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Iran’s presidential election: the cynical moderate versus the representative of the deep state

As the incumbent moderate president faces off the Islamic Republic's deep state, potential variations and the shadow of previous disputed elections looms menacingly.

Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rohani and the now presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at the funeral of the previous head of Imam Reza foundation in late January 2016. Picture by khamenei.ir [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Since 1997, the results of Iran’s presidential elections have followed two repetitive patterns: they have usually been determined at the last possible moment, and have been a surprise compared to early predictions and previous election norms. The current election process has been no different. It has been marked by many surprises and scandalized by taboo-breaking campaigns.

As the election day, Friday the 19th of May approaches, the incumbent moderate president, Hassan Rohani is locked in a close contest with his main challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, who has emerged as the representative of Islamic Republic’s deep state. At the moment President Rohani seems to be ahead but it may not be decisive enough to avoid a second ballot. The result of the election relies on variables, which will remain undetermined till the last possible moment. One potential and worrisome variable is that a candidate such as Ebrahim Raisi and the forces behind him do not take kindly to be thwarted by the electorate.

Until early April, it seemed that President Rohani would have an easy ride towards reelection. The surprise entrance of Ebrahim Raisi changed that and the dynamics of the competition. Ebrahim Raisi comes from the deepest enclaves of the Islamic Republic's deep state. Aged only 17 when the 1979 revolution toppled the monarchy, Raisi joined and advanced rapidly in the newly formed Islamic judiciary and was deputy prosecutor general, when he was appointed to a special committee in the summer of 1988. Nicknamed "the death committees" by Iranian opposition, these committees were set up by the express order of the charismatic Supreme Leader and the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini.

In an arbitrary decree, prompted by the final phase of Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini proclaimed that any political prisoner “still obdurate in their belief” is an enemy of god and their lives are, legally, forfeit. This paved the way for the massacre of Iran's political prisoners. Special committees were set up to decide which prisoners were “still obdurate in their belief” and Raisi was one of the five members of the central committee in Tehran. Most of the said prisoners were either the Marxist-Islamist Mojahedin (AKA M.K.O & M.E.K) or communists and most of them (numbering unknown thousands) were hanged according to the decisions made by these committees’ summary sessions.

Iraj Mesdaghi, a survivor of that massacre and an expert on the subject, claims that Raisi was present at the hanging of prisoners and celebrated them with pastry. The memory of those executions still haunts the Islamic Republic and has plagued Raisi’s presidential bid. Raisi continued to advance to the highest levels of the judiciary but kept a low profile despite the growing and gradual stream of information about the prisoners’ massacre and his role in it. That changed about a year ago when the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as the custodian of Imam Reza Foundation, the wealthiest religious-economic complex of the country. This move sparked rumors that Raisi is being groomed as the next Supreme Leader. The office of the Supreme Leader has essentially become a focal point for the management of Islamic Republic’s military-security apparatus and Raisi’s background made him a perfect candidate for such position.

Therefore, Raisi's presidential bid was surprising; why he would risk his long-term advance in an election in which his chances seemed dismal?

Raisi’s entrance was the first surprise of this election but was overshadowed by the next surprise as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threw his hat in the ring despite the express forbidding of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Controversial and divisive as ever, Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid was brought to a quick end, when he was disqualified by the Guardian Council and police units were deployed around his place of residence to discourage any more shenanigans.

Less surprising was the entry of Tehran’s mayor Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf to the foray, another member of the Islamic Republic deep state. But unlike Raisi, who chose to be a background functionary, Qalibaf has been an open and active political figure in the past two decades. A senior general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C) and former Chief of Police of Tehran, Qalibaf became a, supposedly, civilian politician with high aspirations. Mayor of Tehran since 2004, Qalibaf had tried twice to become president and seemed to have the support of the majority of the I.R.G.C for his third bid for presidency.

Along with three other minor candidates (all long-term establishment figures approved by the Guardian Council), the competition began in earnest. The contest has been a sordid and cynical affair, in which no candidate held any moral high-ground and lacked vision and inspiration, and instead relied on crude negative campaigning. Rohani's campaign seriously underestimated the competition and perceived victory a foregone conclusion and failed to produce any tangible program or positive message. Rohani's reformist allies acted similarly in their bid to win local council elections which takes place in the same day as the presidential election. Theirs and Rohani's message to the electorate was “beware of the barbarian at the gate, we are the best deal you can get". This message had a ring of truth to it but wasn't relayed to the electorate in a humble, emphatic and persuasive way. It reeked of snobbery and alienated a significant layer of Iranian voters who are keen on expanding democracy and civil society. Comprised mostly of the urban middle and upper class, young voters and various civil rights campaigners, this voting block (which has strong secular leanings) forms the backbone of Rohani’s base. Whenever moderate and reformist factions were able to motivate this block, they have won elections. Rohani and the reformist high and mighty demeanor led to considerable disaffection among this block.

Rohani’s other campaign failure was the economy where his team, again, failed to produce any coherent plan or message. A serious mistake, particularly since Rohani’s administration cannot claim any great success in this field. More than a year has passed since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement and many Iranians have yet to feel any visible improvement in their lot. This provided great opportunity to the hardliner candidates who launched a well-financed, energetic and populist campaign to grab the votes of the lower income and poverty-stricken Iranians. Taking over the mantle of Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf proclaimed that he would create millions of jobs and provide a $77 monthly cash subsidy to all Iranians.

