Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Image Credit: Reuters

On December 26 an announcement was made concerning the formation of a new conservative faction, the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces (PFIRF). The new group pledged to unite all Iranian conservative factions, or Principalists as they are known in Iran, behind a single conservative candidate. Their goal is to avoid splitting the vote in the conservative challenge to incumbent president Hassan Rouhani in the May 2017 election.

The group has garnered the support of several Islamic organisations and its first convention on February 23 was reportedly attended by 3,000 individuals representing 25 parties. The goals of the convention were to ratify the PFIRF’s manifesto and elect 30 members to the organisation’s central committee.

The newly-elected committee is dominated by radicals who, over the past four years, have not shied away from expressing their hostile position towards Rouhani and his foreign policy team, which negotiated a deal with the United States over Iran’s nuclear programme.

During the PFIRF convention, the 3,000 representatives developed a shortlist of ten presidential candidates which was then pared down to one final.

The PFIRF elected Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as their final candidate for the presidential election, but Raisi declined the PFIRF’s offer. Raisi is the custodian of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, which is responsible for the management of the extensive assets belonging to the shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam, Imam Reza. In some circles, Raisi is rumoured to be one of the candidates to replace Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he passes away.

Some observers maintain that the reason behind Raisi’s refusal was his concern that if he loses the presidential election, he would have no chance to assume the position of Iran’s supreme leader, the highest position in Iranian politics. Whether Raisi maintains his position or changes his mind and enters the presidential race remains to be seen. Notable in the aforementioned gathering was the absence of parliament chairman, Ali Larijani, a Principalist who represents the moderate-conservative faction (not to be mistaken for the moderates led by Rouhani). Larijani is now distancing himself from the hardline conservatives that attended the PFIRF summit.

On February 26, shortly after the PFIRF convention, Hussain Ali Amiri, Iran’s Vice-President for Parliamentary Affairs, officially announced that President Hassan Rouhani would run for his second term. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), refusing to hide its joy, reacted to the news in its official political organ, the weekly Sobhe Sadeq. “The most important conclusion that can be drawn from Rouhani’s candidacy announcement is that the theory of there being no serious rival to Rouhani ... is a fallacy and developments such as the emergence of the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces are being taken seriously [by the moderates/reformists].”

A tough re-election battle

The IRGC is officially banned from taking political sides. However, given the monumental financial resources of the IRGC, Rouhani can face a tough re-election battle if the IRGC pledges its support to the PFRIF. In a speech to election officials on February 25, Rouhani expressed his concern about interference from the IRGC and its affiliated volunteer militia organisation, Basij, which is said to have millions of members.

He stated: “We all have to be careful that government resources are not used to favor one individual or one political viewpoint.” In a clear reference to the possible interference of the IRGC and its affiliate intuitions, he said: “If someone violates the [election laws] and is using public funds, [be it] a military force, a security force, or an armed force, we have to shout out and stand up.” 

In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith from a small town in Iran, who was almost completely unknown in the country and in the international community, rose to become the president of Iran.

Eight days before the election, the website Baztab, which was managed by ex-IRGC members and is no longer operational, published a news item that was lost in the excitement and prevailing clamour. It read: “A number of commanders of the military are involved in vast activities aimed at supporting one specific candidate. These commanders have gathered high-ranking officers of the Basij and explicitly ordered them to convey to their personnel that Basij should support that specific candidate.”

Following his defeat in the election to Ahmadinejad, former president, the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, stated in an interview: “In an unprecedented action, by using billions from Baitulmal (assets of the Islamic government) and government resources in an organised way, some individuals interfered illegally with the elections ... All I can say is that I ask God to protect me.”

Rouhani seems to fear that history will repeat itself and he will experience Rafsanjani’s fate in the upcoming elections.

 

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.