March 16, 2017
Is Iran's President Rouhani on his way out?
IRGC officers alike recently have directed withering attacks against the president ahead of the May presidential elections. Also, while Khamenei normally moderates such conflicts -- this time he’s fueling them. Rouhani’s conservative opponents are notoriously bad at uniting around a candidate, so his defeat is far from inevitable. The U.S. should be wary because if a hardline president replaces Rouhani, then Iran could move away from Rouhani’s vision of limited economic and diplomatic engagement with the West.Conservative politicians and senior
Rouhani’s prospects hinge on the electorate’s perception of his economic success. That is exactly what his critics are attacking from different directions. According to Khamenei, Rouhani has not prioritized the Supreme Leader’s autarkic interpretation of the Resistance Economy doctrine. The regime designed the doctrine before the 2015 nuclear deal to make Iran’s economy resistant to future sanctions. Khamenei and Rouhani approached the problem in different ways. Khamenei has called for limited economic integration with the West. Rouhani has pushed for integration moving toward normalization. Khamenei fears that normalization would expose Iran to infiltration by Western values. He and the conservatives see Rouhani’s approach as a risk to the regime’s security. Assembly of Experts, charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader, and Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani have assailed Rouhani’s implementation of the doctrine. Khamenei has now thrown fuel on that fire.
The Iranian populace likely cares more about whether the nuclear deal has brought them as much economic benefit as Rouhani promised during his 2013 campaign. Notably, nearly 75 percent of Iranians polled in a recent survey stated that the deal hadn’t improved their living conditions. The Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces, the organization established to choose a single conservative candidate to compete against Rouhani, has picked up on this sentiment, censuring the president for failing to present a “clear plan” to address unemployment.
Khamenei’s support for conservative attacks against Rouhani doesn’t mean that the Supreme Leader will keep him from running again—yet. Khamenei is facing the conundrum of his own succession, and may be loath to lose a president with whom he has developed a positive working relationship -- especially in the absence of a clear hardliner alternative. The Popular Front has not yet chosen an opposing candidate. The conservatives have struggled historically to unify; for example, four hard-core conservatives split the vote against Rouhani in the 2013 elections. Opinion polls have also suggested that Rouhani’s popular support remains strong, even if it is sliding.
The Iranian president has little control over foreign and national security policies--and none over Tehran’s military. Yet a hardliner president would likely not only be more rhetorically and diplomatically aggressive against the US and its allies than Rouhani has been, but also champion a more isolationist economic policy. Furthermore, a conservative president close to the IRGC might reverse Rouhani’s efforts to reduce the Guards’ economic and political influence in favor of retaining the status quo or even empowering the Guards. Any of these outcomes would have detrimental implications for US policy toward Iran and throughout the region.