Iran’s ‘Deep State’ Could Unseat Rouhani With A Khamenei-Backed Hard-Liner In Upcoming Elections

And if the Trump administration retains its tough stance on Tehran, it may end up boosting a powerful cleric linked to the massacre of thousands of political prisoners.
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The influence of the "deep state" looms over Rouhani as the presidential elections approach.
The influence of the "deep state" looms over Rouhani as the presidential elections approach.
ATTA KENARE via Getty Images

Iran’s presidential elections are fast approaching, and, as always, all the political groups, from the reactionary fundamentalists to the traditional conservatives, moderates and reformists, have been trying for months to position themselves for a strong run in May. But what is different this time around is the influence of the “deep state” ― the secret and semi-secret networks of military, security and intelligence forces that allegedly profess support for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ― which is setting itself up to decide the future president of Iran. The next few weeks are crucial.

Currently, a coalition of reformists and moderate conservatives is in favor of extending Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a second term. The traditional conservatives, who refer to themselves as the osoolgaraayaan, or the principlists, have been trying to agree on a single candidate to oppose Rouhani, but there are deep fissures in their ranks that may prevent them from unifying behind a single candidate. In past elections, situations such as this would put Rouhani at an advantage given that the main competition tends to be between the coalition of moderates and reformists, on the one hand, and the traditional conservatives, on the other. All indications for the upcoming election, however, suggest the battle may take a new turn, with Iran’s “deep state” determined to unseat the president and replace him with a reactionary hard-liner.

The stakes are especially high, because Ayatollah Khamenei is known to be ill and may pass away in the next few years, making the question of who will succeed him a crucial though implicit component of the vote. When he was elected as the supreme leader in 1989, he was finishing his second term as Iran’s president. Thus, whoever wins the next election will be influential if over the next four years a new supreme leader may have to be appointed.

“The 'deep state' ― the secret and semi-secret networks of military, security and intelligence forces that support Khamenei ― is poised to decide the next Iranian president.”

At the same time, Iran’s elections will have important ramifications for the Middle East, because when it comes to Iran’s role in the region, there are important differences between the coalition of the reformists and moderate conservatives and the hard-liners. Whereas the coalition believes that in Syria Iran should pursue its true national interests and avoid tying them to the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the hard-liners have been insisting on keeping Assad in power. Additionally, while the hard-liners have been uttering harsh rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archenemy in the region, and its war in Yemen, the Rouhani administration has been following a moderate approach to the kingdom, even proposing negotiations to help solve the current tension in the Iran-Saudi relationship.

Iran’s “deep state” is fiercely opposed to Rouhani. It is not happy with the nuclear deal he negotiated with Western powers, and views the current president as a closet liberal who threatens Iran’s theocracy. The Rouhani administration has also not granted large lucrative economic projects to the companies that are linked with the “deep state,” giving it yet another reason to organize against him.

As I have explained elsewhere, because the hard-liners are not happy with Rouhani, most, if not all, of Iran’s recent missile tests represent attempts by Iran’s “deep state” to interrupt the gradual normalization of relations between Iran and the West under the Rouhani administration and fuel tension instead. Thus, commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s influential security institution also known as the IRGC, have been fiercely attacking Rouhani in public, even accusing him of “treason” for the nuclear agreement. It is for such reasons that the “deep state” is determined to field its own candidate with the hope that Rouhani will be a one-term president, and it is in this context that a dark-horse candidate may emerge, with much speculation about the implications of the candidacy.

Iran's hard-liners are inclined to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
Iran's hard-liners are inclined to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
Sana Sana / Reuters

Though not officially confirmed, the dark-horse candidate is expected to be Ebrahim Raisi, a mid-rank cleric who is currently the custodian of a charitable foundation that manages the vast assets of the holy shrine of Shiite Imam Reza. Iran’s state news agency has indicated that the conservative cleric has been nominated, but he will not be official until after next week’s registration and vetting period for candidates is over. Born in 1960 in Mashhad, a religious part of Iran, Raisi has spent his life working in the judiciary controlled by Khamenei. He was the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy that monitors clerics and imprisons and/or defrocks dissidents. He is also a member of the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader and can theoretically sack him. In addition, he is a son-in-law of Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hard-line cleric who is an ardent supporter of Khamenei. Due to this history and ties to Khamenei, there is also speculation that he is on the shortlist of possible successors to the supreme leader. In fact, some believe that Raisi’s possible presidential run is intended to create a track record for him, showing that he can successfully rule a large country in time for the selection of the next supreme leader.

