For the Iranian regime, this election is demonstrating one of its internal crises, namely the direction of Iran on the international stage going forward. President Hassan Rouhani is seen as a moderate with a view toward creating ties to build relationships with foreign investors and bringing the capital into the Iranian economy.
His hardline opponents, on the other hand, are vowing to get rid of the 2015 nuclear deal, as well as work toward a self-reliant economy that limits ties with foreign investors. Clearly, it is a factional fight over power. Those who are with Khamenei understand that foreign investment means that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other government agencies would be at risk of having to compete with private capital and thus have less of a stranglehold on the economy.
It is not a question of good guys versus bad guys, but is truly a struggle over money and power within Iran. During the third debate, Rouhani said that the historical agreement with the world powers had ended many of the sanctions that had previously impeded the health of the economy. He pointed to the growth in the energy sector, particularly gas and oil. Funds that are coming in, he said, could be reinvested into other areas of the country’s economy.
“If we want a better economy, we should not let groups with security and political backing to get involved in the economy,” said Rouhani in a swipe at the IRGC and its vast business empire, which is backing Ebrahim Raisi in the election.
But he also went further, vowing to target the remaining U.S. sanctions, with a view to ending the last of the obstacles that are preventing foreign money from entering Iran and hampering trade deals.
“I will engage myself in lifting all the non-nuclear sanctions during the coming four years and bring back the grandeur of Iran and the Iranian people,” said Rouhani.
Yet Rouhani’s government has not addressed the numerous human rights violations being committed or the continued executions, despite the continued pressure from the international community. Thus, while he might be selling himself as a reformer, it seems to be limited to the economy and not the other sections of Iranian life.
But the limited progress on the economy was attacked by Rouhani’s opponents, including Raisi.
“Poverty has increased with this government from 23% to 33%,” said Raisi. “We must direct aid to the poor. Why did you wait for the election campaign to increase aid? Why didn’t you do it four years ago? The people are intelligent and they will decide.”
Still, the point of the debates seems to be about defining the direction of the regime and a bit of rebellion against Khamenei, who is against increasing foreign ties and potentially diluting the economic power of the IRGC, which he controls. Rouhani’s deal to lift sanctions won the cautious backing of Khamenei, but Khamenei has been critical of its failure to quickly boost the economy.
Benefits have been slow to arrive, in part because foreign banks fear doing business with Iran based on the U.S. sanctions that are still in place. International companies have been cautious about doing business in Iran for fear of crossing the U.S. The sanctions that are still in place dealing with Iran’s missile program, human rights violations, and allegations of its support of terrorism.
As they swiped back and forth with each other on tax records and their own human rights violations, it is clear that this debate is exposing the deeper issues within the regime, as it tries to maintain power over the Iranian people, while taking a position of power within the region and on the global stage.
Rouhani has attacked the IRGC twice in the course of one week. He accused the IRGC on Friday of attempting to derail the nuclear agreement. On Tuesday, he attacked them again for criticizing him over a mine explosion in northern Iran.
Khamenei weighed in on Wednesday, urging everyone to preserve the security of the country, saying that “anyone who deviates from this path should certainly know that they will be given a slap in the face.” He also warned against “a sedition”, which is a term he deployed against the opposition Green movement after the disputed 2009 election.
Raisi, who is considered Rouhani’s primary opponent, is also being considered as the successor to Khamenei. Currently, the line of successor for the position of Supreme Leader is undecided, which will ultimately impact the ability of the regime to hold it self together, because the uncertainty weakens Khamenei’s position to a degree.