Who’s left to run against Rouhani?

I feel you, bro

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hypothetical “political comeback” has been one of the more interesting stories in the run up to next year’s Iranian presidential election, had a whole lot of cold water dumped on his plans today:

Ayatollah Khamenei made the statement about Mr. Ahmadinejad during a lecture for seminary students at his office. He was responding to rumors, circulating in Tehran for weeks, that he had barred Mr. Ahmadinejad from participating in the coming election.

“Someone, a man, came to me,” he said, presumably of Mr. Ahmadinejad, in the typically elliptical style of Shiite clerics. “I told him not to take part in that certain issue, both for his own and the country’s good.”

“I did not tell him not to participate,” the supreme leader continued. “I said I do not find it advisable that you participate.”

If that sounds a little wishy-washy, it’s only because, technically, Khamenei can only advise candidates about running, he’s not allowed to block them from doing so. But in Iran, the “advice” of the Supreme Leader is generally the last word on a subject. Ahmadinejad could still run, obviously, but he’d be publicly flouting Khamenei’s wishes, which would definitely hurt him with voters, and the Guardian Council, which can bar candidates from running, seems likely to disqualify him, something they were considering before Khamenei piped up.

This is a bit of a surprise from Khamenei, who hasn’t exactly been current president Hassan Rouhani’s biggest fan of late, but it’s not that surprising–Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a very public spat between him and Khamenei over political appointments and, generally, over the powers of the president vis-à-vis the Supreme Leader. Rouhani, though he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Khamenei and has criticized some of the more restrictive elements of the Iranian regime, hasn’t tried to openly challenge Khamenei’s authority the way Ahmadinejad did (his criticisms have been carefully worded to avoid directly going after Khamenei). And don’t discount lingering resentment over the 2009 election and subsequent protests/crackdown as a factor–Khamenei would undoubtedly like to avoid reopening that can of worms. Ahmadinejad and his pals are also at the center of ongoing corruption problems in the Iranian economy, problems that have done almost as much to discourage foreign investment in Iran as the lingering uncertainty over sanctions has. Add all that up and a potential Ahmadinejad candidacy becomes a pretty toxic mix.

Plus, it’s entirely possible that Khamenei values the stability that would come from yet another two-term presidency (no Iranian president since Khamenei himself was elected in 1981 has failed to be reelected) over having a more like-minded person in that office.

Rouhani is the obvious beneficiary of the Supreme Leader’s “advice.” Though his poll numbers are weak and he’s clearly vulnerable, the past few weeks have seen his three highest profile potential challengers hit major roadblocks. Ahmadinejad was polling within single digits of Rouhani in recent surveys, so he was a genuine threat to Rouhani’s reelection. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the conservative mayor of Tehran who finished a very distant second to Rouhani in 2013, is caught in the middle of, shall we say, an auspiciously-timed corruption scandal that may have derailed his already uphill bid. And the guy I believe was the biggest potential hurdle Rouhani had to face, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, made a relatively esoteric remark to Iranian media a couple of weeks ago that seemed like a disavowal of any 2017 ambitions:

“I am a soldier of Velayat and the Islamic Republic regime and the brave population, which I value more than my own life,” Soleimani said in a statement published by Tasnim news agency on Thursday. “God willing, I will remain in this role of soldier until the end of my life.” Velayat refers to Iran’s ultimate arbiter on all matters of state, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Now, that’s esoteric enough to allow for Soleimani to eventually run for office. He could say that he’s still a “soldier,” just fighting a different kind of battle, or some such malarkey. But considering he said it in response to weeks of speculation about 2017, it certainly seems like he’s leaning against running next year–what he does after that is still up in the air.

Still, if Soleimani changes his mind and runs, all bets are off. He might well be the favorite in a head-to-head campaign against Rouhani at this point.

Assuming Soleimani indeed doesn’t run, and Ghalibaf is too tainted to pose a serious challenge, the only high-profile declared candidate is Saeed Jalili, who was Ahmadinejad’s top nuclear negotiator. Jalili was seen as a strong candidate in 2013–it’s been speculated that Khamenei wanted him to win–before he flopped to a third-place finish behind Rouhani and Ghalibaf. He could do better this time given Rouhani’s weakness, and it’s even possible that Khamenei’s move against Ahmadinejad was intended to clear Jalili’s path. But Jalili barely cleared 11 percent of the vote in 2013, so it would be a miracle if he did so much better this time around that he was able to topple Rouhani. His background in the nuclear file does, however, give him a compelling perch from which to run against the nuclear deal, which isn’t polling very well at all among Iranians these days. He’s a long-shot, but maybe not as big a long-shot as you might think.

There are a couple of intriguing reform-minded potentials out there, like Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson Hassan, but it’s unlikely that a serious reformist candidate would emerge to run against Rouhani and risk splitting the moderate/reformist vote. Ali Larijani, the Chairman of the Majles and somebody who might be able to give Rouhani a run for his money, actually has a good relationship with Rouhani despite being on the principlist/conservative end  of the Iranian political spectrum. He’s another unlikely challenger for that reason.


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