Two years after a fashionable rebellion ended two millennia of dynastic rule in Iran, the revolutionary chief Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini scolded the nation’s squabbling politicians for “biting one another like scorpions.” Four many years later, on the eve of a Presidential election, on Friday, Iranian politics are not any much less contentious. At the primary of three marketing campaign debates, the previous Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei vowed that his first act, if elected, could be to cost the main centrist candidate, Abdolnaser Hemmati, who was seated a few feet away, with betraying the revolution. “If I become President, I will ban Hemmati and a number of other officials of the Rouhani government from leaving the country, and I will prove in court which treacherous roles they played,” he said, throughout a three-hour televised debate with six different candidates. Rezaei, who’s making his fourth run for President, has been popularly mocked as “General Botox,” owing to the current transformation of his face. The environment was so fraught that Hemmati, a former Central Bank chief who holds a black belt in karate, made an attraction to a third candidate, the judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. “Mr. Raisi, can you give me assurances that no legal action will be taken against me after this event?” It was laborious to inform whether or not Hemmati was joking or critical—or each.
The election marks the political finish for President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who received two landslide elections in 2013 and 2017, and who can’t run once more due to time period limits. It can also mark the tip, for the foreseeable future, of a reform motion that had struggled to ease inflexible restrictions at house and open Iran to the world. Rouhani had dared to run on a platform of participating with the United States. During his first time period, his workforce negotiated a nuclear deal with the world’s six main powers. But, throughout his second time period, President Trump’s determination to abandon the deal—and impose greater than a thousand new sanctions on Iran—doomed Rouhani and his political ilk. His recognition plummeted. Last 12 months, hard-liners swept parliamentary elections, albeit with the lowest turnout for the reason that 1979 revolution.
Last month, virtually 600 Iranians, together with forty ladies, registered to run for President. Only seven have been approved by the conservative, twelve-man Guardian Council; even regime loyalists have been shocked. It rejected a former President, a present Vice-President, a long-serving former speaker of parliament, and the present mayor of Tehran. Five of the seven candidates accepted have been hard-liners deeply hostile to the West. “Goodbye reforms?” headlined one Tehran newspaper.
Raisi—the judiciary chief who got here in second within the 2017 election, and who has led in polls of seemingly voters for this election—was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2019. It cited his involvement within the so-called Death Commission, which ordered extrajudicial executions of 1000’s of political prisoners in 1988, and his senior positions, since then, in a judicial system that executes minors. “Raisi is a pillar of a system that jails, tortures, and kills people for daring to criticize state policies,” Hadi Ghaemi, the chief director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said earlier than the primary Presidential debate. “Instead of running for president, he should be tried.” Last 12 months, the U.S. additionally sanctioned Rezaei, noting his suspected involvement in a 1994 terrorist assault on a Jewish neighborhood heart in Argentina that killed eighty-five folks; Interpol nonetheless has an lively warrant out for his arrest. “I am proud to be sanctioned by America,” Rezaei replied.
Hemmati, a centrist backed by many reformists, might pull off an upset if the turnout is excessive, Iranian and overseas analysts advised me. He was gaining within the remaining week of the marketing campaign. All three Presidents since 1997 have been darkish horses who beat the candidates anticipated to win. To energize reasonable voters, Hemmati announced on Wednesday that he would preserve the present overseas minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the negotiations within the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in his submit or make him a Vice-President. In one other increase for Hemmati, the one different reformist candidate, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, withdrew from the race on Wednesday. Yet, over the previous two years, the general public temper has soured on the nation’s élite, analysts say. Apathy runs deep, polls present. “There’s confusion about how to deal with the massive candidate suppression,” Hadi Semati, a former professor at Tehran University, advised me. “People are exhausted, but they haven’t given up completely. There’s a sense of bewilderment about whether to vote or how to vote.” The marketing campaign can also be solely three weeks lengthy—one of many shortest on the earth.
Friday’s vote is about way over the Presidency. The timing intersects with three pivots that might form Iranian politics for many years. The first is the succession to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who’s now eighty-two; he has been Iran’s final energy for greater than three many years. He had been President earlier than he grew to become Supreme Leader, the one precedent for a switch of energy. Iranians know that they could be voting for a man—and, within the case of Raisi, the one cleric—who may very well be Khamenei’s successor, and in energy for longer than 4 or eight years.
