The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested Ali Ahmadnia and Ali Heydar Valizadeh in mid-March. The two managed channels on Telegram, a popular messaging app, where the politics and tensions leading up to Iran’s May 19 presidential election have played out. Most of the arrests have been of online activists and journalists who support current President Hassan Rouhani. The increased suppression of his supporters may be a sign from Iran’s conservative bloc to Rouhani to tread lightly in his re-election bid, where he may be disqualified from running.
Telegram is currently the most popular messaging app in Iran and a major site of political discussion and news. It is Iran’s own virtual polis, though with only slight safeguards against the country’s rigid speech laws. Due to its ease of access compared to firewalled sites like Twitter and Facebook, Telegram allows users—20 million strong in Iran, according to the LA Times—to join channels of interest, which are similar to public chat groups and online forums. Telegram’s focus on privacy and anti-censorship allowed a surge of political channels, where Iranians can openly engage in political discussions.
Rouhani, whose 2013 campaign slogan was “moderation and prudence,” promised a safer environment for journalists and a citizen’s rights charter. In the months following his election, multiple news sources reported journalists in Iran feeling safer than they did under Ahmadinejad. One Iranian journalist interviewed by the Guardian said, “The police-state atmosphere is gone. Today, you can actually criticize politicians.” Over the past three and a half years, Rouhani criticized journalists’ arrests. IRAN Daily reported that he called arrests by hardliners “baseless” in a November cabinet meeting.Yet, his objections did not curb journalist and activist arrests, partly due to the strength of the IRGC, a branch of the armed forces that protects Iran’s Islamic system of government, and the power of the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He appoints the leaders of the IRGC, which in turn steers policy and daily life in Iran.
In December 2016, Rouhani texted Iranians to check out his Citizen’s Rights Charter. The charter fulfilled a campaign promise, but holds no real legal standing. Al-Monitor cites speculation that the timing of its publishing, only months before the election, is political posturing.
Many are dissatisfied with Rouhani’s failure to mitigate Iran’s economic downturn and doubt that Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal will persist now that Donald Trump is President of the United States. Such doubts signal a shaky road to re-election for Rouhani. What happens in the election will affect the direction of Iran’s shifting politics, which led moderates and reformists to win 42 percent of the seats in the 2016 parliamentary elections. A conservative, isolationist president will have heavy implications for the crisis in Syria, the fight against ISIS, and US-Russia-Iran relations.
Unsurprisingly, the charter’s release coincided with new restrictions and surveillance on Telegram. In December, Iran’s internet police—the Supreme Council of Cyberspace—caught onto Telegram’s subterranean use as a platform for political expression and implemented surveillance methods.
Under the new guidelines, channels with over 5,000 members have to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance by February 2017. The application requires that channels include a government bot as a co-administrator. The conservative Tasnim News Agency reported in January that 700 permits had been issued. Many users have left since the institution of government surveillance.
Following the arrests of Ahmadnia and Valizadeh over management of Telegram channels, a number of journalists were also arrested. One of them, Hengameh Shahidi, a former advisor on women’s issues at the National Trust Party, is currently serving a six-year sentence. She has relayed letters and statements on Instagram through family and friends. Last Friday, an Instagram post announced that “at the urging and begging of her mother, [Shahidi] accepted to break her dry hunger strike, but will continue a wet hunger strike.”
It is difficult to know what Rouhani would do about the detainees if he had more power than Khamenei; he is a long-standing member of the Islamic Republic and was categorized as a hardliner by moderate and conservative news outlets until he began vying for moderate support ahead of the 2013 election. However, his vocal objections to journalists’ arrests raises concerns over the extent to which the two leaders agree on social issues.
What may decide the election, though, is the economy.
In their respective New Year’s speeches on March 20, Khamenei and Rouhani evoked competing ideas about Iran’s economy. Khamenei noted Iran’s decreasing inflation and economic growth but focused more than half of his speech on the “many problems” that remain. Rouhani lauded the positive trends, eliding problems like high unemployment. New Year’s speeches by the supreme leader and president in Iran carry weight similar to the State of the Union in the US and can reveal much in an election year, which is why hardline publications continue to quote Khamenei’s speech in their criticisms of Rouhani.
Rouhani’s claims of economic growth are not unfounded. In an assessment of the economy over the past three years, Bijan Khajepour, a managing partner of a group of strategic consulting firms in Tehran, wrote in Al-Monitor: “Inflation, which hovered around 40 percent in 2013, came down to 7.5 percent in 2016,” while economic growth rose 12.8 percent in the same period. Khajepour credits the overall improvement of economic conditions to “a more technocratic approach to economic management” and Rouhani’s economic policies; in Iran, one of the major roles of the president that distinguishes him from the Supreme Leader is economic management. A February International Monetary Fund report on its 2016 consultation with Iran praised an “impressive recovery” of the economy, citing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the nuclear deal.
The moderate-reformist coalition announced it would only support Rouhani as a candidate. Rouhani’s main challenger may be able to use his economic skills to improve his chances of winning. Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative coalition’s preferred candidate this year, is the head of Astan-e Quds Razavi, Iran’s wealthiest and most prominent charitable organization. (The taxonomy used to describe Iranian politicians of moderate, reformist, hardliner, pragmatic, and principlists must be conceived of in the context of Iran’s history; the categories change and are relative to each other.) As the sole trustee, Raisi directs the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashad, which is the core of Shi’ism in Iran. Khomeini appointed Raisi to the position after the death of Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi. The Hoover Institution reported that the foundation is worth about $15 billion, with business enterprises in healthcare, agriculture, and construction.
