The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran’s president faces a tough fight for reelection

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

It may be a busy election cycle in Europe, with attention focused on upcoming parliamentary votes in France, Britain and Germany. But don't forget about Iran. On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to elect their next president. Current President Hassan Rouhani is the front-runner, but his victory is far from guaranteed.

Of course, there is a justified tendency to view any election in Iran with skepticism. In the Islamic republic's theocratic system, the presidency is just one pillar of executive power. The six presidential candidates were allowed on the ballot only after being vetted by the country's Guardian Council, a body of 12 powerful theologians and jurists. And it is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately calls the shots.

Nevertheless, the election campaign in Iran is exposing curious divisions. In televised debates, Rouhani has sparred with his more hard-line rivals, deeming them “extremists.” He has accused Iran's influential Revolutionary Guard Corps of attempting to sabotage the 2015 nuclear deal signed with world powers. And, at his rallies, Rouhani's supporters have chanted for the release of the country's two most prominent reformist leaders, who remain under house arrest.

It is a mark of the strangeness of Iran's politics that the sitting president can still seem to be a figure of the opposition.

Rouhani, a former cleric who is hardly a reformist himself, surged to power in 2013 with the support of voters eager for a moderate leader who could lead Iran away from the legacy of his firebrand predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani sought to bring Iran out from its deepening isolation with the nuclear deal, which imposed strict curbs on the country's nuclear capabilities in return for an easing of sanctions. But sluggish economic growth has cooled enthusiasm for his government.

“There's a good chance Rouhani might not be reelected, because a lot of people may not feel compelled to go vote,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at Rand Corp., speaking in Washington at a panel I moderated at the Middle East Institute this week.

“For the average person, the nuclear agreement has been a big disappointment,” he added. “In terms of economic benefits, the average person is not seeing a lot. Oil production is back to pre-sanctions levels, but that doesn't really create jobs.”

Rouhani's closest challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric who runs one of Iran's holiest shrines, has seized on widespread frustrations over an economy in recession. Not unlike Ahmadinejad in a previous era, Raisi has campaigned on a platform of populist nationalism — a “Make Iran Great Again” agenda, if you will — promising to triple handouts to the poor and create 1.5 million jobs while also taking a more confrontational stand against the West. Another hard-line candidate, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, said 5 million jobs would be created under his watch.

Rouhani's supporters insist that Raisi and Qalibaf are selling a false bag of goods. But there is no question that Rouhani has a real image problem.

“He has cornered himself as the 'elitist mullah' who cares about buying Airbus and Boeing planes but not [about providing] subsidies and handouts for the poor,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Rouhani needs to play that populist game. To get people out, he can't just talk about foreign policy — detente with the United States, reconsidering our position with Israel. That's all great for city folks, but out in the countryside, they want to know, 'How am I going to feed my family?'”

For Khamenei, the ailing, 78-year-old supreme leader, the election may have considerable consequences for his own succession planning. In the event of his death, the Iranian president would be part of a three-member council that would act in the supreme leader's place until a successor was appointed.

It is rumored that Raisi has the support of both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, an institution that maintains significant business interests within the country and is deeply invested in proxy wars elsewhere in the region, including in Syria. There are also suggestions that Raisi's campaign could be a trial run for the job of supreme leader itself, with a strong electoral showing here boosting his chances for the future. Rouhani has publicly criticized Raisi for his involvement, as then-public prosecutor of Tehran, in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

Meanwhile, it's hard to overstate the role of the Revolutionary Guard in the country's politics.

“The Guards have never been this powerful in the history of the Islamic Republic,” said Nazila Fathi, a former Tehran correspondent for the New York Times, who also spoke on the MEI panel. “In addition to political and economic ambitions, they also have regional ambitions: It's the Guards who are meddling in other parts of the Middle East.”

Their clout and influence make nearly impossible any dramatic pivot in foreign policy — particularly regarding Iran's arguably destabilizing actions in its neighborhood.

“I don't expect if Rouhani gets reelected you can see a different Iranian policy in Syria,” said Vatanka. “Or if the hard-liners win, that they're going to walk away from the nuclear deal” — a pact, after all, that had Khamenei's blessing.

Ultimately, the presidential election is about jockeying among factions within a complex regime. “You have these two camps competing for power, and this is key. It's about power, not ideas,” said Vatanka.

But Fathi argued that a Rouhani victory, especially if buoyed by a big turnout from Iran's youthful electorate, would still send a message: “That vote would constitute another rebuke to the rule of the conservatives, including the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.