In Iran’s Elections the ‘Deep State’s’ Taboos Are Broken and Redlines Are Crossed

Iran’s 12th presidential elections will be held on Friday May 19. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate conservative backed by the Reformists is running for his second term. Initially, there were five other candidates in the race, who were Eshaq Jahangiri, Rouhani’s Principal Vice President (Iran has 11 vice presidents), Mostafa Hashemi Taba, a Reformist and former government minister, and three hardline candidates, namely, Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and Custodian of Imam Reza (Shiites’ 8th Imam) Shrine in Mashhad (a city in northeast Iran), Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (an IRGC Brigadier General), and former minister of culture and Islamic guidance Mostafa Mirsalim. Jahangiri had indicated that he would withdraw from the race. He had decided to run only because the coalition of moderate conservatives and Reformists that is backing Rouhani was concerned about the Guardian Council (a Constitutional body that vets the candidates for almost all national elections) rejecting Rouhani’s qualifications for a second term and, thus, Jahangiri represented its "plan B" in case Rouhani was disqualified. Hashemi Taba has asked the people to vote for Rouhani. Daily tracking polls indicate that Mirsalim may receive less than 1 percent of the votes. But, he has been acting as the "attack dog" of the conservatives, criticizing the Reformists.

Raisi, a reactionary and ultra-hardliner who has been dubbed "ayatollah massacre by Iran’s leading dissident Akbar Ganji for Raisi’s involvement in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988" [a nickname that is now widely used in Iran], is backed by Iran’s "deep state" – the secret and semi-secret networks of military, security, and intelligence officers and agents that exert tremendous behind-the-scene influence on Iran’s political and economic affairs. Ghalibaf also has some support among the hardline military officers. Daily tracking polls indicate that Rouhani is far ahead of his two main rivals. That does not, however, guarantee his outright victory. In Iran’s presidential election, which is akin to the French system, a candidate will win if he receives more than 50 percent of the votes. Otherwise, the top two vote getters will go to a second round of voting to decide the winner.

On Monday May 15 Jahangiri withdrew from the race, as he had promised. On the same day, the "deep state" succeeded in pressuring Ghalibaf to withdraw from the race. But, it is not guaranteed that all of Ghalibaf’s supporters will vote for Raisi, because Ghalibaf does enjoy some support among the conservative middle and upper middle class in large cities who are turned off by Raisi’s rigid and reactionary positions regarding the role of religion in the society. In fact, polls indicated that at least 20 percent of Ghalibaf’s voters will vote for Rouhani, hence ensuring his outright victory without a need for a second round of voting. But, there is still great uncertainty, because the moderates and Reformists are concerned about the IRGC committing fraud, as it happened in 2009.

Three nationally-televised debates were held among the six candidates, with the last of them being last Friday. Working in a coordinated manner, Rouhani and Jahangiri fiercely attacked Ghalibaf and Raisi, and in the process made stunning revelations about the two men that broke many taboos and crossed many of the hard-liners’ "scared" redlines, which were completely unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. In particular, the revelations about Ghalibaf would surely turn off some of his supporters, causing them to switch their votes to Rouhani. Among the revelations were:

Jahangiri revealed that the leader of the vigilante group that attacked Britain’s Embassy in Tehran on 29 November 2011, and Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad on 2 January 2016 is a close aide of Ghalibaf and works for his campaign.

During the third presidential debate Rouhani revealed that in 2005, when Ghalibaf was also a presidential candidate in that year’s election, there was a secret case against him before Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for his involvement in illegal activities, and only Rouhani’s intervention, who at that time was Secretary-General of the Council, had prevented the case from being publicized. Although Rouhani did not reveal the nature of the illegal activities, credible but anonymous sources in Tehran have reported that Ghalibaf, who was the commander of national police from 2000-2005, had reportedly received bribes from narcotic traffickers that were transporting their drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe through Iran. Rouhani also revealed that Ghalibaf played a leading role in putting down university students demonstrations in July 2003.

The revelation by Rouhani that relatives of Ghalibaf in his hometown of Mashhad are involved in illegal confiscation of land added to Ghalibaf’s and Raisi’s woes, as Ghalibaf had already been accused of using his office as Tehran’s Mayor to transfer large lands in some of Tehran’s best neighborhoods to his close aides, wife, and son.

Jahangiri revealed that in 2012 when Iran was under the toughest economic sanctions by the United States and its allies over Iran’s nuclear program, the poor was under tremendous pressure, and even lifesaving medicines could not found in Iran due to sanctions, Ghalibaf was throwing lavish parties in Tehran in which "$100 ice creams were being served."

When Raisi attacked the Rouhani administration for not fighting corruption hard enough, and even accused his government of corruption, Rouhani mocked Raisi’s long tenure in the judiciary. As the principal deputy to the judiciary chief from 2004 to 2014, Raisi’s main task was to prosecute the corruption cases, but as Rouhani pointed out, Raisi did nothing to stop the vast corruption during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration from 2005-2013.

