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How Rouhani’s main asset became his biggest liability

Seeing the nuclear deal — what was supposed to be his main asset — turn into his main liability, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s best bet is continued disunity among his conservative foes.

Six minutes’ walk from the office of the Iranian president in downtown Tehran lies Horr Square, which features a statue of a warrior killing a mythical monster. Every time President Hassan Rouhani goes to work, he can’t but see the warrior, who might inspire him in his fight for another term. While Rouhani might not be bound to lose, elements that could greatly assure his victory in the upcoming May elections are still missing. His main investment, the July 14, 2015, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), does not seem to be satisfying the Iranian street. The nuclear deal might have doubled the country’s oil exports as well as ended its political and economic isolation, but to Rouhani’s adversaries in Tehran, this does not mean anything when it comes to the battle for power.

Make no mistake about it: Rouhani is engulfed in a fierce battle that might see him become the first Iranian president since 1981 to not serve a second term. This is what his conservative foes are fighting for, yet their coalition is not delivering — despite the building of solid anti-government rhetoric, exploiting the setbacks of the JCPOA, highlighting the failures of Rouhani’s team since coming to office in 2013 and hitting him over his shaky relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The main reasons behind the conservatives’ failure include their lack of unity and the absence of strong candidates who could defeat the incumbent in the polls.

“While there is no doubt that Rouhani is under tremendous pressure, I don't see his re-election in danger mainly because there is no serious contender yet,” Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran expert and the CEO of the Germany-based think tank Carpo, told Al-Monitor. Tabatabai added, “Rouhani's mandate will certainly be weakened, and the complexities of the JCPOA implementation have called his foreign policies into question.”

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States also has a negative impact on the Rouhani administration, mainly given how Trump has on several occasions reiterated that the nuclear deal should be amended. In a meeting with the army Nov. 27, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the first time publicly rebuked the president’s team for rushing to seal the deal. As such, it appears that what should have been Rouhani’s main asset is becoming a liability. This alone, if he is re-elected, will bring him to a second term potentially weaker than any other Iranian president's.

“Rouhani might not continue his West-leaning approach,” Tabatabai said. “Iran may therefore become more isolationist itself, less keen on seeking partnerships with the West and in the region, and therefore hard-liners will be less concerned about the United States with a hawkish president. That may make life easier for Rouhani in his second term.”

Until a few months ago — Sept. 25 to be precise — former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was widely thought to be the main rival Rouhani would face in the May 2017 elections. He started campaigning across the country and was closing the gap, becoming a real threat to Rouhani’s ambitions. Then, in late September, Rouhani appeared to suddenly enjoy some respite when Ayatollah Khamenei publicly gave Ahmadinejad the “advice” not to participate in the elections. But Ahmadinejad does not appear to have given up.

“The former president still wants to run in the elections, despite the [supreme] leader’s advice,” a moderate conservative source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He is still going around the country, meeting people, launching media attacks on the government. He is trying to impose himself as a de facto candidate.” The source said one reason Ayatollah Khamenei is unlikely to approve of Ahmadinejad's candidacy is that the controversy accompanying the former president’s return could shake up internal stability.

Regardless of whether Ahmadinejad runs for office against the wishes of the supreme leader, there are other conservative candidates who want to seize the opportunity to go against a seemingly weakened Rouhani. Former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili has announced his candidacy, with the voiding of the nuclear deal at the top of his priorities. Ezzatollah Zarghami, the former head of the state broadcaster, and former Minister of Science and Technology Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi have also announced their interest in running, while the usual candidates — such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and former parliament Speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel — have not yet announced whether they will be contesting the elections. One positive sign for the president has come from the decisions of parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to not run against him and support his bid for a second term.

To succeed, Rouhani will have to make use of the support he is attracting from moderate conservatives and their popular base. Meanwhile, he also needs to address the concerns and demands of his Reformist allies. Since taking office in 2013, Rouhani has rarely delivered on issues raised by his Reformist supporters, including the matter of the yearslong house arrests of former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Other unfulfilled requests include those for a reduction in internet and social media restrictions and for a larger Reformist presence in the Cabinet.

As previously suggested in Al-Monitor, the Reformists have no alternative to Rouhani in the coming elections — but this does not mean that he can automatically count on everyone actually voting. Indeed, many Iranians, if not feeling content, might just decide to stay home rather than stand in long lines to cast a ballot for someone whose policies they do not trust.

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