The waning influence of Iran’s leading moderate Hassan Rouhani

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As Iran’s best-known moderate Hassan Rouhani was being blocked from the powerful body with responsibility to appoint the country’s supreme leader, his hardline successor as president, Ebrahim Raisi, was handed a clear run at the same authority.

The publication late last month of the list of eligible candidates for the elected Assembly of Experts rammed home to Iran’s pro-reform forces that their influence was badly waning, as hardliners consolidated their grip on power. The blocking of a raft of reformist candidates for parliamentary elections and the predicted low turnout for both votes on March 1 has only added to their disillusionment.

The elections come at a critical juncture for Iran, where the 84-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held sway as the political and religious authority since 1989. His death over the next eight years would hand the assembly the job of picking a successor, determining the country’s future for decades to come.

The Guardian Council that vets Iran’s electoral candidates gave no reason for preventing Rouhani, president for eight years until 2021, from standing for the 88-member assembly. As he was being disqualified in the Tehran constituency, Raisi was approved as the only candidate in South Khorasan, meaning he would run unopposed in the electoral process.

“When a single vote is enough for Ebrahim Raisi to enter the Assembly of Experts, why should that be called an election?” asked Ahmad Zeidabadi, a reformist activist. It was all part of a hardline plan “to take control of the ruling bodies and transform [themselves] into a hegemonic power with the final say on political matters,” he said.

Iran’s Assembly of Experts
Iran’s Assembly of Experts has the responsibility to appoint the supreme leader © Iranian Presidency Office/Handout/AP

The question of whether the hardline-run Guardian Council would sideline Rouhani was viewed as a test case for how far the prevailing forces would go to exert their dominance. Rouhani, who signed the landmark 2015 nuclear accord with world powers, is a two-term president with a seat on the Assembly of Experts since 1999.

Former vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri questioned the decision to reject a candidate who six years ago won 24mn electoral votes, while former minister Ali Jannati deemed it a “scandalous move” and an affront to Iran’s constitution.

Raisi has not commented on the fate of his rival, but his deputy for political affairs, Mohammad Hosseini, noted how Rouhani had sought to distance himself from the policies of the Islamic republic since his presidency ended.

Mohammad-Taqi Naqdali, a conservative member of parliament, said the disqualification had been influenced by parliamentary reports submitted to the judiciary highlighting Rouhani’s alleged non-compliance with the law.

Rouhani has been target for hardliners since the nuclear deal with world powers collapsed three years later when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew his country from the agreement.

Hardliners view this as a national embarrassment, all the more so because it was accompanied by swingeing international sanctions that have undermined the economy and made life very difficult for ordinary Iranians.

President Ebrahim Raisi, right, meets Grand Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri
President Ebrahim Raisi, right, meets Grand Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri © Iranian Presidency/ZUMA/Shutterstock

Raisi loyalists also hold the previous Rouhani government accountable for high inflation, a housing crisis and poor oil sales.

Mahmoud Vaezi, a senior politician close to the former president, said the hardliners had “been putting the blame for all the Iran’s shortcomings on Rouhani’s administration, even while they’ve been in power for more than two years.”

Raisi’s position as the sole candidate in his assembly seat has also drawn scrutiny, leading to speculation that a token challenger will be drafted in. But such suggestions have only added to the sense of pessimism around the elections.

Many reformists already view the process as a lost cause, pointing to the disqualification of a raft of candidates linked to Rouhani’s party. Reformists say that only about 30 moderate and pro-reform figures remain in the race.

Younger Iranians in particular have soured on voting, which contributed to the mass protests that erupted after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022. Vaezi cited recent polls to suggest that fewer than a third of voters would cast a ballot, dropping as low as 13 per cent in Tehran.

“If we vote, we’d give a legitimacy that this regime doesn’t deserve,” said Amir-Reza, a private sector employee. “And it will have no impact anyway, because hardliners aren’t giving up. Let’s at least show through a boycott of the election that their policies have no popular support so as to discredit them.” 

Young Iranians at a cafe in Tehran, Iran
Young Iranians at a café in Tehran. Many of Iran’s youth have become disillusioned with the election process © Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/Reuters

Ahmad Khatami, a Friday prayer leader who sits on the Assembly of Experts, recently warned that “antirevolutionaries” were seeking to turn March 1 “into a referendum against the establishment,” underlining the tensions around the election.

These forces were “encouraging people not to vote, so they can achieve at the polls what they couldn’t” in the 2022 protests, he added.

The disqualifications have also extended to senior clerical figures from the conservative camp, with two former intelligence ministers barred from running for the elections, domestic media reported.

Vaezi said stopping the rot would require a radical shift from the Guardian Council to open up the vote, while insisting the ballot box was the only option. “Those who argue in favour of not voting won’t win, because that will only help the minority in power to continue to rule.”

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