Iran’s presidential election: the cynical moderate versus the representative of the deep state

Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rohani and the now presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at the funeral of the previous head of Imam Reza foundation in late January 2016. Picture by [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Since 1997, the results of Iran’s presidential elections have
followed two repetitive patterns: they have usually been determined
at the last possible moment, and have been a surprise compared to
early predictions and previous election norms. The current election
process has been no different. It has been marked by many surprises
and scandalized by taboo-breaking campaigns.

As the election day, Friday the 19th of May approaches,
the incumbent moderate president, Hassan Rohani is locked in a close
contest with his main challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, who has emerged as
the representative of Islamic Republic’s deep state. At the moment
President Rohani seems to be ahead but it may not be decisive enough
to avoid a second ballot. The result of the election relies on
variables, which will remain undetermined till the last possible
moment. One potential and worrisome variable is that a candidate such
as Ebrahim Raisi and the forces behind him do not take kindly to be
thwarted by the electorate.

Until early April, it seemed that President Rohani would have an
easy ride
towards reelection. The surprise entrance of Ebrahim
Raisi changed that and the dynamics of the competition. Ebrahim Raisi
comes from the deepest enclaves of the Islamic Republic’s deep state.
Aged only 17 when the 1979 revolution toppled the monarchy, Raisi
joined and advanced rapidly in the newly formed Islamic judiciary and
was deputy prosecutor general, when he was appointed to a special
committee in the summer of 1988. Nicknamed “the death
committees” by Iranian opposition, these committees were set up
by the express order of the charismatic Supreme Leader and the
founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini.

In an arbitrary decree, prompted by the final phase of Iran-Iraq
war, Khomeini proclaimed that any political prisoner “still
obdurate in their belief” is an enemy of god and their lives are,
legally, forfeit. This paved the way for the
massacre of Iran’s political prisoners
. Special committees were
set up to decide which prisoners were “still obdurate in their
belief” and Raisi was one of the five members of the central
committee in Tehran. Most of the said prisoners were either the
Marxist-Islamist Mojahedin (AKA M.K.O & M.E.K) or communists and
most of them (numbering unknown thousands) were hanged according to
the decisions made by these committees’ summary sessions.

Iraj Mesdaghi, a survivor of that massacre and an expert on the
subject, claims
that Raisi was present at the hanging of prisoners and celebrated
them with pastry. The memory of those executions still haunts the
Islamic Republic and has plagued Raisi’s presidential bid. Raisi
continued to advance to the highest levels of the judiciary but kept
a low profile despite the growing and gradual stream of information
about the prisoners’ massacre and his role in it. That changed
about a year ago when the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei
appointed Raisi as the custodian of Imam Reza Foundation, the
wealthiest religious-economic complex of the country. This move
sparked rumors that Raisi is being groomed as the
next Supreme Leader
. The office of the Supreme Leader has
essentially become a focal point for the management of Islamic
Republic’s military-security apparatus and Raisi’s background
made him a perfect candidate for such position.

Therefore, Raisi’s presidential bid was surprising; why he would
risk his long-term advance in an election in which his chances seemed

Raisi’s entrance was the first surprise of this election but was
overshadowed by the next surprise as former president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, threw his hat in the ring despite the
express forbidding
of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Controversial and
divisive as ever, Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid was brought to a
quick end, when he was disqualified
by the Guardian Council and police
units were deployed
around his place of residence to discourage
any more shenanigans.

Less surprising was the entry of Tehran’s mayor Mohammad-Baqir
Qalibaf to the foray, another member of the Islamic Republic deep
state. But unlike Raisi, who chose to be a background functionary,
Qalibaf has been an open and active political figure in the past two
decades. A senior general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
(I.R.G.C) and former Chief of Police of Tehran, Qalibaf became a,
supposedly, civilian politician with high aspirations. Mayor of
Tehran since 2004, Qalibaf had tried twice to become president and
seemed to have the support of the majority of the I.R.G.C for his
third bid for presidency.

