Iran is on the verge of a major change of power. Many moderate politicians were not admitted to the presidential election, and the country is threatened with radicalization. One reason for this is Donald Trump’s legacy.
The outrage is great, especially among the moderate forces in Iran. Friday’s presidential election was a farce even before the actual vote. Last month, the electoral body excluded the most promising candidates from the moderate forces in the country from the vote. Now the country faces a fundamental change of power, with radical forces reaching for power again after eight years.
The Islamist-nationalist camp in Iran, which sees the West as the enemy and rejects any rapprochement, is on the rise. This is causing resignation above all among the reform-oriented part of the population. The latter is weak, lacks opportunities and can only watch as the progress made under the comparatively moderate President Hassan Ruhani risks evaporating into thin air.
The USA as an Enemy Image
By influencing the election, the religious leadership is showing one thing above all: It feels secure in its power. It does not fear an upheaval, and it currently has more support among the population than it did before the last election in 2017. This seems unusual because the country is in a severe economic crisis, and many people are not well. Critics of the regime are still persecuted and killed, and there has been no progress in gender equality.
Yet in the face of poverty and the suffering of the population, Iranian hardliners point primarily to the United States as responsible. This strategy has shown ever greater success in recent years, mainly due to Donald Trump.
The former U.S. president met the Iranian leadership above all with harshness. He staged big the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, celebrated himself for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian military strategist was the mastermind behind many attacks and assaults to push the West out of the Middle East. But he was well-liked in Iran; after he was killed by a U.S. drone in Iraq, hundreds of thousands turned out in Tehran for a funeral march in his honor.
Name-calling and saber-rattling
Under Trump, not only were sanctions against Iran tightened, but the U.S. launched an economic war to cut the dictatorship off from the international economic and financial system. The Iranian population suffers the most from this, and it was not difficult for the regime to propagate their Western image of the enemy.
The Trump years were also accompanied by repeated saber-rattling. The former president was not wrong in his criticism of the autocratic regime in Iran, but diplomatically his insults were a super-GAU – many bridges of communication were destroyed during this time.
Trump strengthens radical forces
Trump’s tough Iran course was primarily motivated by domestic politics, in order to keep promises to his voters. His strategic calculation: the suffering of the Iranian people due to the sanctions will cause them to revolt against the leadership. Before the presidential election, we know that the exact opposite happened.
The radical forces that Trump actually wanted to fight were strengthened in Iran because of him. The mistakes of U.S. policy are now taking revenge, especially for the reformers in the Iranian population.
Many people do not even want to go to the polls on Friday, even state media are reporting. According to polls, only about 40 percent of the more than 59 million eligible voters want to participate. Four years ago, the figure was more than 70 percent. “It’s not who votes for whom, but who doesn’t vote at all that is the real challenge this time,” says reformist candidate Abdolnasser Hemmati, describing the political message of low voter turnout.
“My grandfather didn’t want this”
But even a low turnout will not prevent the transition of power; the low interest in the election mainly shows the frustration in the population. Above all, people are disappointed in Ruhani and the reformers, who have failed to keep many of their promises. Added to this is the economic crisis that has been going on for three years because of U.S. sanctions. Last month, the electoral body – also known as the Guardian Council – caused nationwide outrage.
Without explanation, the council simply excluded several renowned politicians from the election. Among them were a current vice president, a longtime parliamentary leader and, in the person of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ex-president and one-time flagship politician of the system.
Reactions to this were fierce, even in regime circles. “My grandfather wanted an Islamic republic, not an Islamic rule that makes decisions behind closed doors,” said Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Iran’s revolutionary leader. Even Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was not pleased with the sortings out. There was talk in the media of the hardliners “settling accounts” with the reformers and a “coup” against President Ruhani. Many Iranians therefore want to boycott this staged and undemocratic election. “Me too,” even Ahmadinejad outed himself as a refusenik.
Hardliner is big favorite
Seven candidates were admitted, five from the hardline wing and two lesser reformers. Three have since withdrawn, leaving four. The favorite to succeed Hassan Ruhani is considered to be the arch-conservative cleric Ebrahim Raeissi. Four years ago he was defeated by Ruhani, but this time his path to the presidency is much easier. This is because Ruhani is not allowed to run again after two terms in office.
The 60-year-old Raeissi is head of the Supreme Court and a close confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual and political leader of the Islamic Republic. He holds a key position in the billion-dollar religious conglomerate Astan Kods Rasawi, the largest landowner in Iran, which includes mines, textile factories, a pharmaceutical company and several major oil and gas firms. For the opposition in exile, his name is indelibly linked to the mass executions of Marxists and other leftists in 1988, when Raeissi was deputy prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.
Raeissi’s opponents, who at best are considered outsiders, all come from the Iranian power apparatus: members of the Arbitration Council, former government officials, ex-military officers. Anything other than a clear victory for Raeisi would be a huge surprise.
Danger of new conflicts
The public debate revolves almost exclusively around Raeissi. The 60-year-old justice chief is not only the top candidate of the hardliners, but also the establishment’s preferred president. Politically, Raeissi is a blank slate, but he has sharply criticized Ruhani’s moderate course several times in recent years – including the 2015 nuclear agreement with the five UN veto powers and Germany.