Rouhani Fires Away at Leading Rival a Week Before Iran Election

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by Bloomberg Politics on the counterattacks by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani against his 2017 presidential election rivals following the second debate:

Rouhani has been “walking a fine line,” Farzan Sabet of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said before Friday’s debate. While “taking the gloves off with his conservative rivals” could mobilize supporters, it risks the wrath of the hardline establishment and security forces, Sabet said. “As one of the most seasoned politicians in the Islamic Republic, Rouhani is likely to know where the red lines are and how to dance around them.”

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

Rouhani was much more contained until last week. What has prompted this change of tone/content? Is this only natural as vote day approaches and the race heats up? Or does it stem from the president’s exasperation given conservatives relentless attacks? Or is this a sign of desperation as some hardliners are suggesting?

One national opinion poll suggests that President Hassan Rouhani had taken a hit in popularity, perhaps because of the relentless attacks on him by conservative candidates, including Ebrahim Raisi, who appears to be gaining in support, and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who has remained steady. Rouhani may have felt the need to go on the offensive to stem the bleeding in his support.

Do you see this is a carefully crafted strategy? If so, what is Rouhani trying to do? and who is Rouhani seeking to attract? Is he speaking to the already converted (reformist)? or is this type of rhetoric/attacks likely to find a wider audience? Might the more conservative/religious Iranians be sensitive to it? Would poorer Iranians care?

Rouhani’s quick pivot to go on the offensive shows he had enough foresight to prepare for this scenario, though I’m not sure his overall campaign and strategy have been particularly well crafted. He’s trying to reach out to two primary audiences with these attacks. In highlighting the past involvement of Ghalibaf and Raisi in repression, he is trying to reach out to voters who care about social and political freedoms. In highlighting the tax exempt status of certain charitable foundations in Iran, including Raisi’s Astan-e Ghods-e Razavi, he’s reaching out to those concerned with economic issues. These voters, in practice, include Rouhani’s existing reformist/centrist base, who he needs to shore up, and the working poor, who may feel they have not benefited as much during his tenure as president.

What are the possible gains and probable risks of appearing as a victim or anti-establishment?

Rouhani is walking a fine line, with possible benefits and risks. On the one hand, taking the gloves off with his conservative rivals could help stem any possible decline in support, energise his base and mobilise them for his campaign and at the ballot box.

But one can also foresee a range of risks. For example, we could see pressure from security forces on Rouhani’s campaign and supporters to tone down their rhetoric and activities, which could limit his ability to mobilise voters. This appears to have already happened with Mostafa Tajzadeh who claims he and fellow reformist politician Abdollah Ramezanzadeh were warned by security forces not to give speeches and interviews in favour of Rouhani. This type of pressure has precedence in the 2009 presidential election. In a very extreme scenario, Rouhani could be disqualified by the Council of Guardians during the campaign.

As one of the most seasoned politicians in the Islamic Republic, I suspect Rouhani will know where the red lines are and how to dance around them for his own benefit without incurring the full wrath of conservatives and the security forces. Then again, this election campaign has been about more than just the presidency and the stakes are very high, so the political dynamics could evolve in unexpected directions.