In the live presidential debates, Qalibaf further raised the stakes by accusing Rohani’s government with corruption and wanton disregard for the poor.  Raisi, also, focused on the financial needs of the poor and unprivileged and made similar promises. The scale of promises made by Qalibaf and Raisi reached ludicrous proportions as the state is totally incapable to honor such pledges. The danger signs prompted Rohani out of inaction and he tried to rally his base in the most unprecedented and controversial way. In a series of campaign speeches, Rohani reaffirmed his promises to Iran’s civil society and crossed many red lines by attacking his opponents’ record on civil liberties. In the most astonishing statement, Rohani proclaimed that “our nation will once again demonstrate its’ disapproval with those who know nothing other than execution and imprisoning”. This was a direct stab at Raisi and Qalibaf's security backgrounds. They responded by intensifying their accusations and negative campaigning.

The presidential mudslinging reached such heights that prompted a reaction from Supreme Leader Khamenei, who emphasized the dangerous plans of external enemies and warned all candidates “not to aid the enemy’s unfinished job”. Khamenei’s speech was made in a ceremony of I.R.G.C's cadets where he was surrounded by I.R.G.C top brass including General Qasim Suleimani. Rohani paid no heed and continued his attacks on the record of his rivals. This made the last election debate an outrageous and comical event. Rohani successfully brushed off Qalibaf's corruption allegations by referring to Qalibaf’s own questionable financial dealings and his role in civil suppression. Rohani also infuriated Raisi by sly cynical remarks about his role as an oppressive judge. Rohani’s campaign gained momentum as he pressed on with further promises about civil liberties. With these tactics, it seems that Rohani has been able to rally his main socio-political base.

On Monday, another surprise came to pass, as Qalibaf withdrew from the competition in favor of Raisi. The race is on a knife's edge. While Rohani's recent maneuvering has swayed many of his disaffected base (the urban middle and upper class, young voters, political and civil rights activists, artists, etc.) it may not be enough to secure a decisive victory. Rohani's great failure in providing an inspiring economic message will cost him, while the great machine behind Raisi can, literally, buy many votes. Also, Rohani's campaign didn't pay sufficient attention to local constituencies who vote according to marginal, regional and ethnic factors.

For example, Iran's province of Kurdistan supplied about 440,000 votes to Rohani's 2013 election. This number is expected to fall, considerably, due to Rohani's incapability to deliver his promises. At the moment it seems certain that Rohani will not achieve his 2013 record of 18 million votes. The question is how many votes will Rohani lose? The available polls are inconclusive and a second ballot is very possible. The unpredictability of Iran's elections may allow a huge rise in Rohani's vote in the last moment.

There are other potential factors which can influence the outcome of elections and, unfortunately, one of them is in the hands of the unpredictable Mr. Trump. As outlined by The Economist, by May 17th, President Trump must decide whether to continue the suspensions of Iran's nuclear related sanctions, or not. The suspensions were President Obama's reward for Iran constraining its nuclear program. President Trump's decision can either boost or sink President Rohani's chances for reelection.

One nagging question troubles many, including this author: why did the powers that be chose a candidate such as Raisi? And why have they forced Qalibaf to withdraw in Raisi's favor? Qalibaf was combative and energetic while Raisi is uninspiring and vividly uncomfortable in front of cameras. The most logical explanation is that the Islamic Republic’s deep state (the unelected institutions headed by the office of the Supreme Leader, the judicial and security apparatus, the economic monopolies and the I.R.G.C) are making a combined effort to reclaim the presidency. The deep states’ need for such move may be linked to the issue of the Supreme Leader's succession. Ayatollah Khamenei is in his late 70's and reportedly ill. In the event of his death, the President will be in a key position to influence the selection of the next Supreme Leader. 

If this theory is to be taken seriously, it adds a more troubling question to this election: how determined is the deep state to install Raisi as president? Many Iranians simply don't wish to think about this question as the repercussions are too grave. The memories of the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections are still fresh in their minds. There were serious accusations about the integrity of the first round of 2004 election. One of the contenders, Mehdi Karrubi, accused the I.R.G.C, the Islamic Militia (Basij) and other security organizations of manipulating the election to pave the way for Ahmadinejad's ascent. Ahmadinejad did ascend to the presidency and, four years later, Karrubi found himself in open confrontation with the regime, when he and the other presidential challenger, Mir-Hossein Musavi defied the 2009 electoral coup.

Eight years have passed since that fiasco and both Karrubi and Musavi are still under house arrest. There is no definite evidence or sign of such situation reoccurring, yet. But there is ample reasons to believe that the deep state (the I.R.G.C in particular) can engineer the 2005's alleged scenario. The I.R.G.C and Basij can mobilize vast numbers of voters in favor of Raisi and they can do more. In 2005 voter's participation was low and certain amount of vote-rigging could take place, while maintaining plausible denial. In 2009 the reformist game-plan was to counter such measures by vast turn-out which is probably what caused the electoral coup. This year, the turn-out is out to be lower than 2012 and the closer the competition, the easier it is to manipulate it. A more disturbing thought is that to bring Raisi out of the backgrounds and to put him in the vanguard of the deep state's campaign, demonstrates a grim determination. What is there to stop the deep state from ensuring Raisi's presidency by any means necessary?

What makes this unthinkable is that even the smallest internal upheaval will risk exceedingly dangerous repercussions for the security of the state, particularly given the tense regional and international situation. However, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated a great illogical capacity for risk-taking.

One can only hope and pray that this is nothing but undue concern caused by a bitter experience. As this article is being concluded extra security and police forces are being deployed in Tehran. This may be nothing more than a cautionary measure by a security force also anxious by previous memories or...

About the author

Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi is a freelance researcher of history, politics and international relations with specific interest in Iran and the Middle East. He has worked for consultancy firms such as Control Risk and Exclusive Analysis.


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