Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

How Iran's Hard-Liners Are Challenging Rouhani (From the Left)

| May 18, 2017

As Iran prepares to vote in its twelfth presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, the current incumbent, is facing decisive opposition to his reelection bid. With Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf pulling out of the race in favor of Ebrahim Raisi, conservatives are effectively moving towards unity and throwing their weight behind a single candidate—a feat they failed to accomplish four years ago but that is now more important than ever for them, especially with their eyes on the battle over succession to the supreme leader.

Although Rouhani has an incumbent’s advantage, his promised economic revival is seen by many as having fallen short of his stated goals, and he has been the target of unceasing and strong allegations of corruption. Despite the fact that every Iranian president in the post-Khomeini period has served two terms, why is Rouhani in a precarious position? And what are the factors that anti-Rouhani forces are trying to use to their advantage? Recalling the lessons of the 2005 election, which brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, can serve as a useful model in understanding this year’s contest and the challenges Rouhani faces in maintaining power.

One of the factors that paved the way for the rise of Ahmadinejad and his populist ideology was the fact that the reformists had largely abandoned the economic left, allying instead with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and supporting neoliberal policies and trickle-down economics. This allowed Ahmadinejad to build a platform on state redistribution, economic justice and anti-capitalism that successfully mobilized economically left-leaning voters as he led a sustained attack on elite corruption. His allegations of corruption against the reformists and Rafsanjani were at that time unprecedented in public politics.

Today, conservative criticisms of Rouhani should not be read simply as criticisms of the lack of economic benefits from the Iranian nuclear deal. Rather, conservative messaging builds upon preexisting economic grievances and an acute sense of neglect by Iranians, particularly from the lower and working classes. These grievances can further be galvanized by the extensive IRGC/Basij networks of influence in neighborhoods and mosques, which span the whole country and can mobilize strong numbers. This is while Rouhani himself leads the most economically right-wing administration since the revolution. He built an alliance between segments of the conservative and moderate right, together with the backing of the reformists in a pledge to expand cultural and political freedoms, rather than economic redistribution, which was once a reformist goal. This coalition was forged on attaining relief for economic sanctions and included prominent conservatives, such as parliament speaker Ali Larijani and Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as reformists and moderates.

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For Academic Citation: Mohseni, Payam.“How Iran's Hard-Liners Are Challenging Rouhani (From the Left).” The National Interest, May 18, 2017.