Fars News reported a recent trip to a poor village outside of Mashad that showed Raisi walking through unpaved streets and cramped homes. His organization’s social welfare projects paint a picture of a benevolent cleric turned savvy businessman. An established politician, Raisi has served in high judicial positions, most recently as a member of the Assembly of Experts. In the post-revolution period, Raisi served as one of four judges who ordered the mass executions of leftists and dissidents.
Raisi’s announcement raised eyebrows, since many political insiders assume Raisi is on the short list to succeed Khamenei when he dies. The death of the former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani in January renewed the buzz around succession, and many point to Raisi as the one with the leader’s favor and the highest chances of taking over his office. A term as president could give him the executive experience he lacks to make him a stronger candidate for Supreme Leader, compared to other rumored possibilities like Rouhani and Ayatollahs Hashemi Shahroudi and Sadeq Larijani.
Apart from Rouhani and Raisi, it is unclear who will run for president. Registration for candidates began this Tuesday and will continue until Saturday April 15. The final list of candidates will be announced by April 27. In the two weeks leading up to the list’s reveal, the Guardian Council will vet all candidates, disqualify many, and compile a final list. Typically, the council does not release its justifications for disqualifications, but it does address the candidates themselves and hear possible objections. None of these meetings and communications are public. This year, the council will address objections on April 21.
The Guardian Council is the central electoral authority in Iran. It also functions as the constitutional court and wields legislative veto over all legislation passed by Majlis, Iran’s parliament. It is comprised of twelve members for six-year terms, six Islamic Faqihs chosen by the supreme leader as experts on Islamic law and six jurists selected by Majlis. The jurists are confirmed by Majlis from a shortlist of nominations promulgated by the Chief Justice, a position selected by the Supreme Leader.
The Popular Front Revolutionary forces, commonly referred to as the conservative coalition or by the acronym JAMNA, held a summit last week where Raisi received the greatest number of votes. The coalition has announced that it plans to narrow its list of candidates from 14 to 5, and ultimately support one of these after the vetting process. Entekhab, a moderate Iranian newspaper, reported that Saeed Jalili and other conservative hopefuls seem unwilling to withdraw for the sake of one candidate since they are likely to make the top five. Current mayor of Tehran and two-time conservative presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf withdrew last week, but Asr-e Iran reported that a former member of parliament close to the mayor believes his decision is not final. Entekhab reported Ghalibaf may have stepped aside in order to seek the vice presidency under Raisi.
Two-term Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered as a candidate on Tuesday. Khamenei told Ahmadinejad in a publicized meeting last year to stay out of the race. The BBC reports Ahmadinejad told reporters at the Interior Ministry—where he registered—that the Supreme Leader’s words were “advice.” More than 100 people registered on the first day according to international and local media, and hundreds more are likely to register by Friday.
The absence of women in this election and in this article is glaring. The Guardian Council summarily disqualifies women from presidential races, as well as elections to the Assembly of Experts. BBC Persian reported in 2004 that the Guardian Council interprets the constitutional requirements to run in Article 115 to be limited to men. BBC reported that six women registered to run on Tuesday for this election. The Guardian Council’s position is not predicted to change for this election.
If JAMNA and the moderate-reformist bloc choose only one candidate each, the election may be a race between Rouhani and Raisi. Although disgruntled conservative candidates have started to defy their camps and register, the longevity of their candidacies may be short because of possible political retaliation and the modest nature of the electoral process.
Unlike US presidential campaigns, which can overwhelm the media and public discussion for more than a year, the Iranian presidential elections allocate a three-and-a-half-week window to campaign after vetting. Nonetheless, public appearances, deliberations between Iran’s political parties, and statements of support from Khamenei take place long before the firm May 17 end to campaigning.
The election will inevitably affect international relations, as Iran is a major supporter of the Assad regime in Syria and the war in Yemen; economically, the country is a potential market for Europe and East Asia now that its economy has been opened by the nuclear deal.
Rouhani’s March 27-28 trip to Moscow was his final state-sponsored visit before the election season commences. Domestically, Rouhani’s visit shows he wants to continue expanding Iran’s relations with western countries. The current US administration is hostile to Iran. The détente ushered by the enduring diplomacy of Rouhani, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, former President Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State John Kerry has been swapped for illegal immigration bans on citizens from countries with majority Muslim populations, including Iran. The potential for expanded trade with Russia additionally conveys that Rouhani can seek Western trade beyond the US.
The multilateral status of the nuclear deal is holding strong as a safety net against US obstruction. Europe’s chief negotiator of the deal, Federica Mogherini, wrote in the Guardian, “There should be no doubt that the EU stands firmly by the deal, which is a multilateral endeavour.” Mogherini reported that for the first three quarters of last year, trade between Iran and the European Union increased by 63 percent.
Iranians will soon elect their new president—from whomever makes the approved list—but until then, daily challenges persist. There is increased concern over imposed reduction in Internet speeds and blockages of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The surge of recent arrests of social media moderators, online activists, and journalists is disturbing. If Rouhani loses the favor of Khamenei, Iranians may suffer from increased crackdowns.
Yet, you can count on Iranians to vote. Al-Jazeera reports that turnout for the previous presidential elections was an estimated 73 percent. That’s higher than 2012 voter turnouts in the Netherlands and France according to the Pew Research Center, and much higher than the US’ 58 percent according to statistics collected by the US Elections Project. With the next president likely to play a major role in appointing the next supreme leader, this election will decide Iran’s future for the next half century.
GOLNOOSH ASGHARI B’17 is relieved the Iran elections are only 3 weeks long.