Aiming to sideline ‘reformists’

Tehran’s conservative factions are trying every trick in the book to oust Hassan Rouhani. Yassamine Mather reports on the build-up to the May 19 presidential elections

Ebrahim Raisi: presidential hopeful

Since the election of Donald Trump the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown restraint in responding to the new administration’s threats of more direct intervention and the imposition of new sanctions. Although the religious state’s supreme leader does his best to convey confidence, claiming the regime is not worried by US threats, the very fact that he has not initiated any serious retaliations, including walking out of the nuclear deal with the 5+1 world powers, shows that even the more conservative factions of the Iranian regime are concerned and do not want to upset an unpredictable president in the White House.

That is why, until last week many Iranians had assumed that, despite failing to improve the economic and political situation in the country, in next month’s presidential elections Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s current president, will face such weak rivals that his re-election could be taken for granted. In an unprecedented move the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had publicly discouraged former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from standing for what would have been his third period as Iran’s president.

Whether it was coincidence or a response to the bombing of the Syrian air base, all this changed last week. On April 6, news came through that rightwing cleric Ebrahim Raisi had asked the supreme leader whether he would be forbidden from standing in the presidential elections, ayatollah Khamenei’s response was negative. Soon afterwards, one the main conservative religious coalition groups, the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces, issued a statement naming Raisi as a contender, declaring: “The first step for change is to form a powerful and aware administration for serving people and fighting discrimination, poverty and corruption.”

By April 9, Raisi had confirmed his candidacy and came out with clear criticisms of the current administration, including the policy of pursuing a deal with the 5+1. He said:

People are asking why despite all our resources and human talents ... our country is in this situation. The key solution to our problems is fundamental change in the executive management of the country by the will of the people, and the formation of a competent and knowledgeable government that works day and night to bring back the dignity of the people and fights poverty and corruption.

Raisi had been groomed to be a candidate for the position of supreme leader (there are persistent rumours that Khamenei is in poor health, so the issue of his succession is now very pertinent). So why the demotion and the declaration of his candidacy for a more junior position?

Iranians have been debating these questions over the last few days and, while some believe he was never going to be a serious contender for supreme leader, others say that becoming president will prepare him for the top job. There are also those who think that senior clerics want to assess his popularity, or lack of it, while some contend that he could only be a temporary supreme leader - after all, that position is surely reserved for Khamenei’s son, the super-rich and super-corrupt Mojtaba Khamenei.

Whatever one thinks of Raisi’s future, he already holds a very powerful position as the head of a multibillion-dollar religious foundation that manages donations to Iran’s holiest Shi’ite shrine city of Mashhad. As a deluded cleric who constantly talks of moral purity (last year he was instrumental in banning a number of musical concerts in Mashhad), he certainly has some of the qualities needed to become president or indeed supreme leader - not least duplicity and pretence. Every year around 345,000 foreign tourists visit the city, and, according to Iran’s statistical office, on average each pilgrim spends around $1,500 - or $517 million in total.

However, it is well known that Iraqi men who come to Mashhad are also customers of the city’s sizeable population of sex workers. Officials turn a blind eye, as prostitution falls under the sigheh laws, which permit men to engage in ‘temporary marriage’ (sometimes lasting less than an hour). An aids charity worker told me recently that the number of drug addicts and Aids sufferers is considerably higher in Mashhad than any other Iranian city. Yet, as I say, here the religious authorities ban concerts of classical Iranian music because, in the words of ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, who leads Friday prayers in Mashhad, they “break the sanctity” of the holy city. Now Iranians can look forward to a Raisi presidency where, in true Shia tradition, the kind of duplicity with which he has ruled Khorassan province will be extended to the rest of the country. Ironically, when Raisi announced his candidacy, he claimed that he would not use the considerable religious and financial vantages of his current position to boost his electoral chances - a claim few Iranians believe.