Along with three other minor candidates (all long-term
establishment figures approved by the Guardian Council), the
competition began in earnest. The contest has been a sordid and
cynical affair, in which no candidate held any moral high-ground and
lacked vision and inspiration, and instead relied on crude negative
campaigning. Rohani’s campaign seriously underestimated the
competition and perceived victory a foregone conclusion and failed to
produce any tangible program or positive message. Rohani’s reformist
allies acted similarly in their bid to win local council elections
which takes place in the same day as the presidential election.
Theirs and Rohani’s message to the electorate was “beware of the
barbarian at the gate, we are the best deal you can get”. This
message had a ring of truth to it but wasn’t relayed to the
electorate in a humble, emphatic and persuasive way. It reeked of
snobbery and alienated a significant layer of Iranian voters who are
keen on expanding democracy and civil society. Comprised mostly of
the urban middle and upper class, young voters and various civil
rights campaigners, this voting block (which has strong secular
leanings) forms the backbone of Rohani’s base. Whenever moderate
and reformist factions were able to motivate this block, they have
won elections. Rohani and the reformist high and mighty demeanor led
to considerable disaffection among this block.

Rohani’s other campaign failure was the economy where his team,
again, failed to produce any coherent plan or message. A serious
mistake, particularly since Rohani’s administration cannot claim
any great success in this field. More than a year has passed since
the conclusion of the nuclear agreement and many Iranians have yet to
feel any visible improvement in their lot. This provided great
to the hardliner candidates who launched a
well-financed, energetic and populist campaign to grab the votes of
the lower income and poverty-stricken Iranians. Taking over the
mantle of Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf proclaimed that he would create
millions of jobs and provide a $77 monthly cash subsidy to all

In the live presidential debates, Qalibaf further raised the
stakes by accusing Rohani’s government with corruption and wanton
disregard for the poor.  Raisi, also, focused on the financial
needs of the poor and unprivileged and made similar promises. The
scale of promises made by Qalibaf and Raisi reached ludicrous
proportions as the
state is totally incapable to honor such pledges
. The danger
signs prompted Rohani out of inaction and he tried to rally his base
in the most unprecedented and controversial way. In a series of
campaign speeches, Rohani reaffirmed his promises to Iran’s civil
society and crossed many red lines by attacking his opponents’
record on civil liberties. In the most astonishing statement, Rohani
that “our nation will once again demonstrate its’ disapproval
with those who know nothing other than execution and imprisoning”.
This was a direct stab at Raisi and Qalibaf’s security backgrounds.
They responded by intensifying their accusations and negative

The presidential
reached such heights that prompted a reaction from
Supreme Leader Khamenei, who emphasized the dangerous plans of
external enemies and warned all candidates “not to aid the enemy’s
unfinished job”. Khamenei’s
was made in a ceremony of I.R.G.C’s cadets where he was
surrounded by I.R.G.C top brass including
General Qasim Suleimani
. Rohani paid no heed and continued his
attacks on the record of his rivals. This made the last election
debate an
outrageous and comical event
. Rohani successfully brushed off
Qalibaf’s corruption allegations by referring to Qalibaf’s own
questionable financial dealings and his role in civil suppression.
Rohani also infuriated Raisi by sly cynical remarks about his role as
an oppressive judge. Rohani’s campaign gained momentum as he
pressed on with further promises about civil liberties. With these
tactics, it seems that Rohani has been able to rally his main
socio-political base.

