Can Rouhani Pull Off a Win in Iran?
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Can Rouhani Pull Off a Win in Iran?
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Authors' note: As always, given the difficulties of surveying people in Iran, especially from afar, the results of the surveys cited should be interpreted with caution.  

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Despite a recent IranPoll survey that has led some observers to question the chances of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election, he is likely to prevail in Iran's May 19 election, a contest that is shaping up to be one of the most important elections in the history of the Islamic Republic. We believe Rouhani is poised to win because of his favorable economic program, openness to Iran's civil society, relationships with the United States and other international partners, and his current political position compared to the alternative candidates. 

The Contenders

Three front-runners have emerged in Iran's presidential election: Hassan Rouhani, Ebrahimi Raisi, and Mohammad Ghalibaf. Rouhani is the incumbent president who helped to negotiate the nuclear deal. He is a cleric who represents the moderate or reform wing of Iranian politics. Raisi and Ghalibaf represent the hard-line or conservative faction of Iranian politics. Raisi is a conservative cleric, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the custodian of both the wealthiest charitable foundation in Iran and the Muslim world, Astan Quds Razavi, and the Imam Reza shrine. Ghalibaf is the mayor of Tehran, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, and the former head of the Iranian police. 

Rouhani Is the Only One with an Economic Plan beyond Handouts 

Rouhani’s challengers have attacked him on the economic front, most recently in televised debates. This is not accidental: Economic issues are by far the top concern among Iranian voters, and survey results have shown that Iranians are disappointed with Rouhani’s ability to turn the economy around after signing the nuclear deal. 

But Iranians do not solely blame Rouhani for the economic situation. A December 2016 CISSM survey showed that while the Iranian public believes Rouhani has been unsuccessful in resolving the country’s economic problems, they tend to blame the United States for withholding the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement from Iran. (Fifty-one percent hold this view.) Another combined one-third suspect that these economic benefits are being preferentially distributed to Iranians with “special connections” (21 percent) or to pay for Iranian military expenses and the support of foreign allies (15 percent).  

Further, Raisi and Ghalibaf have not proposed a persuasive alternative to the economic plan that Rouhani has linked to the nuclear agreement. Both belong to Iran's conservative hard-liner political wing, and the last conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left office with a dubious achievement of 40 percent inflation at the end of his tenure. His economic program included cash handouts as part of his subsidy reform plan in 2010, and many educated Iranians are fearful that these hard-line candidates will repeat Ahmadinejad’s economic mistakes. In fact, both Ghalibaf and Raisi have pledged to double or triple cash handouts if elected, a proposal that even the conservative Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani has strongly criticized

Raisi and Ghalibaf Have Poor Records Protecting Civil Liberties

The 2016 CISSM survey found that 66 percent of Iranians thought that expanding civil liberties was important. Rouhani has a platform that includes expanding social and political freedoms, but his achievements in this area are mixed.

Rouhani’s opposing hardline candidates both have decidedly more blotted reputations. In 1988, Raisi was involved in a mass execution of political prisoners that is considered one of the most tragic events in the history of the Islamic Republic. And Ghalibaf is no ray of sunshine in this regard either: He took over as chief of police after the 1999 student protests in Tehran. He arrested Iranian intellectuals and enforced moral policing, often by brutal means.

In rating the candidates, the IranPoll shows that the public is far more likely to say that Rouhani would be most effective in increasing civil liberties (52 percent vs. 20 percent for Ghalibaf and 6 percent for Raisi).

Relationship with an Unpredictable U.S. President

Of course, one must always consider the Trump factor. The CISSM survey showed that at the end of 2016, a majority of Iranians supported the nuclear deal, championed by Rouhani -- though that number had declined since August 2015, from 76 percent to 55 percent. Iranians would most likely view a hardliner as more willing to undermine the nuclear deal and escalate tensions with the unpredictable U.S. president.

In the public’s eye, Rouhani clearly outshines other candidates as de facto guardian of the international agreement and relations with the West. The polls show he is seen as far more capable than his challengers both to improve Iran’s foreign relations (55 percent for Rouhani, 22 percent Ghalibaf, and 6 percent Raisi) and to remove international sanctions (48 percent Rouhani, 21 percent Ghalibaf, 7 percent Raisi).

The Political Math Checks Out

Politically speaking, Rouhani, as a moderate, is best poised to win a sizable coalition compared to the conservatives Raisi and Ghalibaf. A majority of Iranians express a favorable view of Rouhani (62 percent) and Ghalibaf (67 percent), while only a third of Iranians view Raisi favorably (32 percent), with 46 percent saying they don’t know him. Rouhani’s win in 2013 was a surprise landslide in the first round, but disappointment with his economic and social achievements and a low turnout might necessitate a second round. Nevertheless, the political alignment of the Iranian public should boost his chances.

According to polling released last month by the Iranian Studies Polling Agency, 28 percent of the Iranian public describe themselves as reformists, versus only 15 percent who consider themselves hard-liners or “principalists.” Another 30 percent do not affiliate with either faction, and 25 percent decline to give a response or don’t know, which means a combined 55 percent of the voters could be swayed toward either the hard-line or moderate camp.

If both Ghalibaf and Raisi stay in the race, the already small hard-line base will split their votes among both candidates in the first round, possibly giving Rouhani an easy lead. Further splitting the hard-liners, Rouhani’s clerical credentials could help win over some conservative-leaning voters.

Some observers expect that Ghalibaf will drop out of the election before the May 19 vote to boost support for Raisi. Ghalibaf has lost twice in previous elections, first to Ahmadinejad in 2005 and then to Rouhani in 2013. It's worth noting that Rouhani beat Ghalibaf by a 34.4 percent margin in 2013. 

There Is More at Stake 

To be sure, anything can happen on or before May 19. For example, after a recent coal mine blast which killed 42 workers, miners attacked Rouhani’s car when he visited the site. The incident was covered on Iranian television and could have had some impact in Rouhani’s support. 

Still, the stars seem to point to a second term. Rouhani's economic program, the public's confidence in his openness to civil liberties, his international relationships, and his position on Iran's political spectrum favor Rouhani over his hard-line opponents. But there is even more at stake. 

Besides choosing a president, voters on May 19 will signal to the world what kind of supreme leader they want. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 77 and in failing health. The next supreme leader of Iran could well be elected in the next four years, and the Iranian president is one of three key figures that will join a provisional council to take over Khamenei’s duties after his death. If voters support moderate policies, Rouhani’s re-election would place moderates in a positive lobbying position to affect the election of Iran's next supreme leader, making this one of the most important elections in the history of the Islamic Republic.