argued that alternative candidates were ill equipped or not genuinely interested in addressing these issues and grappling with political tradeoffs. Not unlike past elections, the main candidates sought to position themselves as outsiders and spokespersons for ordinary Iranians (or “the people”) that are neither heard by their opponents nor the state. This was in spite of the fact that each and every candidate has have had a long career in different branches of the Iranian state. For example, during the campaign and after his victory, Rouhani repeatedly accused the IRGC of meddling in politics and taking sides in factional rivalries. However, he was careful to differentiate between the commanders and the rank-and-file members whom he praised and included in his conception of “the people.” Qalibaf, meanwhile, adopted the language of “the 4% against the 96%” without actually explicating either where these numbers came from or what were the structural factors that generated inequality and therefore how he would address this gap other than by magically creating millions of jobs and ending corruption. Raisi’s campaign was surprisingly oriented around socioeconomic grievances and sought to downplay cultural conflicts within society or preserving religious morality, something that principlists raised regularly in Rouhani’s first term in office.
Additionally, in debates and on social media, all the main candidates alleged that their rivals were directly involved in graft and nepotism. It is unclear if these accusations adversely impacted some candidates more than others, but it surely was not a good advertisement for the regime as a whole. Again, the electorate is not oblivious to the role of patronage, bribery, and nepotism – they experience these issues in their everyday lives and there has been a steady stream of high-profile cases in the past decade. Interestingly, last week an Iranian film dealing with corruption and inequality in a small town (Lerd, directed by Mohammad Rasoulof) won an award at the Cannes Film festival.
Thus we can conclude that the over seventy-three percent of the electorate who participated in the 2017 presidential election (a rate only surpassed in two previous elections), decided to do so because of these struggles and inequalities, not despite them. To return to your original question, we do have to interpret Iran’s elections in their political context. This is partly the institutional configuration established by the constitution. However, equally important are the political coalitions among the elite and the struggles of citizens. Analyzing post-election politics in Iran, therefore requires tracing multiple processes and acknowledging those who are excluded from both factional politics and the political society.
*Thank you to Saghar Bozorgi for helping me follow news about the election as well as the satire and unrelenting back and fourths between the camps.