Elections are being held in Iran this spring. Will President Hassan Rouhani stay in power for the next four years, or can we expect change?

We asked Senior Advisor Joachim Nahem (NUPI), who conducts risk assessments and advises Norwegian businesses looking to invest in Iran, about the upcoming elections.

Only six eligible

‘What are most interesting aspects of these elections?’

‘The big questions are whether President Hassan Rouhani will be re-elected, as well as how President Donald Trump will handle Iran and the nuclear deal in the times to come. Iran has a powerful Council of Guardians, made up of six theologians and six jurists, who evaluate the qualifications of everyone running for election. Out of 1900 persons wanting to run, only six candidates were deemed eligible. Even though there are obvious limitations as regards democracy and the elections, there has been considerable engagement and debate between the candidates and their supporters – for instance through a live TV debate involving all candidates. More than 50 million people can vote in Iran, and election turn-out was more than 70 per cent last time.’

Supreme Leader on top

‘How much power does the Iranian president actually have?’

‘Iran can best be described as a constitutional theocracy.  Most power lies with the clergy and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, they must act in accordance with the Constitution. While the spiritual leader is chief of state, the president has responsibility for many of the traditional tasks of a chief of state, like appointing ambassadors or presenting the budget to the parliament.

‘The president governs the country on a day-to-day basis. For example, he forms the government and represents Iran internationally. Current President Rouhani executed considerable in negotiating the nuclear deal. However, he couldn’t have signed the deal without the consent of Supreme Leader Khamenei.’

Misleading labels

‘Do the candidates presented to the voters represent real alternatives? How great are the differences among the six running candidates?’

‘The dividing lines are not necessarily a matter of who are most for or against the regime. It is a given that none of those allowed to run for election will directly  challenge the power of the ayatollahs. No, the divisions concern the kind of economic and social politics the candidates will initiate. Therefore, labels in Western media about ‘conservative’ and ‘reform-friendly’ candidates are often misleading.  Candidates differ in their views on state welfare plans, modernization, labour and unemployment, and relations with foreign investors. Rouhani is seen as more reform-friendly when it comes to the economy, but he is in no sense liberal in religious affairs. One of his top competitors, Ebrahim Raisi, has a background as a judge and is assumed to be the preferred candidate of the clerks and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As well as being conservative in matters of religion, he favours expanding welfare programmes and protecting Iranian business interests from foreign investors.

‘Among the approved candidates, there is a much more democratic debate than many seem to believe, but it doesn’t touch much on topics like equality and human rights. Local elections are held at the same time as the presidential elections, and there is probably much more competition in these. But of course, no one entirely opposed to the establishment – or the clergy – can run for election.’

Great expectations

‘What characterizes Rouhani’s politics?’

‘Rouhani’s biggest achievement as President was the successful nuclear negotiations that resulted in a deal between Iran and the great powers in 2015. The deal gives the international community insight into Iran’s nuclear programme, and Iran gets eased sanctions in return. Iranians have great expectations to the positive effects of nuclear deal on the country’s economy. Even though Iran has increased oil production since 2015, unemployment remains high, especially among young people, and the great economic boom has failed to appear. This has been a main topic in the election campaign.’

Complicated role

‘What implications may the elections have for the international community?’

‘If Rouhani is re-elected, major changes are unlikely. None of the other candidates have proposed radical change either. All have committed to uphold the nuclear deal that Iran signed in 2015. Iran’s role in the Middle East is complicated. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, operating relatively independently from the president, governs much of Iran’s activity in Syria and Lebanon, among other places. Saudi Arabia and their Middle Eastern allies, as well as Israel, are likely to continue to maintain very tense relations with Iran.

‘Trump has declared that the nuclear agreement is a bad deal, and that he will abolish or renegotiate it. That may prove very complicated, as none of the other great powers wish to change the deal. Also, views differ within the Trump administration as to how to approach Iran.

‘With the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel as exceptions, the international community stands united in supporting the nuclear agreement. The EU, China, South Korea and several emerging economies like India, Indonesia and Brazil have been keenly pursuing economic cooperation with Iran in the aftermath of the agreement.’

Rouhani is favourite

‘How are Iran’s presidential elections organized?’

‘There is one single round of elections, and if one of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the votes, he wins. If not, there's a second round with the two candidates that got the most votes. There have been accusations about electoral fraud earlier, but there is little to indicate that the voting has been compromised. On the other hand, there is not much independent election monitoring in Iranian elections. The Supreme Leader has traditionally taken a neutral stance regarding the presidential candidates.’

‘Finally: Who is most likely to win the May 2017 presidential elections?’

‘Rouhani is the favourite. In fact, it would come as a shock if he were not re-elected. Since 1981 all sitting presidents in Iran have been re-elected.’