Iran’s re-engagement with the world at stake in Friday presidential vote

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani registers to run for a second four-year term, in Tehran.

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iranians vote for president on Friday in a contest likely to determine whether Tehran’s re-engagement with the world stalls or quickens, although whatever the outcome no change is expected to its revolutionary system of conservative clerical rule.

Seeking a second term, pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, 68, remains the narrow favorite, but hardline rivals have hammered him over his failure to boost an economy weakened by decades of sanctions.

Many Iranians feel a 2015 agreement he championed with major powers to lift sanctions in return for curbing Iran’s nuclear program has failed to produce the jobs, growth and foreign investment he said would follow.

The normally mild-mannered cleric is trying to hold on to office by firing up reformist voters who want less confrontation abroad and more social and economic freedom at home.

In recent days he has adopted robust rhetoric, pushing at the boundaries of what is permitted in Iran. He has accused his conservative opponents of abusing human rights, misusing religious authority to gain power and representing the economic interests of the security forces.

Rouhani’s strongest challenger is hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56, who says Iran does not need foreign help and promises a revival of the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

He is backed by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, the country’s top security force, their affiliated volunteer Basij militia, hardline clerics and two influential clerical groups.

Another prominent conservative, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, withdrew from the race on Monday and backed Raisi, uniting the hardline faction and giving Raisi’s chances a boost.

Under Iran’s system, the powers of the elected president are circumscribed by those of the conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989. All candidates must be vetted by a hardline body.

Nevertheless, elections are fiercely contested and can bring about change within the system of rule overseen by Shi’ite Muslim clerics.


The main challenger Raisi is a close ally and protege of Khamenei, and was one of four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Iranian media have discussed him as a potential future successor to Khamenei, who turns 78 in July.

Raisi has appealed to poorer voters by pledging to create millions of jobs.

“Though unrealistic, such promises will surely attract millions of poor voters,” said Saeed Leylaz, a prominent Iranian economist who was jailed for criticizing the economic policies of Rouhani’s hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although the supreme leader is officially above the fray of everyday politics, Khamenei can sway a presidential vote by giving a candidate his quiet endorsement, a move that could galvanize hardline efforts to get the conservative vote out.

“Raisi has a good chance to win. But still the result depends on the leader Khamenei’s decision,” said a former senior official, who declined to be identified.

So far in public Khamenei has called only for a high turnout, saying Iran’s enemies have sought to use the elections to “infiltrate” its power structure, and a high turnout would prove the system’s legitimacy.

A high turnout could also boost the chances of Rouhani, who was swept to power in 2013 on promises to reduce Iran’s international isolation and grant more freedoms at home. The biggest threat to his re-election is apathy from disappointed voters who feel he did not deliver improvements they hoped for.

“The result depends on whether the economic problems will prevail over freedom issues,” said an official close to Rouhani. “A low turnout can harm Rouhani.”

Polls taken by International Perspectives for Public Opinion on May 10 show Rouhani still leads with about 55 percent of the votes, although such surveys do not have an established record of predicting election outcomes in Iran.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes cast, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff election on May 26.

Because the conservatives are now mostly united behind Raisi, the result is likely to be closer than four years ago, when Rouhani won more than three times as many votes as his closest challenger en route to a victory in a single round.


Opposition and reformist figures are backing Rouhani, and his recent fiery campaign speeches have led to a surge of public interest. But voters’ expectations of radical change are low.

“I had decided not to vote … Rouhani failed to keep his promises. As long as Khamenei runs policy, nothing will change,” said art student Raika Mostashari in Tehran.

But she eventually decided to vote for Rouhani, she said, because former president Mohammad Khatami, spiritual leader of the pro-reform movement, had publicly backed him.

Rouhani’s signature accomplishment has been his nuclear deal, which could be in jeopardy if he loses power, even though it was officially endorsed by Khamenei and all candidates say they will abide by it.

U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently called the agreement “one of the worst deals ever signed” and said Washington will review it.

Although the agreement lifted international sanctions, the United States continues to impose unilateral measures that have scared off investors. Washington cites Iran’s missile program, its human rights record and support for terrorism.

Some experts say Iranian establishment figures may want to keep Rouhani in power to avoid being cast back into isolation.

“With the deal in jeopardy, the system will be in vital need of Rouhani’s team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats to shift the blame to the U.S. and keep Iran’s economy afloat,” said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

Polls expected to open at 03:30 GMT and close at 13:30 GMT, which can be extended. Final results are expected by Sunday.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)

Charismatic Tehran mayor defies establishment to stay in presidential race

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf gestures in this undated handout photo provided by Tasnim News Agency on May 9, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – The charismatic 55-year-old mayor of Tehran seems a long-shot contender for Iran’s presidency, but could emerge as the main threat to President Hassan Rouhani if he beats other hardliners to emerge as the sole challenger in a second round.

A chisel-jawed former Revolutionary Guards commander with an action man persona, an airline pilot’s license and a populist economic message, Baqer Qalibaf has so far defied the clerical establishment by refusing to drop out before the May 19 vote.

