Iran’s 2017 Presidential Election

A brief look at the intrigue of Friday’s election and what is in store

President Hassan Rouhani speaking to a crowd of his supporters at a rally

When I was twelve years old, my parents took me to a small public gathering in protest of Iran’s 2009 presidential election, just a couple minutes away from our home. I struggled to hold up an Iranian flag twice my size and repeated, with all my might, the chants I heard the adults shouting. Chants for freedom, clarity, democracy, as well as pleas for United States President Barack Obama to help the Iranian people. As the protests — also known as the Green Revolution — progressed in Iran, I followed my parents to more local, California-based demonstrations in support of the Green Revolution. I vividly remember a demonstration my family and I attended in West Los Angeles. I was wearing a green t-shirt featuring a map of Iran on it. The entire area was a sea of green, the color of the Iranian reformist party. Thousands of voices gathered to protest the election results and the Iranian regime. I can still hear the ring of “Obama Obama, are you with us or are you with them!” I remember shouting “Mousavi! Mousavi!” repeatedly as I marched down the street. Back then, I had a very vague understanding of what was happening and all the issues at stake. However, participating in those protests awakened in me an attachment to what was happening in Iran. As an Iranian-American, I felt that I had to be a part of it all.

An Iranian women protesting during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution

Allow me to give a quick summary of what happened in 2009 during the so-called Green Revolution. After the election, the Iranian regime announced that the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had defeated reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. There were widespread accusations that the results were manipulated, leading to months of public unrest, demonstrations, and violence across the country. In spite of the relative peaceful nature of the demonstrations, Iran’s police and paramilitary Basij forces suppressed them using batons, pepper spray, sticks, and, sometimes, firearms. In one case that drew worldwide attention, Neda Agha-Soltan, a twenty-six year old Iranian woman, was shot and killed while participating in the protests.

To put the disputed election in perspective, the voter turnout was allegedly over 100% in some Iranian counties. Despite this, no clear irrefutable evidence was found to support these claims and one can assume that any evidence proving manipulation will never be revealed thanks to the Iranian regime’s desire to quell everything and anything that could validate the 2009 protests.

With that being said, a lot has changed in Iran (and frankly, for me as well) since the Green Revolution. Iran’s presidency progressed from the hardliner Ahmadinejad, whose policies hurt Iran’s economy and spoiled relations with West, to the relatively moderate Rouhani, who dragged Iran out of deep economic turmoil and has worked to end Iran’s international isolation.

Meanwhile, I have found myself geeking out about international relations and diplomacy, but especially about the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The intrigue of Iranian politics is that almost nothing is predictable. You never know what will happen in Tehran, and this directly applies to Iran’s presidential election on Friday.

Raisi’s supporters passing out campaign flyers

Friday’s election is one that will pit the incumbent Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, against Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative with close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi has long been considered as a possible successor to Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader (Ayatollah). He has earned the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is mandated to protect the country’s Islamic nature. Raisi is perhaps best known as one of the four judges who oversaw the executions of about 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. He will hope to capitalize on Rouhani’s economic shortcomings from dealing with the West by introducing an “Iran First” program of sorts — focusing on advancing Iran’s economy without engaging with the West.

On the other hand, Rouhani is considered to be more of a moderate and is labeled as a “reformist”. When he was first elected in 2013, Rouhani ran on a platform to bring Iran out of isolation with the West and improve the country’s struggling economy. We witnessed his willingness to work with the West when Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) — also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal — with the P5+1. Although, Rouhani is not all sunshine and sprinkles as he oversaw more than 3,000 executions during his tenure as president.

These are the two main candidates to watch this Friday. If none of the registered candidates are able to secure a majority, the two leading candidates will continue to a second round of elections on May 26.

On paper, this is Rouhani’s election to lose, as all signs point towards his re-election. But…this is Iran — you just never know.

Supporters of Rouhani holding up campaign posters at a campaign rally

The election could in fact result in Rouhani being re-elected as Iran’s president. Tehran after the election will likely be as it was before the election. This is what many Iranian-Americans, and many people in Iran as well, are hoping to see. This is what many political pundits believe will happen at the end of Iran’s presidential election, and it seems more than likely to come to fruition — a number of polls have Rouhani ahead of Raisi and the other candidates. Boring? Ah, just wait — here’s where it gets interesting.

