Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with Iranian officials and ambassadors of Islamic countries, in Tehran, Iran, April 25, 2017. Leader.ir/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. Image Credit: REUTERS

The poll oven in Iran is heating up as May 19, the day of the presidential election, nears. While there are six candidates, the main contenders are the centrist, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, his reformist, first Vice-President Eshaq Jahanigi (he has entered the race to protect Rouhani during the debates, but will most likely withdraw by endorsing Rouhani), Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric who is said to be the deep state’s choice, and the conservative, former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Galibaf.

Aside from the candidates’ campaigns, their televised debates and the war between the conservatives’ and the moderates’/reformists’ media, what is notable is the position that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has taken in discrediting Rouhani’s core campaign message.

President Rouhani has repeatedly said that the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) which is commonly referred to in Farsi as Barjam, has “removed the malevolent war shadow over Iran”. In response, in a February televised address, Khamenei said, in an angry tone: “It is said that in the absence of Barjam, Iran would have become engulfed in war. This is a pure lie.”

However, during his campaign, in an April 29 speech that ignored Khamenei’s thoughts on the matter, Rouhani again raised the issue, when he said: “People should determine whether they want to live with dignity or [under] the malevolent shadow of war.”

Khamenei did not waste time and on April 30, in a head-on clash with Rouhani, publicly reacted to the latter’s comments and said: “Sometimes we hear and have heard in the past that certain individuals (meaning Rouhani) say, ‘when we came along and assumed responsibility, we managed to take away the shadow of war over the country’.” He added: “No. These statements are not right. It is the presence of the people that has removed the shadow of war, and not the authorities.”

But why has this issue become a matter of public confrontation between the Iranian leader and the president? And why has it been raised again and again so close to the election? What is Rouhani’s objective?

Rouhani has chosen Barjam as the central piece in his campaign. In highlighting the significance of his administration’s success in overcoming the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme, Rouhani pursues two goals.

The first is to use the realisation of Barjam as a winning card in the election. Rouhani’s rationale is probably as follows: ‘If it was not because of my administration’s significant effort, the deep state’s insistence on rejecting any compromise with the US would have pushed the country to the brink of war or, at best, the country would have struggled under draconian sanctions.’

The second is to warn the voters that, should they elect a conservative as president, the nuclear deal would likely crumble and the nation would return to living under crippling sanctions and the threat of a destructive war.

Why does Khamenei adamantly discredit Rouhani?

Khamenei, who views himself as the leading figure of the political current receiving blame from the centrist Rouhani for rejecting a compromise with the US for several years, categorically denies that such a position would put the nation at risk of war with the US. To that end, he contends that Rouhani’s argument — that in the absence of Barjam, war would have been inevitable — is nothing but “a pure lie”.

Meanwhile, by downplaying the significance of the nuclear deal and the risks attached to its collapse, Khamenei seeks to block Rouhani from making large gains at the expense of his conservative rivals, which would lead to his victory in the upcoming election. According to sources, Khamenei’s choice is Ebrahim Raisi, a second-tier cleric with no significant political background who appeared in this presidential race out of nowhere. Insiders speculate that, by participating in this presidential race, he seeks to appear on the Iranian political map to establish his position as a first-tier cleric and politician before being considered for the big leap towards leadership.

The Iranian supreme leader’s statements have likely been influenced by a recent development in the US as well. Subsequent to his April 18 letter to the Congress, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Congress that President Donald Trump might pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal because of Iran’s support of terrorism and its destabilising role in the Middle East.

This is an alarming development that could lead to the collapse of the nuclear deal. Perhaps understanding this reality, Khamenei has sought to prevent anxiety and panic overtaking Iran under his leadership. As a result, he rejects the theory of the inevitability of war should the nuclear deal crumble.

Additionally, when Khamenei emphasises on the role of the Iranian people in preventing “the enemy” from entering a war with Iran — as opposed to the role of the nuclear deal — he is sending them a message. In a speech on April 21, he urged the Iranian people to get out and vote. “The people’s presence on the [political] stage would bring immunity to the Islamic establishment and our beloved country.” In short, he argues that a high voter turnout in the election would legitimise the Islamic system and thus bar the US from attacking Iran. Simply put, he is asserting to the Iranians that if they want to shield themselves from a US attack, the key is in their hands.

He also warned the Iranians that “the enemy” was waiting to see that they were not actively participating in the election. He added, “If people are not present [on the political stage] they [the Americans] would increase their aggression several times.”

Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.