On Monday, another surprise came to pass, as Qalibaf withdrew from
the competition in favor of Raisi. The race is on a knife’s edge.
While Rohani’s recent maneuvering has swayed many of his disaffected
base (the urban middle and upper class, young voters, political and
civil rights activists, artists, etc.) it may not be enough to secure
a decisive victory. Rohani’s great failure in providing an inspiring
economic message will cost him, while the great machine behind Raisi
can, literally, buy many votes. Also, Rohani’s campaign didn’t pay
sufficient attention to local constituencies who vote according to
marginal, regional and ethnic

For example, Iran’s province of Kurdistan supplied about 440,000
votes to Rohani’s 2013 election. This number is expected to fall,
considerably, due to Rohani’s incapability to deliver his promises.
At the moment it seems certain that Rohani will not achieve his 2013
record of 18 million votes. The question is how many votes will
Rohani lose? The available polls are inconclusive and a second ballot
is very possible. The unpredictability of Iran’s elections may allow
a huge rise in Rohani’s vote in the last moment.

There are other potential factors which can influence the outcome
of elections and, unfortunately, one of them is in the hands of the
unpredictable Mr. Trump. As
outlined by The Economist
, by May 17th, President
Trump must decide whether to continue the suspensions of Iran’s
nuclear related sanctions, or not. The suspensions were President
Obama’s reward for Iran constraining its nuclear program. President
Trump’s decision can either boost or sink President Rohani’s chances
for reelection.

One nagging question troubles many,
including this author: why did the powers that be chose a candidate
such as Raisi? And why have they forced Qalibaf to withdraw in
Raisi’s favor? Qalibaf was combative and energetic while Raisi is
uninspiring and vividly uncomfortable in front of cameras. The most
logical explanation is that the Islamic Republic’s deep state (the
unelected institutions headed by the office of the Supreme Leader,
the judicial and security apparatus, the economic monopolies and the
I.R.G.C) are making a combined effort to reclaim the presidency. The
deep states’ need for such move may be linked to the issue of the
Supreme Leader’s succession. Ayatollah Khamenei is in his late 70’s
and reportedly ill. In the event of his death, the President will be
in a key position to influence the selection of the next Supreme

If this theory is to be taken seriously, it adds a more troubling
question to this election: how determined is the deep state to
install Raisi as president? Many Iranians simply don’t wish to think
about this question as the repercussions are too grave. The memories
of the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections are still fresh in their
minds. There were serious
about the integrity of the first round of 2004
election. One of the contenders, Mehdi Karrubi, accused the I.R.G.C,
the Islamic Militia (Basij) and other security organizations of
manipulating the election to pave the way for Ahmadinejad’s ascent.
Ahmadinejad did ascend to the presidency and, four years later,
Karrubi found himself in open confrontation with the regime, when he
and the other presidential challenger, Mir-Hossein Musavi defied the
electoral coup

Eight years have passed since that fiasco and both Karrubi and
Musavi are still under house arrest. There is no definite evidence or
sign of such situation reoccurring, yet. But there is ample reasons
to believe that the deep state (the I.R.G.C in particular) can
engineer the 2005’s alleged scenario. The I.R.G.C and Basij can
mobilize vast numbers of voters in favor of Raisi and they can do
more. In 2005 voter’s participation was low and certain amount of
vote-rigging could take place, while maintaining plausible denial. In
2009 the reformist game-plan was to counter such measures by vast
turn-out which is probably what caused the electoral coup. This year,
the turn-out is out to be lower than 2012 and the closer the
competition, the easier it is to manipulate it. A more disturbing
thought is that to bring Raisi out of the backgrounds and to put him
in the vanguard of the deep state’s campaign, demonstrates a grim
determination. What is there to stop the deep state from ensuring
Raisi’s presidency by any means necessary?

What makes this unthinkable is that even the smallest internal
upheaval will risk exceedingly dangerous repercussions for the
security of the state, particularly given the tense regional and
international situation. However, the Islamic Republic has
demonstrated a great illogical capacity for risk-taking.

One can only hope and pray that this is nothing but undue concern
caused by a bitter experience. As this article is being concluded
extra security and police forces are being deployed in Tehran. This
may be nothing more than a cautionary measure by a security force also
anxious by previous memories or…