Current president Hassan Rouhani seems to be well on his way to a second term in Iran, now that his two biggest political opponents appear to have abandoned their presidential bid.
President Hassan Rouhani waves to media after casting his vote for parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 26, 2016. Photo: AP
Half a year after parliamentary elections, Iran has started preparing for the next presidential election. Current head of state Hassan Rouhani is the favorite to win the plebiscite scheduled for spring 2017. Over his years as president, he has managed to consolidate the main political players, who are willing to continue working with him.
His main opponents, Major General Qasem Soleimani and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appear to have exited the race, making Rouhani’s path to the presidency easier. Still, the success of the second presidential term of the reformer Rouhani will depend on his ability to deliver on the second part of his campaign promises, which involved the complete revival of the national economy after the removal of international sanctions.
Rouhani's chances for reelection were further strengthened by the results of the February parliamentary election, when the coalition of reformers and moderate conservatives supported by the president received the majority of votes. Supreme leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, who determines the vector of the country's political development, also generally supports Rouhani.
After two years of being president, Rouhani negotiated the removal of international economic sanctions in exchange for halting Iran's nuclear program and improving the country's relations with the West. Still, he has yet to fulfill his second campaign promise. He has not been able to restore Iran's economy, which is a source of public discontent and may result in his defeat in the presidential election.
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At the end of his first term, President Rouhani is ranked only third among the country's most popular politicians. According to the summer poll conducted by the University of Maryland and Iranpoll.com, the reformer president is supported by only 38 percent of the population.
His main rival, should he choose to run, would be the commander of the special Quds Force in the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, Major General Qasem Soleimani, who has the highest approval rating of 58 percent.
His popularity is based on his outstanding military service. He has been in charge of military operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan and, according to popular opinion, brought justice to oppressors of the common people. For his bravery and heroism, General Soleimani is referred to as "legendary." He is perceived as the most reputable military officer.
On a number of occasions, the general told the Western media that it was he who made the decisions on the movement of Iranian troops in the entire Middle East. Now the high-ranking commander directs the operations of the Iranian Corps of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution in Syria.
Adlan Margoev, a PIR Center consultant, describes General Soleimani's political views by pointing out that, "The high-ranking Iranian military commander never comments on Iran's foreign or domestic issues, so it is difficult to label him as a conservative or reformer. He is rather an independent center of power." Margoev told Russia Direct, "At the same time, he is ideologically and politically close to Ayatollah Khamenei."
The West does not support General Soleimani and the UN put him on the no-travel list. In April, the Western media reported that Qasem Soleimani secretly visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss joint strategy of the Iranian and Russian military in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The Kremlin refuted the information, but it still evoked sharp criticism in the U.S. and Europe. If Soleimani participates in the presidential election and wins, Rouhani's arrangements with the West might be revoked, which would further weaken Iran's economy.
The country's political and religious leaders saw that and, possibly, sidelined Soleimani to prevent it from happening. On Sept. 15, the General announced that he was not planning on participating in the presidential election and "would like to remain a faithful soldier of his country until the end of his days."
Two weeks later, on Sept. 27, prominent Iranian politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dropped out of the race. He served as Iran's president from 2005 to 2013, but resigned before the end of the second term. A day earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei stated that he "would not recommend that Ahmadinejad participate in the upcoming presidential election."
Ayatollah Khamenei likely decided to neutralize the ambitions of the former ultraconservative president, who started urging Iranians to support his mission on the "restoration of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution," with the same purpose of helping Rouhani get reelected and continue economic reforms.
"Even if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Khamenei with the intention to seek his counsel privately as ‘spiritual advisor’, there might have been a clear decision in the leader’s office to make this fact public – to make sure Ahmadinejad will not keep the negative advice to himself. This by no means is a sign that rahbar’s office would support Rouhani to run for the second term in the office," Yulia Sveshnikova, research fellow at the Higher School of Economics, told Russia Direct.
It is quite remarkable that Ahmadinejad's controversial record as president had virtually no impact on his popularity with the public. He is in fourth place on the Iranian approval rating trailing Rouhani by only 10 percent. Over a quarter of the population (28 percent) supports Ahmadinejad's political ambitions.
It’s important not to forget that his presidency was marked by a sharp escalation of tensions between Iran and the West. Under his rule, Iran's nuclear program that for years had been criticized by the global community picked up the pace. The president took a firm anti-American stance and refused to compromise, which pushed the U.S. and Europe to impose numerous economic sanctions on Tehran. The sanctions mainly hurt Iranian oil exports and provoked an economic recession.
Ahmadinejad's domestic policy involved pulling the plug on most liberal economic and social reforms launched by his predecessors: presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The country's political and spiritual leaders turned on each other. The president frequently refused to fulfill Ayatollah Khamenei's will, so the latter was increasingly displeased. At the 2012 parliamentary election, when Ahmadinejad's ultraconservative supporters lost to the reformers, it became obvious that everybody was tired of the president's unpredictability and populism.
Another popular Iranian politician is Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He represented Tehran during negotiations with six international mediators on Iran's nuclear program, which boosted his popularity. Zarif is second on the national approval rating and is leading Rouhani's proponents by 3 percent. But Zarif is a reformer, which aligns him with current president Rouhani. So far the head of Iranian diplomacy has not announced his presidential ambitions, but he is also likely to support Rouhani's reelection.
"In Iran, another speculative but not groundless factor is the possible indirect connection between the outcome of the U.S. election and position of the ruling elites in Iran. For example, Trump’s victory could strengthen the conservatives' foothold in Iran. It remains to be seen whether in that case Khamenei is going to offer indirect support to Rouhani or even Zarif," Yulia Sveshnikova told Russia Direct.
Still, regardless of who wins the presidential election in 2017, now that sanctions have been lifted, the government's main task will be to ensure the recovery of the Iranian economy in spite of oil prices continuing their downward descent.
As for Iran's regional policy, its core principles will not change in any case. Tehran will pursue its Zionist rhetoric and keep supporting Palestine. The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria will remain a top national security priority, and in this area, Tehran will keep working with Russia.
"Regardless of who becomes the new president of Iran, the most important thing for Russia is negotiability. Even the current level of bilateral military and political cooperation takes a lot of effort, so there is no reason to expect that Russian-Iranian relations will improve after the election. For Tehran, the status quo will be maintained if Rouhani is reelected or his policies are continued by his successor," Adlan Margoev believes.
"If in the next year the domestic and international political landscape will force Iran to elect Rouhani’s relative opposite and revert to conservative policies again, we might see improvements in its strategic relationship with Russia. But it all remains to be seen in the next year. The rest is a guesswork, as most likely Khamenei himself has not made up his mind about his preferences yet," Sveshnikova said.
Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. will remain unpredictable. In general, Tehran's foreign policy will keep the reformers' pragmatic course, which also seems to sit well with external forces.