Preparations for presidential elections which will be held on 19 May 2017 have begun in Iran with the announcement that Hassan Rouhani is the first person nominated for the presidential race. But in spite of this, some analysts suggest that Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 promising to resolve the nuclear issue and expand the margin of freedoms and improve the economic situation, may not be able easily to win a second presidential term, as was the case with all ex-presidents in Iran, with the exception of the first unstable period of the Islamic revolution.
Despite the fact that no strong candidate has emerged to face Rouhani, there are still a number of obstacles confronting him, which are:
This is perhaps the first problem facing Rouhani, because what he achieved in the economic sphere wasn't at the desired level, despite his success in achieving the nuclear deal which freed Iran from international isolation. But Iranians’ expectations of improved living standards after the deal were very high and did not correspond with the reality of the situation.
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, who is against the nuclear deal, could leave a mark on the overall economic situation of the country, including with Congress’ decision to extend the sanctions imposed on Iran for 10 more years.
In this situation, the rapid decline of Iran’s currency's value continues against the US dollar, and reached a new record in the last week of December 2016 with an exchange rate in free markets at 41,500 rials to the dollar, compared with 35,570 rials in mid-September 2016. This widens the gap between the exchange rate in free markets and the official price, which is still installed at 32,300 rials to the dollar.
Despite the announcements of the President of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the leader of Al Quds forces Qassem Soleimani, that they would not run in a presidential race, as some analysts expected, this doesn't mean that the competition will be easy with the attack of the conservative movement on Rouhani and his administration.
We can point here to the continuing conservative pressure on the president by the judiciary. For example, Rouhani was accused by judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani of receiving financial support during his election campaign in 2013 from the famous billionaire, Babak Zanjani, who was sentenced to death after being accused of corruption and stealing money up to billions of dollars. Also, 46 persons from the "Islamic Consultative Assembly" wrote a memorandum to Rouhani, asking him to send his brother Hussein Feridun to justice on charges of corruption.
This attack came after accusations by reformist lawmakers to the head of the judiciary of 63 personal accounts in banks generating billions in profits monthly. Therefore, with the escalation of conflict and mutual accusations over state corruption between the Rouhani team and leaders of the conservative movement, the spokesman of the Guardian Council implicitly threatened Rouhani by withdrawing confidence from him in the next election, and he confirmed that: "There are no guarantees to support the president for a next term".
The popularity of the president almost shrunk especially after failing to fulfill his promises of freedom and release for political prisoners, including lifting the house arrest of the Green Movement leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. These promises were a major part of Rouhani's election campaign in 2013. Reformists have also reproached Rouhani for not supporting them in choosing a chief and deputies for the presidency of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which led to the re-election of Larijani as president of the council. Rouhani tried to explain his point of view, saying that he wouldn't interfere in the work of the legislature, and seeks only to maintain good relations with the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, to allow him to run for a second term.
As for freedom of expression and the media, although this has improved compared to the era of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some newspapers are still banned. Even pro-Rouhani sites are being prosecuted and closed, in addition to some issues such as the cancellation of some music concerts. For example, over the past two years, almost 50 concerts were canceled by police or by the judiciary even though they obtained the necessary licenses and besides the issue of imposing the veil in Iran. All these reasons decrease the popular satisfaction with Rouhani's reformist policies.
There is no doubt that the death of Hashemi Rafsanjani had a significant impact, not only on Rouhani’s opportunity to win a second term as a president, but also on the activities of reform movement, where he was characterized by his ability to influence the republic’s policies, even with growing differences in the recent period with the Supreme Leader, especially after launching in December 2015 the idea of forming a "leadership council" in case of the unexpectedly death of Khamenei, in order to launch a vibrant democracy in Iran.
More important is the role of Rafsanjani in the internal equation. Besides his support for Rouhani’s candidacy in previous presidential elections, Rafsanjani also had an influential role in supporting the reform movement during the parliamentary elections held in February 2016.
The results were relatively in favor of the reformists, and after attempts by the Guardian Council to exclude large numbers of them from participating in elections, Rafsanjani openly criticized the council responsible for screening candidates before returning to allow large parts of moderates and reformists to participate in the elections.
Without forgetting the seriousness of previous obstacles, Rouhani will most likely be able to get a new mandate, because of the following supporting factors:
History shows that Iranians usually re-elect the winning president from the first round in the second round, with the exception of Abu al-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the Islamic revolution who was sacked from his post in 1981, and his successor, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was assassinated in 1981. Other heads of the republic have worked for two consecutive terms, and these include: Ali Khamenei (1981- 1989), Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989- 1997), Mohammad Khatami (1997- 2005), and Ahmadinejad (2005- 2013), who had different backgrounds and orientations.
While the economic performance of Rouhani's government was not remarkable, he actually saved the country from economic collapse. "Parliament Research Center" has estimated economic growth by 6.6% in he current Iranian year ending on March 20, 2017 due to the recovery of the oil sector. While this sector had fallen by 6.8% in the Iranian year beginning on March 20, 2012, it gradually returned to growth during the three years that followed. Tehran tried to overcome the impact of US sanctions by establishing economic relations with international powers and highlighting the large revenue realized from the intensification of cooperation with Iran, especially in oil. Iran succeeded in concluding preliminary agreements with large international companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell and Total, to develop oil and gas fields.
Despite radicals’ attack on reformists in Iran, their influence is in decline as evidenced by the results of the parliamentary elections held in February 2016 in which the reformists and moderates succeeded in obtaining about 60% of council seats. Despite attempts to exclude them, they also succeeded in winning all seats in Tehran. The same case happened in the Assembly of Experts elections held at the same time and the results of which were in favor of the moderate reform movement. In contrast, the conservatives suffered from having to many parties, and they couldn't unify during the presidential election in 2013 nor during the parliamentary elections in 2016.
The conservatives still lack a strong figure who could compete with Rouhani in elections. In contrast, the reformist trend seems to be agreed on the re-nomination of Rouhani, despite some objections to his performance, especially in the freedoms file. In fact, the reformist movement also lacks a charismatic leader who could compete with Rouhani or any other potential candidate from the conservative movement. It is known that the symbols of the reformist movement, such as former President Khatami and opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are not capable of running in elections.
Most importantly of all, the supreme leader is not opposed to the re-nomination of Rouhani. It is true that there are some differences between them in their visions on some issues, and Rouhani is not quite what Khamenei wants, but the latter has no choice but to accept him. We can refer here to Khamenei's support for the nuclear deal despite objections and previous positions which were focused on harsh criticism of the United States of America. Khamenei’s attitude toward Ahmadinejad is such that he called on him not to run in the elections. This most likely swings support in favor of Rouhani for a new presidential term.