Iran Presidential Hopefuls Sign Up as Rouhani Defends Record

  • Voting will deliver verdict on success of 2015 nuclear accord
  • Next month’s election seen as critical for relations with West

Iran began registering potential candidates for next month’s presidential election, kicking off a contest that will in large part be a verdict on incumbent Hassan Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the West.

More than 70 hopefuls, including one woman, signed up by midday at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, a process that runs until April 15. Absent on the first day were Rouhani and conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a 56-year-old ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose surprise announcement to run last week jolted a race previously seen as a straightforward contest for the president.

The election will help determine whether Iran remains committed to Rouhani’s policies that ended its international isolation with the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. The moderate cleric is facing mounting frustration with economic policies that critics say haven’t yet benefited poor Iranians -- criticism echoed recently by Khamenei, who has final say over state matters.

Rouhani, 68, responded on Monday with a staunch defense of his economic record at a lengthy press conference. While he didn’t formally declare his candidacy for the May 19 race, he’s widely expected to seek a second term. The economy has improved under his government, which stabilized the currency, curbed inflation and bolstered growth, he said.

‘Incomes Double’

“We’ve improved people’s living conditions from every point of view,” Rouhani told reporters. “Those on minimum wages, pensioners and those on welfare support have seen their incomes double in the past four years.”

Persuading the poor that they’ll be better off with him will be key to Rouhani’s chances, according to Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“Rouhani undoubtedly needs to expand his voter base by appealing to fence-sitters and lower-income voters, who are susceptible to populist promises of a rapid economic recovery,” Vaez said in an email. “Higher-income voters are already in his basket, as they are unlikely to tilt toward the conservatives.”

How the ballot will unfold

  • April 11-15 - Hopeful candidates register at Interior Ministry.
  • April 16-20 - Guardian Council screens candidates’ background (may be extended).
  • April 26-27 - Interior Ministry announces names of approved candidates.
  • April 28-May 17 - Campaigning.
  • May 19 - Voting.
  • May 26 - Second round if no candidate secures a majority of ballots in first round.

In a poll by the University of Maryland published in January 73 percent said the nuclear deal hadn’t improved their living conditions, and support for the president dropped below 50 percent.

Rouhani won the presidency in a first-round landslide in 2013, aided by a divided field of five conservative opponents. He made normalizing Iran’s relations with the West the cornerstone of his presidency, and has tried to open the country to trade and investment.

Next month’s vote puts that policy at risk, as the Iranian conservative establishment is more hostile to the U.S. and its allies -- though it is not clear that a conservative victory would lead to Iran backing out of the nuclear deal, which received Khamenei’s approval.

Syria Ties

It also isn’t yet clear whether other high-profile conservatives will leave the challenge to Raisi. Were Rouhani to lose, he would be the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic to serve a single term. Prospective candidates will be screened by the conservative Guardian Council, composed of six senior clerics and six jurists, before being allowed to run.

“This year’s campaign has had a belated kick off,” said Vaez at the International Crisis Group. “The sooner Rouhani starts campaigning, the sooner rivals will mobilize against him.”

The U.S.’s ties with Iran under President Donald Trump have already taken a dive, with the White House putting Tehran “on notice” following a missile test and including Iranians in a now-stalled immigration ban. Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has come in for fierce criticism following the April 4 chemical weapons attack that left scores of Syrians dead.

None of that makes life easier for Rouhani, who on Monday appeared relaxed and confident. He emphasized inflation, which fell from 40 percent when he was elected in 2013 to 9 percent in the latest data. He also shrugged off pledges from would-be presidential challengers including Hamid Baghaei, a former aide of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to substantially increase cash subsidies for all Iranians.

The nuclear deal has allowed Iran to increase oil production to 3.8 million barrels a day, from a low of 2.5 million in 2013. But remaining sanctions have hobbled investment and financing of Iran deals, meaning he’s failed to meet some of the expectations unleashed by the accord.

Asked why he wasn’t able to solve the country’s problems in 100 days, as a reporter from the Hamshahri newspaper said he promised, Rouhani denied ever saying it and said he’s been “waiting for four years” for the issue to come up.

“Only someone who is out of their mind would say that in 100 days they can solve every problem,” he said.

— With assistance by Ladane Nasseri

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