In the race to unseat Iran’s Rouhani, two conservatives emerge as front-runners

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by the Washington Post on President Hassan Rouhani’s main rivals in the 2017 Iranian Presidential election, Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf:

“The Iranian judiciary is by its nature very conservative and takes a restrictive approach to social and political freedoms,” said Farzan Sabet, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “And Raisi’s decades-long career as a judicial official reflects this.”

“It’s not certain,” he added, “how this background would translate to the presidency.”

Raisi now serves as the head of the Astan Quds Razavi, a charitable foundation linked to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, the holiest site in Iran. It is the country’s largest endowment, with business and real estate holdings worth billions of dollars. Khamenei appointed Raisi to the post — which many Iranians take as evidence of his support for his protege in the election.

“He has been able to portray himself as a virtuous and competent candidate who is trusted by the supreme leader,” Sabet said.

His complete comments, not featured in full in the the article, can be found below:

Ebrahim Raisi

But what does Ebrahim Raisi’s decades-long career in the judiciary say about who he is and how it might shape his presidency should be elected?

The Iranian judiciary is, by its nature, very conservative and takes a restrictive approach to social and political freedoms, and Ebrahim Raisi’s decades-long career as a judicial official reflects this. For example, he is said to be one of the voices on a recording leaked in August 2016 that features a meeting between the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and judicial officials implicated in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. But it’s not certain how this background would translate to the presidency. Some former senior judicial officials, such as the ayatollahs Yousef Saanei and late Abdolkarim Mousavi-Ardebili, have become more moderate once they have left the judiciary. That said, we can probably expect a Raisi presidency, because of its conservative agenda and base, to cooperate more closely with the judiciary and security forces, further restricting already limited freedoms in Iran, especially when compared with the presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

It seems Raisi is adopting populist rhetoric to some extent and positioning himself as a champion of the poor. Beyond that, his positions seem vague and it’s not entirely clear where he stands on a number of issues. Can you describe the campaign he has run so far, what message or messages are resonating with Iranian voters? What is the appeal of Raisi over the other conservative contenders?

Raisi has run a campaign focused on economic populist themes, but has not taken strong positions on many other issues, perhaps as a form of strategic ambiguity intended to keep negative attention focused on his rival, Rouhani. The incumbent president has achieved limited economic growth and lowered inflation through a combination of sanctions relief, which he negotiated as part of the Iran nuclear deal, and better economic management than his predecessor. But Iranians are still hurting economically, especially from high unemployment, and this has turned out to be a major weakness of Rouhani in this election. Raisi has sought to exploit this weakness through a populist message, while remaining deliberately vague on other issues to keep the focus on Rouhani’s shortcomings and away from any controversial topics, including his own past, that could mobilise the president’s supporters.

Beyond his ability to credibly convey a populist message, Raisi’s main appeal over his conservative contenders is his ability to unite conservatives, giving them a greater chance of victory. In the 2013 Iranian presidential election, the main weakness of conservatives was their inability to unite around a single candidate, splitting their votes. In 2017, Raisi has come virtually out of nowhere to be the number one candidate of the Popular Front of the Forces of the Islamic Revolution, the leading conservative political organisation. This is because he has been able to portray himself as a virtuous and competent candidate who is trusted by the supreme leader, demonstrated by his appointment last year as chairman of the Astan-e Ghods Razavi, the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, a powerful charitable foundation, and a multibillion dollar conglomerate.

Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf

This is Ghalibaf’s third run. How has his campaign this time different from his previous campaigns? Is he running a more traditional or more conservative campaign this time around?

Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf has adopted a strong economic populist message this time around to hammer away at President Hassan Rouhani in the debates and on the campaign trail, hence his “the four percent versus 96 percent” rhetoric which echoes the Occupy Movement. He has also presented himself in a more conservative light. In the 2013 Iranian presidential election, he tried to cast himself as a candidate with something to offer both conservative and moderate voters, but this campaign strategy was schizophrenic, failing to receive broad support from either side.

Has he maintained his reputation as a competent technocrat who got stuff done in Tehran? Or do you think that some of the corruption scandals + Plasco have damaged his image and soured some voters on him?

Ghalibaf retains some of his reputation as a competent technocrat, earned during his early years as mayor of Tehran and as the police chief of Iran. But compared to four years ago his image has been somewhat tarnished by the corruption scandals surrounding the Tehran municipality and the Plasco tragedy, which some view as a failure on the part of his office to enforce safety standards. This will turn off many voters.