(Amir Handjani is a Senior-Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic
Council and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.
The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Amir Handjani
May 18 On May 19, Iranians go to the polls to
either re-elect President Hassan Rouhani to a second term or
give one of his reactionary opponents a chance to govern, and in
doing so ride the populist wave that seems to have engulfed much
of the globe.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Iran is a radical
theocracy and its elections don’t matter because real power is
in the hands of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who answer only to him
and not to the elected branches of the Iranian government.
The truth is more complex: Elections in Iran are hugely
significant in shaping Tehran’s foreign and domestic policy.
Although they may be imperfect by Western standards, they are
the only means through which the Iranian people can voice their
support or criticism of unelected pillars of the deep state.
Look no further than the differences between President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served from 2005 to 2013, and Rouhani,
his successor. Ahmadinejad, who ran on a populist platform that
sought to redistribute wealth across Iranian society, had no
interest in curtailing Iran’s nuclear program and questioned
Israel’s right to exist. In style and substance, he was
different from the more moderate Rouhani, who is even-tempered
and sophisticated in his dealings with the West and managed to
get support from all factions of Iran’s elected and unelected
government in negotiating the nuclear deal.
Rouhani enjoys the backing of former President Mohammad
Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005. Khatami is the de facto
godfather of Iran’s Green Movement, the reformist camp that took
to the streets to protest the 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad.
In part because he favors more liberalization of Iran’s economy
and greater engagement with the West, Rouhani has broad support
among Iran’s youth, who want more civil liberties and less
government intrusion in their private lives. He also has the
support of those in the international community who would like
to see Iran prioritize negotiation, rather than confrontation,
with global powers.
Rouhani’s chief opponent is the conservative cleric Ebrahim
Raisi. Raisi is rumored to be the IRGC’s preferred choice for
supreme leader when Khamenei, 77, passes. While Iran’s supreme
leader does not explicitly endorse any candidate, it is clear
from Khamenei’s criticism of Rouhani’s foreign and domestic
policy that he prefers the president’s hardline rival. Last year
Khamenei appointed Raisi to lead Astan Quds Razavi, the most
powerful religious foundation in Iran. Raisi is also the
custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad, the most visited
and important holy site in Iran, and has strong base of support
among rural, religious, poor and hardline clerics.
Raisi hopes to follow in the footsteps of Khamenei, who
served two terms as Iran’s president before becoming supreme
leader. But if he loses the election by a wide margin, that path
is less likely, as his backers would struggle to justify his
ascension to absolute power when voters didn’t even want him to
Raisi has promised his supporters more cash handouts and a
redistribution of the country’s wealth. He has campaigned on
tackling corruption and confronting U.S. policies in the region,
which he believes undermine Iran’s security.
If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It is
the same platform that helped propel Ahmadinejad to victory in
2005. At the time, Iran was at a crossroads, as it is now. It
had two terms of Khatami, the reformist. Its economy was
beginning to rebound. Its relationship with its Arab neighbors
was improving and diplomatic engagement with the West,
particularly with Europe, was becoming the norm rather than the
exception. Domestically there was greater tolerance for
diverging points of view as a record number of newspapers had
In every respect, Iran took a giant step backward by the
time Ahmadinejad’s presidency ended. The country became isolated
internationally with sanctions that choked its already
struggling economy. The electorate was divided internally as
many Iranians viewed Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election as
illegitimate because of allegations of widespread voter fraud.
A win for Rouhani would be a win for moderation. It would
mean that Iran’s revolution is evolving in ways that could
satisfy its people, who want a government willing to meet their
everyday needs. It would also mean that the West has a
negotiating partner that wants to bring Iran back in from the
diplomatic cold and become a responsible member of the
international community. The world will be watching closely.
(By Amir Handjani)