Iranian hardliners are readying themselves to make a push to retake the presidency from incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming May election.
Rouhani has been roundly criticized by both political rivals and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the ongoing economic woes plaguing Iran. Rouhani, considered a “moderate” by some analysts, was ushered into office on the promise that re-engagement with the world through the Iran nuclear deal would spur economic growth; he has so far failed to fulfill that promise.
“Though no apparent rift has emerged between Rouhani and Khamenei, there is increasing evidence that the Supreme Leader may be encouraging hardline opponents to run against him,” said the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence consultancy, in a brief Tuesday.
Iranian voters and Khamenei alike expected Rouhani to use the sanctions relief provided by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to stimulate economic growth, but the Iranian president has been unable to do so nearly two years after the signing of the accord. In response, Khamenei and his fellow hard-liners have directly criticized Rouhani in several speeches in recent weeks.
Khamenei has been particularly critical of Rouhani’s inability to grow the so-called “resistance economy,” the build-up of domestic industries aimed at reducing dependence on foreign imports. Other hard-liners point to Rouhani’s inability to persuade the U.S. to lift remaining sanctions put in place in response to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and other aggressive behaviors.
While Rouhani serves as Iran’s elected president, he does not have the final say on political matters. Supreme Leader Khamenei, who serves for life, is technically the most powerful political figure in Iranian politics. The result is a split between Rouhani’s so-called “moderates” and Khamenei’s hard-liners, however, the term “moderate” is a bit of a misnomer.
All potential candidates who wish to run for office in Iranian politics must be vetted by the Guardian Council, a select group of Islamic clerics and lawyers. Membership is decided by the supreme leader and the head of Iran’s judiciary, who is also appointed by the supreme leader. The Guardian Council, therefore, tends to be more hard-line, and often disqualifies most candidates who wish to stand for election.
Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, is only moderate in comparison to the extremely conservative hard-liners. A former nuclear negotiator, he has bragged about his ability to deceive the U.S. and holds several anti-Western viewpoints. The Iranian electorate is generally less radical than the government, so Rouhani was seen as a sort of middle-ground candidate when elected in 2013; one who appeared moderate compared to the hard-liners, but was still anti-Western enough to please Khamenei.
Despite the signing of the JCPOA, Iran has continued to pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East through its support of proxy groups. Many of these actions are perpetrated by the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is fiercely loyal to the supreme leader. With Rouhani’s inability to rebuild the Iranian economy, the hard-liners may see an opportunity to reclaim power across the entirety of country’s government.
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