Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to a coal mine in the north-eastern province of Golestan will remain a memorable event in Iran’s 2017 presidential campaign. A few days prior, Golestan – meaning “rose garden” – experienced one of the most tragic events in its history. A coal mine collapsed after a gas explosion; 400 miners were inside at the time and 42 died. Many others are still unaccounted for, probably trapped 1,300 meters underground.
When Rouhani decided to visit the site, he probably underestimated the miners’ anger. Upon his arrival, they surrounded his motorcade, which is common in Iran, but it did not stop there: They booed, chanted hostile slogans and hit Rouhani’s car with their hands; some even stomped on it. While the significance of the event should not be exaggerated, it served as a wake-up call for many Iranians who thought Rouhani’s re-election was assured.
There is no doubt people in Tehran will vote in large numbers for the moderate candidate. The city unequivocally sided with Rouhani during the 2016 legislative elections, with the moderate “List of Hope” securing all 30 Tehran seats. That same day, voters gave moderates 15 of the 16 seats reserved for the Tehran constituency in the Assembly of Experts. Though Tehran accounts for 18 percent of Iran’s population, its people experience a very different daily reality from the one lived by those elsewhere in the country. The contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) by different provinces is telling: Tehran accounts for 25 percent of Iran’s GDP, compared to the 1.4 percent that Golestan provides.
Moreover, the benefits of the nuclear deal and the partial lifting of sanctions have not reached the most secluded regions of the country. While Tehran and a few other provinces have seen the early fruits of economic revival, many others have not. This explains why only a few days before the election, almost half of Iranians do not yet know who to vote for
People still remember Rouhani’s comeback in the last days of the 2013 race and, in the 2017 election, surveys suggest conservative candidates are gaining ground. He is in a particularly delicate position, in which he has to defend results while other candidates only have to make promises. The nuclear deal should have been the biggest highlight of his term and a guarantor of his re-election, but the results have been too few and too small to impact the economy. Recent polls show conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who was barely known to the public a few weeks earlier, winning 26.7 percent of the vote. Without any political experience, he cannot be considered a credible alternative to Rouhani, but Raisi is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appointed him custodian of Astad Quds Razavi, the richest charity trust in Iran.
Despite acquiring a bad reputation for his role in the mass execution of prisoners in 1988, Raisi is surprising political observers. While he will probably not gather enough votes to win this election, he could be the conservative frontrunner in four years’ time, and a possible candidate to succeed Khamenei. The third main candidate, Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf, is also experiencing a boost in his campaign after he defied the religious establishment by refusing to step down before the election in favor of Raisi. The former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) brigadier general is considered by some as a populist in the same vein as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and as a charismatic leader by others. His promises to tackle unemployment by creating 5 million jobs are seducing an increasing number of voters.
While the election results are uncertain, it is not in the conservative establishment’s interest to push for political change – not yet. The rupture of the tradition that sees each president serve two consecutive terms would be perceived as a bad sign for the Islamic revolution’s future. Moreover, Rouhani is a moderate, not a reformist like Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom were candidates in 2009 and are still under house arrest.
Even if Rouhani attempted on several occasions to rein in the IRGC and empower the more nationalistic regular army, he backed Iran’s intervention in Syria despite an increasing number of protests calling on the government to forget Syria and focus on Iran.
If Rouhani was allowed to sign the nuclear deal, it was because it gave the Iranian establishment ways to consolidate the Islamic revolution by restoring hope among ordinary citizens.
Marc Martinez is a senior analyst at The Delma Institute, a foreign affairs research house in Abu Dhabi.
Source : Arab News