The second driver is a generational shift. Forty-two years after the Revolution, the vast majority of the early revolutionaries are senior residents—or useless. The majority of Iran’s eighty-five million folks (and voters) have been born after 1979. For many years, Iranian politics have been divided amongst hard-line and reformist factions; every had its personal inner divisions. (One of my favourite Iranian jokes is “Wherever there are five Iranians, there are six parties.”) Hard-line factions might often rely on as much as a quarter of voters; centrists and reformists often rallied roughly as a lot. The center forty to fifty per cent determined the result of elections.
But the subsequent era of Iranians is extra numerous and never so neatly categorized. The new guard can also be desirous to push out the previous guard, Semati mentioned. Younger conservatives are sometimes extra hard-line and extra ideological than their elders, partly as a result of they didn’t expertise the hardships that got here within the wake of the Revolution and the eight-year struggle with Iraq, which pressured pragmatic compromises. Many younger centrists and reformists have been depoliticized. The motion has failed to provide, politically or economically, and it now lacks coherence and a post-Rouhani chief. “Mobilizing them is harder than ever,” Semati mentioned.
The third driver is the rising dysfunction of Iran’s hybrid political system. The Islamic Republic uniquely blends the Western ideas of a republic (borrowing closely from the Napoleonic Code) with Islamic regulation. Almost each dispute over home and overseas coverage has, at its core, mirrored the inner tensions over whether or not revolutionary Iran is initially a republic, the place man’s regulation and the general public’s electoral selections are supreme, or whether or not it’s an Islamic state, the place God’s regulation and the clergy have the ultimate phrase. Since 1989, when a constitutional modification launched an govt Presidency, the President—whether or not hard-line or reformist—has been at odds with the Supreme Leader on how a lot management the elected authorities actually has. Two former Presidential candidates—the previous Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the previous speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi—are nonetheless beneath house arrest, a decade after supporting the 2009 Green Movement’s mass protests towards alleged election fraud. This 12 months, the listing of accepted candidates displays a clear try by conservatives to direct the way forward for the nation at an epic juncture on this debate.
Iran can also be notoriously corrupt. It was dangerous beneath the monarchy; it’s hideous beneath the theocracy. In 2019, Rouhani’s brother was sentenced to 5 years for corruption and bribery. Raisi initially resonated with voters as a result of he has championed—at the very least rhetorically—a crackdown on corruption ever for the reason that Supreme Leader appointed him to be Iran’s chief justice, in 2019.
Given Iran’s myriad challenges, Khamenei could also be attempting to affect greater than the succession, Ali Vaez, the Iran challenge director for the International Crisis Group, advised me. The Supreme Leader is keen to danger the legitimacy of the election—which might be mirrored in a massive turnout—with the intention to consolidate monolithic management by hard-line politicians loyal to inflexible revolutionary ideas. “He is doing this because he wants a pliant President and a pliant parliament to bring reforms that insure a pliant system that will minimize resistance to transformational changes and protect his legacy,” Vaez mentioned. Khamenei hopes to orchestrate a political overhaul that might successfully take away the republican aspects from Iran’s political system. His targets might embrace weakening, doubtlessly even eliminating, the Presidency by returning to a parliamentary system, which was used in the course of the first post-Revolution decade. The President was then solely a titular place unable to problem the Supreme Leader. “After three decades as Supreme Leader, Khamenei understands that the system is dysfunctional,” Vaez mentioned. “The Supreme Leader cares more about outcome than turnout because he is laying the groundwork for structural changes in the Islamic Republic.”
Barring a shock upset by Hemmati, or a runoff election if not one of the candidates will get over half the votes, Iranian politics are transferring to a single-party system dominated by conservatives, Semati mentioned. In a bid to spice up Raisi, the hard-line lawmaker Alireza Zakani and Saeed Jalili, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, withdrew from the race on Wednesday. More than 2 hundred members of parliament additionally issued an appeal calling for different hard-line candidates to tug out, too. Yet creating a monolithic political bloc that endures indefinitely might be as troublesome because it was previously. The early revolutionaries splintered into dozens of factions, forcing Khomeini to dissolve the one Islamic Republican Party, in 1987. “Iran can’t be run by a single party,” Semati mentioned. “They would love to do it, but Iranian political culture is more developed than anywhere else in the region. It’s not easy for any party to dominate.” The scorpion analogy nonetheless holds.