In the last election four years ago, Qalibaf very nearly made it to the run-off, despite placing a distant second to Rouhani with just 16.5 percent of the vote. Rouhani, who promised to reduce Iran’s international isolation and grant more freedoms at home, averted a second round by winning just over 50 percent.

This time around, establishment hardliners who want to unseat Rouhani are mainly placing their trust in Ebrahim Raisi, a jurist and cleric who studied at the feet of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

They are not happy that the maverick Tehran mayor is standing again and splitting the anti-Rouhani vote.

“Qalibaf’s decision to remain in the race represents is a risk for him and the establishment,” said an official in Tehran, who asked not to be identified. “It will divide hardliners’ votes but it will also endanger his future career, as Qalibaf has ignored influential hardliners’ call to step down.”

Still, with his own record of drawing millions of voters, Qalibaf may be hoping he can beat Raisi in the first round to face Rouhani in the run-off a week later, which would force conservatives to rally behind him.

A similar path carried a previous populist Tehran mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidency in 2005, despite never quite dispelling the discomfort of the establishment.

From Qalibaf’s perspective, that could have been him: in 2005, he resigned his military posts to run for president and was seen as a strong contender, only to lose the crucial battle for second place in the final days when hardliners switched their allegiance to Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad won 19.5 percent in the first round, good enough for second place, on his way to a surprising triumph against former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the run-off. Qalibaf went on to win Ahamdinejad’s job as mayor of the capital, a post he has held ever since.

Qalibaf promotes his record as a pragmatic problem-solver, tackling the capital’s acute infrastructure problems and improving public transportation.

But Tehran’s chaotic and chronically snarled traffic, a corruption investigation in 2016 and the deaths of 50 firefighters in the collapse of a 17-storey building in January in Tehran have dented his popularity.

To civil rights activists and reformers he is also known for his previous role as a police chief who boasted of crushing protests and personally beating demonstrators.

He joined the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) at 19 and served as the commander of its air force from 1996. He still has a license to fly big airliners. He was appointed by Khamenei as Iran’s police chief after a bloody crackdown on students in Tehran ignited nationwide unrest in 1999.

In a two-hour audio recording, released by opposition websites and the U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Qalibaf is heard describing how he personally beat up protesters with batons.

He was among a group of IRGC commanders who in June 2003 sent a letter to then-president Mohammad Khatami, now seen as the father of Iran’s reform movement, effectively threatening a coup unless the president took firm control of protests.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Peter Graff)

Iran’s Supreme Leader warns against disrupting presidential vote

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Wednesday that any attempts to disrupt the presidential election on May 19 would be dealt with harshly.

The vote has shaped up to be primarily a contest between incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who has campaigned on a platform of opening up the country to the West and easing social restrictions, and hardline rival Ebrahim Raisi, who served in top positions in the judiciary for years.

The election will be held as Rouhani, elected in a landslide in 2013, is coming to the end of his four-year term.

Raisi has the backing of Khamenei, according to analysts.

“If people participate with order, behave morally, observe legal and Islamic parameters then this will be a source of honor for the Islamic Republic,” Khamenei said, according to the transcript of a speech published on the Supreme Leader’s official website.

“But if they break the law, operate in an immoral way, or speak in a way that will encourage enemies, then the elections can be seen as a loss.”

Dozens of people were killed and hundreds arrested when widespread protests broke out after a disputed presidential election in 2009, which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office for a second term, according to human rights groups.

“The security of the country must be completely preserved during the election,” Khamenei said in the speech, which was delivered to an audience that included top commanders from the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military and economic force in the country.

“Anyone who deviates from this path should certainly know that they will be given a slap.”


Rouhani is standing for a second term against five other candidates, including his own vice president Ishaq Jahangiri, a moderate, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a hardliner.

If nobody wins more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round on May 19, there will be a run-off a week later.

Raisi has harshly criticized Rouhani’s economic performance during live presidential debates in the past two weeks.

Khamenei is also unhappy with Rouhani’s economic performance and said the government should have done more to tackle unemployment.

Iran has an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent for a population of about 80 million, according to figures released by the Statistical Centre of Iran last autumn.

Rouhani, for his part, has indirectly criticized Raisi’s time at the judiciary.

“The people of Iran will announce in (the May election) that they don’t accept those who only knew executions and prison for 38 years,” Rouhani said Monday, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Ken Ferris)

Iran reformists to back Rouhani re-election, though some voters grow cool

FILE PHOTO: Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran October 12, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran’s main pro-reform opposition leaders plan to speak out from their confinement under house arrest this month to publicly back President Hassan Rouhani for re-election, aides say, helping win over voters disillusioned with the slow pace of change.

Rouhani was elected in a landslide in 2013 on promises to ease Iran’s international isolation and open up society. He is standing for a second term against five other candidates, mostly prominent hardliners, on May 19, with a run-off a week later if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes cast in the first round.

In his first term, Rouhani expended his political capital pushing through a landmark agreement with global powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of international financial sanctions.

