Blog Post - Iran Matters

Rouhani's War

  • Arash Pourebrahimi
| May 09, 2017

President Rouhani may win the electoral battle, but will he win the war?

History is on Rouhani’s side: no incumbent president ever failed to be re-elected in Iran. However, this history is too short to be reliable. Among all six former presidents, only four had the chance to run for a second term. Bani-Sadr, the first president, was impeached by the parliament, and his successor, Raja’i, was assassinated a few weeks after taking office in 1981. Since then, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad managed to stay in office for two terms.

Analogous to the very short history of presidential elections in Iran, current events are desirable for the incumbent president as well. Mohsen Rezaee, the only candidate who had managed to defeat Rouhani in any province in the 2013 election has decided not to run. Moreover, the only major reformist candidate this time is Rouhani’s vice president, and he is expected to withdraw from the race in favor of his superior. Another reformist candidate in the 2013 election, Mohammad-Reza Aref, was persuaded (if not forced) to withdraw after hard bargaining just a few days before the election. And last but not the least, Rouhani’s most threatening rival, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not allowed to run by the Guardian Council.

Thus, it seems achievable for Rouhani to gain the majority of votes in the May 19th election, even though the unemployment rate as a whole and for the youth is at 12.4% and 29.2%, the highest numbers since 2010 and 2001, respectively, and even though the increase in growth has not been felt by most eligible voters.

However, to Mr. Rouhani, this election is more than another four years in the Presidency. He received just slightly more than half the votes in the 2013 election (50.6% to be exact), the least percentage received by any Iranian president thus far. Hardliners have used this fragile victory to rebuke him repeatedly; even his reformist supporters have often reminded him that he could not have won without their support. With a landslide victory, the President can prove that he and his policies are much more popular now, and, hence, he can use this victory to strengthen his current position in Iran’s political sphere and even to promote himself to the first tier of power in Iran, where the weight of moderates abated with the death of Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Losing his mentor was disappointing for Rouhani, but it has also provided him the opportunity to fill Rafsanjani’s position. Then, he will have much stronger influence in the more important upcoming political war: the issue of succession of the Supreme Leader.

In order to be well prepared for that war, forming a coalition that includes a wide range of Iran’s political spectrum is as indispensable as winning the election battle. That is why Rouhani has expanded his ties with the more moderate conservatives, while reformists have remained in his camp. During electoral campaigns, the conservative Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, criticized conservative candidates Baqer Qalibaf and Ebrahim Raeisi for promising to increase the amount of cash subsidies and urged that such plans not be ratified by Parliament.. Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri, another prominent conservative figure, has endorsed Rouhani for the second term. Not surprisingly, Mojtaba Zolnoor, Khamenei’s former adviser in the IRGC, castigated these conservative figures and wished they had stayed reticent on the election.

There are many uncertainties about the day of destiny in Iranian politics, the day after the decease of the Supreme Leader, when the Assembly of Experts elects Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor. Having the upper hand in domestic political institutions will be vital for all groups seeking to shape that decision. Rouhani, evidently, is preparing himself for that day by expanding his coalition. Winning battles such as the forthcoming election and filling the power vacuum created by Rafsanjani’s death are vital steps  towards that goal. Iran does not have a long history of presidents; the position has only existed since the 1979 revolution, but there are still important lessons to be drawn from that history. Among all six previous presidents, one fled, one was assassinated, and three were marginalized by the regime. Only one of whom became the leader of the Islamic Republic. That may be the scenario Mr. Rouhani wishes for; however, he should be prepared for the worst as well.


Arash Pourebrahimi is a PhD candidate at Leiden University in political economy and research and project assistant at Syracuse University Iran Data Portal. He was a visiting fellow at Harvard University in 2015-2016 academic year.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Pourebrahimi, Arash.Rouhani's War.” Iran Matters, May 9, 2017,

The Author

arash pourebrahimi