By Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr.
U.S.-based Iran-watchers have explored potential outcomes in tomorrow’s presidential election in Iran and their near-term impacts on the nuclear agreement, relations with the U.S., and economics and politics within Iran. Yet there has been a relative dearth of strategic analysis about why the outcome should matter to the U.S., or indeed, what is truly at stake for the clerical regime in Iran.
At a juncture in world affairs where academics are debating whether democratic governance and values are in retreat, it is worth contemplating that of the 1,636 Iranians who lawfully registered to run as candidates for President, 1,630 of them — more than 99.6 percent — were disqualified by the Guardian Council from appearing on the ballot. All of the 137 female candidates were excluded; no woman has ever been permitted to stand for President of the Islamic Republic. Not since post-revolutionary Iran’s first and only freely-elected* President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was “impeached” by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1981 for resisting the Supreme Leader’s suppression of political activity, have more than 8.7 percent of legally-registered candidates made it through loyalty vetting by the clerics who retain power in Iran.
Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is often described in the U.S. as preferable to his strongest opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, with Rouhani being seen as a reform-oriented figure more committed to engaging Iran with other governments, maintaining the nuclear accord, and addressing the population’s economic aspirations. A win by the more conservative Raisi, many say, would increase the prospects of an increasingly hostile tenor to U.S.-Iran relations. A few U.S. analysts, reprising a perennial argument, say they would prefer an avowedly hard-line President, to dispel any false illusion that solicitous engagement with Tehran might pay dividends for the U.S.
With polls one week ago showing Rouhani leading with 42 percent compared to his two leading harder-line opponents, Raisi at 27 percent and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf at 25 percent, Qalibaf withdrew from the race on Monday and urged supporters to vote for Raisi. Before assuming that the defeat of President Rouhani would spell the end of meaningful reform, consider that just three days ago in Tabriz, Rouhani referred in a speech to “the exalted leader, whose hand I am willing to kiss dozens of times.” It is but one indicator of Rouhani’s complex profile as a regime stalwart with a moderate image yet a durable attachment to the hard-core establishment.
With such a tightly managed electoral process, overseen by the commander until recently of the Bassij paramilitary force, there can be no question but that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sees advantage from the election of either Rouhani or Raisi. Rouhani oversaw the opening to the west, the brokering of the nuclear accord, and the lifting of international sanctions with the full knowledge and backing of the Supreme Leader. Raisi was one of the officials who directly managed the infamous execution of 30,000 jailed dissidents in 1988, a seminal event prompting internal criticism from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri that led the ailing Khomeini to bypass him as successor in favor of loyalist Ali Khamenei. Now Ayatollah Khamenei’s priority may be grooming his own successor as Supreme Leader, and the 56-year-old Raisi would bring needed energy and potentially fresh appeal — hence longevity, the central priority — to the 38-year fundamentalist dictatorship.
What does it say about the stability of the clerics’ rule in Iran that they find it necessary to hand-pick reliable agents of regime continuity yet still make a show of participatory democracy? Is the U.S. strategically indifferent to the regime’s fairly transparent efforts to revive the flagging religious prestige, legitimacy, and influence of the Supreme Leader, a predicament that has motivated some of Iran’s worst behavior at home and abroad? After all the harm Iran has inflicted in its determination to obstruct popular aspirations for rights-based political evolution across sectarian lines in neighboring Syria and Iraq, can the U.S. now construct a policy toward Iran that, regardless of who is the next President, enforces the nuclear accord while standing for basic universal rights?
*Only one candidate was excluded in the January 1980 election: MEK leader Massoud Rajavi, who had refused Ayatollah Khomeini’s demand that candidates accept his new constitution investing the Supreme Leader with dictatorial authority.
Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. is a Distinguished Fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center.