When Raisi was appointed to his current post in March 2016, hard-line press and websites immediately began referring to him as “Ayatollah Raisi,” in an attempt to elevate him among the clerics. But not only does Raisi not have the religious credentials to be an ayatollah, he has also in fact always been referred to as a “hojjat ol-Eslam,” a clerical rank below an ayatollah. In spite of this position, he has already begun to rise in the power hierarchy. Raisi was given an audience with top commanders of the IRGC after he began his new job, including the Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani and the IRGC chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Such a meeting in which IRGC commanders praised Raisi profusely and publicly is unprecedented in Iranian politics and suggests a concerted effort to raise public opinion of a candidate being both groomed to run and backed by the “deep state.” Since the IRGC commanders are hugely influential in the country and report only to Khamenei, the meeting between them and Raisi was especially significant and telling. At the same time, the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic, the national networks of television and radio that are controlled by the hard-liners, began regularly broadcasting news and reports about Raisi, highlighting in particular his work with poor, as well as multiple speeches by him, yet another indication that he is being tapped for a presidential run.

As a result of this increasing attention, however, Raisi has been subject to negative coverage as well. While hard-liners in the “deep state” have been propping him up, those in the opposite camp have been attempting to curtail his popularity by reminding the public of his dark past. Last summer, the family of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual leader of Iran’s democratic Green Movement, published an audio tape of a conversation Montazeri had had with the so-called “the death committee” in the summer of 1988 that acknowledged the atrocities committed by its members. The committee had been appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to decide the fate of the political prisoners toward the end of Iran-Iraq war. It is believed to be responsible for the execution of some 4,000 or so political prisoners from July to September of that year, which the vast majority of Iranians view as crimes against humanity. Raisi was a prominent member of that “death committee.”

“Some believe that Ebrahim Raisi’s possible presidential run is intended to create a track record for him in time for the selection of the next supreme leader.”

In the tape, the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri is heard calling the committee members, including Raisi, criminals and murderers, and declaring that history will also judge Khomeini a criminal for executing the political prisoners. The tape, which was distributed widely in Iran and in the diaspora ahead of the election, greatly hurt the image that the “deep state” was trying to create for Raisi as a pious, uncorrupted and kind “ayatollah.” It prompted the Special Court for Clergy to put Ahmad Montazeri, the late grand ayatollah’s son, on trial for “revealing state secrets,” even though the contents of this tape were both widely known in Iran and had already been described by Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in his memoirs, published 17 years ago.

Finding the charge to be politically inspired, Ahmad Montazeri said that “the verdict had been dictated from elsewhere,” a reference to Raisi who was still chief prosecutor of the court, as well as Mojtaba Khamenei, the ayatollah’s son, one of Iran’s most extremist clerics and a principal figure within the “deep state.” The young Khamenei is believed to be a strong supporter of Raisi, and thus is thought to have pressured the court to punish Montazeri both to avoid future leaks of this kind and to prevent the further damage of the presidential hopeful. Ahmad Montazeri was sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment, of which 15 years were suspended. However, the “deep state” was not able to completely succeed in punishing him for the leak. Khamenei and hard-liners retreated and Montazeri was recently released.

Despite his damaged image, speculations and rumors about Raisi running in the elections have not stopped. Entekhab, a website close to moderate clerics, recently reported that Raisi will compete with Rouhani in the upcoming elections. Credible sources in Tehran among the reformist camp have also told me that not only will Raisi run in the elections, but that he will also announce that, if elected, his principal vice president (Iran has 11 vice presidents) will be Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor, an IRGC brigadier general and two-time presidential candidate. This is presumably meant to reassure the public that his administration will consist of experienced officials. Ghalibaf himself is, however, involved in a corruption scandal.

The candidate many believe is being groomed to oust Rouhani was also part of a committee that ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
The candidate many believe is being groomed to oust Rouhani was also part of a committee that ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

What transpires over the next month will thus be crucial in determining what’s next for Iran. By law, the candidates must declare their candidacy formally and register with the ministry of interior by April 16, so that the Guardian Council, the constitutional body that vets candidates for almost all national elections, can examine their credentials and certify their qualifications. If Raisi does run, it will be interesting to see whether the “deep state” will succeed or if their pick will instead spur the kind of polarization that could benefit the reformists and moderates, leading to a large turnout of voters in favor of Rouhani.

For those watching from outside the country, the re-election of Rouhani is important for maintaining a moderate Iranian foreign policy. Rouhani is key to stabilizing the situation in the Middle East and continuing the gradual normalization of the country’s relations with the West that the nuclear deal started. But if the Trump administration should take any action at this crucial time to provide Iran’s “deep state” with an excuse to provoke the population against the reformists and moderates ― putting Iran “on notice” again or slapping more sanctions, for instance ― Rouhani’s chances of another term may rapidly deteriorate.

Under normal circumstances, and given people’s experience with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency during which corruption was rampant and severe economic sanctions were imposed on Iran, Rouhani should win. But these are not normal circumstances. The Trump administration’s belligerence toward Iran, the continuing wars in Syria and Iraq in which Iran is involved, the slow economic recovery in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement and the “deep state’s” determination to pull all levers of power to remove Rouhani from the political scene, are all combining to create a black cloud of uncertainty ahead of Iran’s presidential elections.

This piece has been updated to reflect the announcement of Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential nomination. He will not be confirmed until the official registration period for candidates is closed.

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