Rouhani also revealed that the "deep state" is deeply involved in Raisi’s campaign, bussing members of the Basij, paramilitary militia controlled by the IRGC to his campaign rallies, and using the state’s resources for doing so. He also revealed that Raisi has been using the vast holdings of Imam Reza’s shrine in order to buy favor and attract votes in small towns and villages. Turning toward Raisi, the President said, "You can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court, you can even issue an arrest order. But please don’t abuse religion for the sake of power.”

Both Jahangiri and Rouhani pointed out that many leading members of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration are now working for Raisi’s campaign. Thus, they warned the nation that if Raisi is elected, the same failed economic policies of Ahmadinejad will again be implemented, policies that led to not only hyperinflation of 40-50 percent, unemployment and dramatic increase in the cost of the most essential food stuff, but also deep corruption and looting of the national resources with which the Rouhani Administration is still grappling.

Because they were not able to deny the revelations, Ghalibaf and Raisi, backed by the "deep state" and its mass media empire – several news agencies, a large number of websites, multiple newspapers, and the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic, the national networks of state-run television and radio stations – have been fiercely attacking Rouhani and the Reformists. Several leading commanders of the IRGC have also attacked Rouhani, threatening him implicitly. Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the current hardline deputy to the judiciary chief and its principal spokesman also threatened Rouhani with prosecution "after the elections." The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on the candidates – widely believed to mean the Reformists ones – not to cross certain immoral" lines. He threatened that those who do so will be "slapped."

But, the threats and finger pointing by the "deep state" and the IRGC have not stopped Rouhani. He accused the IRGC of trying to sabotage the nuclear agreement that his administration signed in July 2015 with P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – by carrying out provocative missile tests and inscribing on the missiles "death to America" and "death to Israel." He called for the IRGC to return to its barracks and just be preoccupied with the defense of the country, a reference to the deep involvement of the IRGC and its engineering arm, the Khatam al-Anbia Reconstruction Headquarters, in Iran’s economic affairs. Rouhani repeated his demand that, "If we want a better economy, we should not let groups with security and political backing to get involved in the economy."

After Raisi expressed his support for freedom of expression and thought, Rouhani, in a campaign speech, shouted back, "For the past 38 years [since the February 1979 Iranian Revolution] the only thing they [Raisi and hardliners] knew how to do were execution and imprisonment [of dissidents]. Do not talk about freedom, because it will bother and embarrass freedom," a reference Raisi’s long career in the judiciary. This was an attack on the entire hardline establishment, including the Supreme Leader, which has been the main force behind many violent crack downs on dissidents and political activists, including the execution of close to 4,000 political prisoners during summer of 1988 in which Raisi played a leading role. During the last presidential debate Rouhani said, "You [Raisi] are also prosecutor of the Special Court for Clergy, you can detain any cleric [including Rouhani]. We have to ask clerics what they have gone through at your hands.” The Special Court for Clergy, an extra-judicial organ, prosecutes dissident clerics. 

Rouhani’s supporters have even broken the taboo of criticizing Iran’s military involvement in Syria. In a Rouhani campaign rally in Esfahan, the historic city in central Iran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Tehran former Mayor and a leading Rouhani supporter said, "We too want peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to be restored, the oppressed to be defended, and the Shi’ites to be empowered. But these should not be done only by sending money and killing people … Our government should use its diplomatic power to resolve the regional issues." This angered the hardliners, to the extent that the judiciary opened a case against Karbaschi.

Rouhani has emphasized that the Iranian people demand freedom; they want the release of the leaders of Iran’s Green Movement, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi who have been under strict house arrest since February 2011, and that they do not want to go back to the failed policies of Ahmadinejad and other hardliners.

The contest is over Iran’s future. Raisi and the "deep state" that supports him advocate a hardline approach to the relation with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Rouhani and his lieutenant want to build on the nuclear agreement to lessen tension with the United States, have called for negotiations with Saudi Arabia to calm the crisis between the two, and while they support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, they have also advocated less reliance on force and more on diplomacy in order to end the war there. Domestically, Raisi has called for a rigid enforcement of his ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic teaching, including limiting women’s rights, as well as tight control of the cyberspace. Rouhani and his team have relaxed and expanded the political arena, and have promised to continue doing so.

The latest polls indicated that at least 72 percent of the eligible voters will cast their votes. But, after the last presidential debate, and the announcement that former Reformist president Mohammad Khatami, a hugely popular figure in Iran and Karroubi have both endorsed Rouhani, a higher percentage of the voters are expected to vote. If Iran’s elections history indicates anything, it is that when above 70 percent of the eligible voters cast their votes, Reformists win in a landslide. But, it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.