- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2017

Iran’s most famous hard-liner, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is off the ballot — blocked by the ayatollahs who vet the Islamic republic’s acceptable candidates, but the country’s spirited presidential race is still shaping up to be a fierce battle over the nuclear deal with the Obama administration and its allies.

President Hassan Rouhani, a Shiite cleric considered a relative moderate on the Iranian political spectrum, is facing increasing pressure from hard-liners to show the payoff from the agreement struck with the U.S. and five global powers in 2015 to curb its nuclear programs in exchange for the lifting of harsh economic sanctions.

While reformist parties say the May 19 contest will be a sham because hundreds of moderates and all female candidates have been blackballed by Iran’s Guardian Council, the stakes are incredibly high for Mr. Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 vowing to counter the influence of the country’s religious and military hard-liners and ease Iran’s international isolation.

Regional analysts and U.S. officials say the 68-year-old sitting president, who fought for the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and spent much of his first four-year term pushing for a diplomatic and economic opening with the West, could lose his re-election bid to a relatively unknown conservative cleric named Ebrahim Raisi.

Mr. Raisi is a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is said to be dissatisfied with Mr. Rouhani’s handling of relations with the West and is eager to for him to be replaced by a more confrontational character capable of responding to the more assertive approach from Washington under President Trump.

The big question, analysts say, is whether Iranian voters will come out in force behind Mr. Raisi or his conservative rival, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, to deny Mr. Rouhani a second term.

Nuclear deal in the dock

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, said the answer will hinge on public opinion over the nuclear accord. Mr. Rouhani has touted the accord as the ticket that would pull Iran’s economy out of the doldrums. The Iranian press has been filled in recent months with stories of foreign trade missions and corporate chieftains coming to explore deals with local partners, hoping to tap a highly educated consumer market of nearly 80 million people.

Even a few American companies have tentatively tested the market, with Boeing in talks to sell Tehran 80 civilian jets — a deal in limbo as the Trump administration tries to determine its policies toward Iran.

But the results have yet to be felt for many ordinary Iranians.

The problem for Mr. Rouhani and the moderates is that “the population is now very, very disappointed in the outcome of the deal because they expected there would be a gold rush of foreign investment, and it hasn’t happened,” said Mr. Parsi. “What has happened is the opposite, with the fear of Trump and uncertainty over whether the U.S. will live up to the deal or level new sanctions to punish any banks trying to go into Iran.”

Feeding the uncertainty is the Trump administration’s public threat to impose new sanctions on grounds that the nuclear deal was defective and has only emboldened Iran to increase its support of terrorism, pursuit of ballistic missiles and meddling around the Middle East.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has begrudgingly acknowledged that Iran is in compliance with the technical terms of the nuclear deal. But it remains to be seen whether the administration will continue to waive key sanctions just as Iranian voters head to the polls in less than three weeks.

“If Trump doesn’t renew the waivers and essentially kills the deal, it’s going to be a huge embarrassment for Rouhani,” said Mr. Parsi. “It will make it difficult for him to win because he will be perceived to have committed the cardinal sin of trusting the Americans and then being screwed over by the Americans.”

Mr. Raisi, a well-connected cleric who was Iran’s attorney general from 2014 to 2016, has struck mostly populist economic themes on the stump but was hurt by a poorly received performance in the first of three live television debates held Friday, in which he failed to make much of an impact on the stage with the five other candidates. Analysts said Mr. Rouhani seemed to focus more of his attacks on Mr. Ghalibaf, who, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, is a former Tehran mayor dogged by ethics scandals but who also enjoys a fervent base of conservative supporters.

But there is also a danger that the moderates could split their votes because Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and former Vice President Mostafa Hashemitaba are appealing to the same bloc of centrist voters.

If no candidate wins at least 50 percent plus one vote of all ballots cast, including blank votes, Iranian election law calls for a runoff round between the top two candidates on the first Friday after the election result is declared.

Succession battle

U.S. media coverage of the election is limited, largely because of Tehran’s confrontational posture toward Western news organizations — a situation underscored by the case of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post correspondent released last year after 18 months of incarceration on espionage charges.

The blurred outside view is exacerbated by internal opacity around the election, according to one U.S. official, who lamented that the election process “is very closed.”

“The vetting mechanism allowing only a handful of candidates — six out of some 1,600 who registered will actually appear on the ballot — and also lends to the narrative that nothing in Iran happens without the supreme leader’s blessing,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think Rouhani would have become president in 2013 if the supreme leader decided it was unacceptable.”

Some argue that the election is a kind of show playing out against an even more momentous, behind-the-scenes battle over who will succeed the aging Ayatollah Khamenei, who replaced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the hero of the 1979 revolution, 28 years ago. The race to be the Islamic republic’s next spiritual leader could prove a much more consequential contest.

Ayatollah Khamenei has held an iron grip on the post since 1989, but he is now 77 and underwent prostate surgery in 2014. When he dies, a powerful committee of Shiite Islamic clerics known as the Assembly of Experts, which stands entirely apart from the elected part of the government, will choose the supreme leader’s successor.

One source closely familiar with Iran’s internal workings told The Times that “behind the scenes in Tehran, people are saying that if anything happens to Khamenei, the cleric who is president, whether it is Rouhani or Raisi, would have the best chance to be chosen by the Assembly of Experts to succeed the supreme leader, or at least heavily influence the process.”

“Both men are clerics themselves, and so both are religiously qualified,” said the source, who also spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The difference between the two leading candidates could not be more stark. Mr. Raisi, said to be the supreme leader’s personal favorite, would usher in a sharp rise in fortunes for the anti-Western hard-liners, who are pushing back against popular pressures for a more open approach to the rest of the world. A Rouhani win would provide a boost to the tentative efforts by moderates and reformers to open up the political process and expand the opening to the West.

But with Iran’s relations with its Sunni Muslim rivals across the region increasingly tense, many analysts say a major shift coming out of the May 19 vote is unlikely. Skeptics say the Assembly of Experts will find a way — regardless of who holds the Iranian presidency — to ensure that Ayatollah Khamenei’s confrontational foreign policy goals endure.

“The successor will be dedicated to the revolutionary agenda of Iran, which is about destabilizing the region,” said Ahmed Al Hamli, founder and president of Trends Research & Advisory, an Abu Dhabi-based think tank focused on Middle Eastern developments.

“When it comes to the Iranian system, while the constitution exists, the overall system is driven by the belief in a divine authority who controls all aspects of state, including who [Khamenei‘s] successor will be,” Mr. Al Hamli said in a recent interview.

“The next president of Iran is unlikely to have any decisive role to play if the view is less revolutionary than others,” said Richard Burchill, the head of research and engagement at Trends.

“We will spend a great deal of energy on guessing who the next supreme leader will be, but it is likely the matter has already been decided,” Mr. Burchill said. “In the current situation, the next supreme leader will need to be strongly against the West and Iran’s neighbors.”

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