Another scenario results in Raisi’s victory and him being named the eighth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Raisi just recently picked up the support of fellow conservative hardliner and Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, after he dropped out of the race on Monday. Before this, Raisi’s chances to unseat Rouhani seemed bleak, as he and Ghalibaf were believed to be splitting the hardline vote. This recent endorsement, alongside the possibility of attaining some “help” from the Ayatollah and the IRGC, has made Raisi a real contender in the presidential contest. But even with Raisi’s rejuvenated chances, his victory would shock many Iranians and much of the world.

Raisi’s election could spark large scale demonstrations, similar to the 2009 protests, calling for free and fair elections in Iran. A Raisi victory is inevitably susceptible to accusations of manipulated election results because of Raisi’s close ties to Khamenei and the IRGC. Oddly, despite their close ties, Khamenei may prefer Raisi to lose the election. As the Supreme Leader gets older, he may want to avoid the potential downfall of the regime during his tenure and opt for more of the same with Rouhani. Khamenei seems to be very aware of the potential implications that could come from a divisive candidate ending up on top of the polls. The 2009 Green Revolution was a nightmare for Khamenei, as he saw thousands of protesters in the streets, and many more around the world, calling for a sea change in Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran as we know it was arguably on the brink of collapse in 2009, and would have been even more so if the Obama administration had taken a more involved approach to the reformists demonstrations. The regime faced the largest in scale demonstrations since the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. The regime’s violent reaction to the demonstrations and its arresting of hundreds of protesters created greater instability. Granted, with what seems to be a more aggressive Trump administration, a repeat of wide scale protests in Iran could end differently than they did in 2009 — the protests in 2009 only caused some brief instability in Iran and did not bring about any tangible reforms.

Yet, U.S. officials must be careful of heightened involvement in any post-election demonstrations because if the movement fails to amount in fundamental change, U.S.-Iran relations could be tarnished to the point of extinction — especially if Raisi is president. At the same time, Supreme Leader Khamenei himself may rather avoid exciting Green Revolution-like events under his watch again, thus not mess around with the election results. As you can tell, there is just no telling what will happen if protests happen again (or if they will even happen at all), but both Iran’s regime officials and leaders around the world will have to be calculating in their response to any potential wide scale demonstrations taking place after the election concludes.

The six presidential candidates (before some dropped out of the race) at a televised debate.

There’s a lot at stake in this election. Even though Iran’s president is limited in what he or she is able to do because of the country’s theocratic government structure, the president is a key actor in shaping diplomatic relations between Iran and the world. It is hard to believe a nuclear deal would have been reached under President Ahmadinejad or another hardline conservative president. Rouhani was determined to fulfill his campaign promise to improve Iran’s economy by reaching a deal with the West to lift nuclear-related sanctions on the country.

Iran has many issues that the world wishes it would resolve — blatant human rights violations, belligerent military activities in the Persian Gulf, and of course, its nuclear enrichment program that the JCPOA aims to restrict — and no matter who is president, he or she may ultimately fail to bring about a resolution to these major concerns. In many matters the Ayatollah still reigns supreme.

But, Friday’s election, and any subsequent rounds of the 2017 presidential election, is extremely important nonetheless. Not because of the numbers of votes resulting in a new or a re-elected president — but rather what this election could potentially provoke. Will there be celebrations, cheers, and the honks of car horns echoing in Tehran, Mashhad, and Isfahan throughout the night? Or, will thousands of Iranians hit the streets of Iran, calling for freedom and true democracy inciting another round of public unrest? Whatever happens, the Iranian people, especially the youth, are not afraid to stand up to the regime, fight for what they believe is right and shake things up. They have been highly involved in the election thus far, actively campaigning throughout the nation, and there are no signs of that changing if the election takes a turn. Combined with Iran’s inconsistent political landscape, this could make for an interesting Iranian election cycle and we should all keep a close eye as things begin to unfold this Friday. In Iran, you just never know what will happen next.