Rivalries within the hardline conservative camp of presidential candidates in Iran may enable a relative moderate to squeeze through to the second round of elections, an Israeli expert on Iran told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. But Iran’s supreme leader will not allow a relative moderate to actually win the presidency, another asserted.
None of the hardliners seems inclined to step down. But Hassan Rouhani, a former chief of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and nuclear negotiator, considered the most moderate of Iran’s realistic presidential front-runners, may convince another reformist candidate, Mohammed-Reza Aref, to step down. Rouhani could then garner the votes of Iranian reformists upset with the disqualification of veteran politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the race, said Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Rouhani was national security adviser when Rafsanjani was president. He is said to favor negotiations to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute, and reportedly told a recent campaign rally that he would seek “constructive interaction with the world.”
With Iran’s reformist camp in shambles since the government rigging of Iran’s last presidential elections in 2009, Rouhani’s candidacy could provide liberals a second wind in a presidential campaign dominated by conservatives and ultra-conservatives.
“Rouhani is not a real reformist, but he is more moderate than the other candidates,” Zimmt told The Times of Israel.
All three conservative front-runners — Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, National Security Council head Saeed Jalili, and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati — seem disinclined to voluntarily forgo their candidacy to unite the conservative camp.
If, as is likely, no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote on June 14, a runoff round will take place a week later, featuring the two top contenders.
A bout of reformist fermentation burst to the surface on Tuesday at the funeral of 91-year-old Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din Taheri in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. Taheri, an outspoken critic of the Supreme Leader Ali Khaminei, was laid to rest amid shouts of “dictator, dictator, we will not let you rest” and calls to release reformist politicians Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest.
“This incident is interesting not because of the chance it will become more violent, but because it shows that the reformists still have vast public support, which erupts at certain moments,” Zimmt said.
Also on Tuesday, Supreme Leader Khaminei implicitly rebuked unnamed presidential candidates for trying to placate the West.
“Some, following this incorrect analysis — that we should make concessions to the enemies to reduce their anger — have put their interests before the interests of the Iranian nation. This is wrong,” Khamenei said during a televised speech marking the anniversary of the June 3, 1989, death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. He said candidates “must promise” to put Iran’s interests before foreign interests.
Meir Javedanfar, who teaches Iranian politics at Herzliyah’s Interdisciplinary Center, said that although significant, the events at Taheri’s funeral are unlikely to have a political impact unless they lead to a more sustained protest movement.
“A demonstration here and there won’t change anything,” he said.
Widespread anti-regime protests similar to the ones which swept Iran following the elections of June 2009 are unlikely to reoccur, said Iran expert Eldad Pardo, who teaches at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Ever since the violent Islamic revolution in 1979 followed immediately by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian public has little appetite for a new mass-protest, Pardo said. The failure of Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt to obtain stability amid the Arab Spring upheavals, not to mention the bloodshed in Syria, continues to frighten the average Iranian.
“The Iranians are traumatized by violent revolutions,” Pardo told The Times of Israel. “Since the early 1990s the public has been demanding gradual change, not a revolution.”
Could a moderate candidate like Rouhani provide this change? Javedanfar thinks not. Even if Rouhani and reformist candidate Aref are the most popular on the street, Khaminei and his regime will never allow either of them to win the elections, he said. In the last few days, he pointed out, a number of Rouhani’s associates have been arrested.
The regime may be reluctant, however, to falsify election results as it did in 2009, Zimmt of Tel Aviv University said. Unlike four years ago, some of the government functions which did the vote rigging are controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has fallen out with Khaminei and whose confidante Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was booted from the race last month.
“The regime really doesn’t want to actively intervene,” Zimmt said.
Violent protests in neighboring Turkey will have little effect on the level of mobilization in Iran, Zimmt said. Iran’s government-controlled media “is not saddened” by the pressure experienced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has come into direct diplomatic confrontation with Iran over its support for the Assad regime in Syria. Many Iranians now feel that “sometimes personal security is no less important then political freedoms.”
But Javedanpar said that Iran is conflicted about the violence in Turkey. On the one hand Erdogan can be demonized as a violent autocrat — and by association, so can the United States which backs him — but on the other, spillover to Iran can always take place.
“Is the regime worried? Yes,” Javedanpar concluded.
AP contributed to this report