In fact, he is only one of five conservative candidates. The others include the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Ghalibaf, who stands accused of some culpability for the big fire that destroyed a major building in central Tehran, costing the lives of 75 people, including 25 firefighters, There are also rumours that Ahmadinejad’s controversial brother-in-law, Iranian supremacist Esfandiar Mashayei, will be standing, and, interestingly, in defiance of the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad himself submitted his own nomination papers on April 12.

After the deadline of April 15, the Council of Guardians will vet the list of candidates - only those it considers suitable are allowed to stand. The council, which is one of the Shia state’s most influential organs, is currently dominated by conservatives.

In the last few months the ‘reformist’ factions of the Islamic regime have lost a number of senior allies, including in the Council of Guardians. Four years ago, when Rouhani was elected, he benefited from the support of a number of senior ayatollahs, three of whom are no longer alive. Given the rather vocal animosity between Khamenei and Rouhani over the last few months, there are those who believe the council might even consider disqualifying Rouhani from standing for a second term, leaving the space clear for one of the conservative candidates.

However, the supreme leader and his allies have learned from the demonstrations and protests that followed the presidential elections of 2009 and are unlikely to tempt fate again by barring Rouhani. Instead they will rely on the fact that he has failed to deliver most of the electoral promises he made in 2013 - conservative politicians are making a lot of that in the current Twitter war with the ‘reformist’ camp. Added to that, there are those among the ‘reformists’ who blame Rouhani for failing to obtain the release of leaders such as Mir-Hossain Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and continuing the ban preventing former president Mohammad Khatami from making public appearances.

Iraq and Syria

It is in this tumultuous political context that the US air raid in Syria, together with Iraq’s distancing itself from Iran and attempted realignment with the US, has added to the conflict between factions of the Iranian regime. The arguments are no longer just about the nuclear deal - Iran’s role in the region, its relationship with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the Shia government in Iraq, not forgetting the alliance with Hezbollah, are all being debated.

During a recent visit to the United States of the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, Donald Trump used the occasion to air his well known opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and he made it very clear that continued support for Iraq in its attempts to “fight terrorism” depends on how far the Shia government distances itself from Iran. The Trump administration wants to bring Baghdad closer to Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to reduce Iran’s influence in the region - last month it facilitated meetings between al-Abadi and Saudi ministers and royals, and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman met the Iraqi premier in March.

However, the Iraqi government faces strong opposition in relation to these new policies: Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, head of the League of the Righteous, a faction within the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), recently said:

The US aims to strengthen its influence in the areas west of Iraq and east of Syria and to start the partition project … there is a dangerous conspiracy against the PMU, but we will not allow any attempt to dissolve or undermine our organisations.

Al-Abadi faces local elections this year and a general election next year and he is unlikely to emerge victorious without Iran’s help. Furthermore his new-found allies in Washington will not improve his chances of re-election, at a time when his government is accused by all political groups - Shia, Sunni and secular - of corruption and incompetence.

In this context one can understand this week’s statement by militia leader and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who became one of the first, but by no means the only, voice from within the Shia political and religious leadership in Iraq to call on Assad to quit. Al-Sadr would consider it “fair” for the president to resign, to “allow the dear people of Syria to avoid the scourge of war and terrorist oppression”. He added that both Washington and Moscow “should stop intervening in the conflict”.

This is significant because a number of Iraqi Shia militias - some of them directly supported by Iran - have fighters in Syria helping Assad’s efforts to stay in power. Al-Sadr’s statement was interpreted as a reflection of growing opinion among sections of the Shia clergy that it is time to stop defending Assad. Back in Tehran, on April 10 Rouhani condemned what he called “US aggression” in Syrian territory, but added: “We also believe that certain reforms are necessary to take place in Syria. We recommend elections, polls and democracy in Syria, as everywhere else in the world.” A true champion of democracy!

Clearly in an election year, and given the threat of further sanctions and military strikes, Iran’s Shia leaders are unlikely to go out of their way to save Assad, who is in any case too secular for their taste. The Syrian dictator’s best hope is that the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon can convince Tehran that Iran’s regional strategic interests lie in supporting a unified Syrian state, be it under a different leader