Are Iran's presidential elections a game changer?

Author Argus

Are Iran's presidential elections a game changer?

Are Iran's presidential elections a game changer?

Iranians head to the polls in a fortnight to vote for the country’s next president. The 19 May election will deliver a popular verdict on the performance of the incumbent Hassan Rohani’s first term in office.

Of the 1,636 hopefuls who showed up at the interior ministry on 11-15 April to register to run for president, just six have been cleared to run by Iran’s Guardian Council — a powerful 12-member committee responsible for vetting electoral candidates.

Loosely speaking, on the one side you have Rohani, looking to secure a second term; his first vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri; and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, a former minister of industry and mining. These are the three moderate or reformist candidates.

On the other, you have the three candidates hoping to wrestle back the presidency for the conservatives: Ebrahim Raisi, the head of one of the wealthiest charitable organisations in the country; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor since 2005; and Mostafa Mir-Salim, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance.

On the surface, the stage is set for a fierce contest, with Qalibaf and Raisi tipped to be Rohani’s main challengers. But just days into Iran’s short campaigning season, most signs seem to be pointing to a second term for Rohani.

A recent poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency shows Rohani holding a healthy lead over his challengers — 44pc versus 23pc for Qalibaf and 17pc for Raisi. Straight head-to-heads between Rohani and his two challengers also show him coming out on top.

And strengthening Rohani’s hand further is the apparent inability of the conservative camp to get its house in order — something that hurt the previous bid in 2013.

The conservatives created the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces (Jamna) — a coalition aimed at forging some sort of unity — ahead of the elections. But they are struggling to get their members to put the needs of the party ahead of their own.

What we have at the moment is a situation whereby neither Raisi nor Qalibaf — the two main challengers — is willing to drop out in favour of the other to strengthen the conservative hand. As was the case in 2013, a campaign push by more than one main conservative candidate will only serve to split the vote.

Jamna has been trying to play Raisi up as the main conservative candidate. But Qalibaf — who was Rohani’s main challenger in 2013 — has expressed no interest in dropping out. This is Qalibaf’s third bid for the Iranian presidency. He also ran in 2005, before becoming the mayor of Tehran.

This kind of fragmentation, so close to 19 May, is only likely to strengthen Rohani’s bid.

Also of note is a clear trend: Iran has become a country of two-term presidents. Now supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was president from 1981 to 1989; followed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997; Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013. And while Rohani’s first term has not been a total success, particularly on the economic side, he is likely to have done enough in the shape of the 2015 nuclear deal to warrant a second term.

But. What if Rohani fails to secure that second term? What then? Do we begin to see wholesale changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policy? Do we begin to see changes in the way Iran handles its Opec and oil policy?

Not necessarily.

Clearly, the degree of the change would depend on which of Raisi or Qalibaf went on to win. But the likelihood of wholesale change is remote.

This is particularly true when it comes to oil policy, which has proved to be one of the biggest successes of the Rohani administration. Since the lifting of US and EU nuclear-related sanctions in January 2016, Iran has gone from strength to strength, raising its crude output back up to pre-sanctions levels, and boosting its exports to multi-year highs.

Key developments that had been stalled for several years — at the giant South Pars gas field, at some oil fields west of the Karun river, or the Persian Gulf Star condensate splitter — are coming on line.

What is more, Iran has not been in the habit of changing oil policy drastically under different administrations. Raising oil and gas production and exports, speeding up the development of the fields and reservoirs Iran shares with its neighbours, and bringing in investment from abroad represented the main pillars of Iran’s oil policy under Ahmadinejad — just as they do under Rohani.

Put simply, Iran has been more successful in the Rohani years, both as a result of the changing circumstances following the nuclear deal, and the markedly more capable teams put in place at state-owned NIOC and the oil ministry during the Rohani era.

So, while we may see personnel changes in the oil and gas sector if a new president takes office, we are unlikely to see changes in oil policy.

Iran’s Opec policy, too, has been solid. In a similar vein to President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine, Iran’s veteran oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has very much been espousing an ‘Iran First’ policy since his return to the oil ministry in 2013. It was the dogged refusal to give up what he said was Iran’s rightful share of the oil market that saw the country secure special dispensation to continue boosting its production under the Opec deal last year to cut output.

This policy has been bearing fruit. And that is something even Zanganeh’s fiercest opponents would find difficult to deny.

And on the foreign policy side, we are likely to see more of the same. Not because the two conservative candidates necessarily see eye-to-eye with Rohani on major issues, but because of the structure of power in Iran. It is the supreme leader, not the president, who has final say in all major policy issues in Iran, be they related to the nuclear file, the missile programme or relations with foreign governments.

So, while a new president might change the tone and style of Iran’s regional and foreign policies, the fact that the decision-maker-in-chief will remain in place indicates that the real substance of these policies would largely remain unchanged.