But even his supporters acknowledge he has made comparatively little progress on his domestic agenda, after promising that Iranians should enjoy the same rights as other people around the world.

Some reformist critics say he neglected the cause of curbing the powers of the security forces and rolling back restrictions that govern how Iranians dress, behave, speak and assemble.

Nevertheless, Iran’s two leading champions of the reform movement, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, will urge voters to back him, a spokesman said.

“The two leaders, like in previous elections, will support the candidate backed by the pro-reform faction,” said Ardeshir Amir-Arjomand, the Paris-based spokesman for the two men.

Another source close to the opposition leaders said “Mousavi and Karoubi will announce their support for Rouhani a few days before the May 19 vote.”

Rouhani has already won the backing of former President Mohammad Khatami, considered the spiritual leader of the reformists, who declared his support on his website on Tuesday. Iranian newspapers and broadcasters are banned from publishing the former president’s image or mentioning his name.

Many reformist voters will look for guidance to Mousavi and Karoubi, who both stood for president in 2009 when opposition to the disputed victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to Iran’s biggest mass demonstrations since its 1979 revolution.

Both men have been held under house arrest for six years, although neither has been convicted of a crime. Their pronouncements from their confinement are eagerly followed by reformists online.

Maryam Zare, a 19-year-old in Tehran who would be voting for president for the first time, said she would vote only if she heard a call to do so from Karoubi and Mousavi.

“I will vote for whoever they support,” she said.

Others said they would back Rouhani, but only reluctantly.

“He is part of the establishment. We have to vote for the lesser of evils,” said music teacher Morad Behmanesh in the central city of Yazd. “What happened to Rouhani’s promises of releasing the two opposition leaders from house arrest?”


Under Iran’s governing system, the elected president’s powers are limited, circumscribed by the authority of the supreme leader, a position held since 1989 by hardline cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

During Rouhani’s first term, the president won Khamenei’s cautious backing for his nuclear deal. But persuading the leader to accept social change may be a more difficult task.

Some of Rouhani’s allies say he will now be able to make more progress on his domestic agenda if he wins a clear, fresh mandate for another four-year term, which would prove to the hardliners that the public wants change.

“Iranians want to be free and live freely. They are not against the Islamic Republic. People will continue to fight for their rights,” a senior official in Rouhani’s government said on condition of anonymity.

But international rights groups and activists in Iran say there were few, if any, moves to bring about greater political and social freedoms during Rouhani’s first term. Dozens of activists, journalists, bloggers and artists were jailed on political grounds.

Rouhani often suggests that he has no control over such arrests, carried out by the mostly hardline judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful military force.

“I have lost my hope over Rouhani’s ability to reform the country. His main focus has been economy, not improving civil rights,” said Reza, 28, a reformist who was jailed briefly after the 2009 election and asked that his surname not be published for security reasons.

The president has had some success on promises to loosen Internet restrictions, but access to social media remains officially blocked, although Rouhani, Khamenei and other officials have their own Twitter accounts.

Human Rights Watch said last year that Rouhani had failed to deliver on his promise of greater respect for civil and political rights. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2015 said that more journalists were in jail in Iran than any country other than China and Egypt.

The total number of political prisoners held in Iranian jails has not been disclosed. About a dozen people who also hold other nationalities have been jailed for what rights groups consider political offences.

“Whoever wins Iran’s presidential election should prioritize improving the country’s dismal human rights situation,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“Iran has maintained the highest per capita execution rate in the world for years … it put 530 people to death last year, many for drug offences and a number of them minors.”

Rouhani benefits because reformist voters have no other choice on the ballot, where candidates are vetted by a hardline body.

Reformist voters will have to judge him in the context of what is possible under the system, said Saeed Leylaz, a prominent economist imprisoned under Ahmadinejad for criticising economic policy, who is now close to Rouhani’s government.

“Rouhani’s failure to fully deliver his promises on social reforms will impact the vote … but Iranians are well aware of his limitations and his achievements.”

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Peter Graff)

Rouhani says Iran needs “no one’s permission” to build missiles

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes part in a news conference near the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will ask “no one’s permission” to build up its missile capability, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday, in what appeared to be a defiant response to U.S. efforts to hamper the Iranian military.

Facing an election in May where he hopes to secure a second four-year term, Rouhani has had to defend himself from opponents who say he has been too eager to appease the West, after agreeing to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized the nuclear deal and said during his election campaign he would stop Iran’s missile program. After Iran test-fired a new ballistic missile in January, Trump tweeted that it was “playing with fire”.

Addressing an event showcasing some locally built military hardware, broadcast on state TV, Rouhani said: “The strengthening of the capability of the Iranian armed forces … is only for defending the country and we will ask no one’s permission to build up the armed forces, and to build missiles and aircraft.”

He said Iran has never had “aggressive aims, but peace is not a one-way road and if we decide to be peaceful the other party … may not. So there is a need for vigilance.”

A bill to impose new sanctions on Iran over ballistic missile launches and other non-nuclear activities has been delayed in the U.S. Senate due to concerns about the presidential election.

Iran says its missile tests are not covered by the nuclear deal.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)