With Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf now out of the contest, the race for the presidency of Iran has narrowed to a clash mainly between incumbent Hassan Rouhani and mid-ranking cleric Ebrahim Raeisi. It is expected that Rouhani’s first deputy, Eshaq Jahangiri, will drop out of the race in favor of his boss.
With three days to go until the election, on May 19, the war of words between the two main challengers has not lost its intensity.
Rouhani, speaking in the city of Sari on May 14, lashed out at his challenger.
“The people of Iran should choose between a judge and an attorney. A judge orders and issues a verdict [whereas] a lawyer defends people,” he said, implicitly referring to himself as the lawyer and Raeisi as the judge.
While visiting Isfahan, Raeisi, for his part, retaliated with a warning for Rouhani.
“You know, my heart is a box of secrets, and if I open my mouth nobody can match me. However, a man who is seeking the presidential seat requires capacity and acumen,” he said.
Both contenders have increased their campaign trips to different capitals of Iranian provinces. Rouhani visited Tabriz (East Azarbaijan capital) and Sari (capital of Mazandran) on May 15, while Raeisi visited Shiraz and attracted a sizeable crowd on the historic square of Naqsh-i Jahan in Isfahan.
However, according to social media and a number of news websites, most of the crowd were brought to the square on special buses, from outlying areas, which led to heavy traffic in the area.
Meanwhile in Sari, Rouhani asked his audience: “Do you want us again to expect a new resolution issued against us, day in and day out? Or do you want to hear that a new opening is awaiting Iran every day?”
He was referring to the tide of international condemnations and sanctions that piled up during the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a hardline hawk.
The challenger, who is currently serving as a judge at the Clergy Special Court as well as the head of the financial empire of Astan Quds Razavi, was a member of a judicial committee, nicknamed the Death Quartet, which convicted thousands of prisoners to death while they were serving their sentences, in 1988.
The executions which took five months are branded one of the country’s darkest chapters. The question of the mass killings was never directly raised in the presidential debates or candidates’ interviews and speeches.
“[We are] neither going backward nor tolerating the current situation. Our strategy is change for the good of the people,” Raeisi maintained.
He then targeted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers signed by Rouhani’s government.
“You paid a [cash] deposit for JCPOA through filling up Arak’s reactor core with concrete, but the commitments of the other party are yet to be fulfilled. JCPOA’s check is not cashed; to cash it, Iran needs a revolutionary government,” Raeisi said.
Rouhani’s government has denied reports on filling up the core of Arak’s heavy water reactor with concrete.
JCPOA was signed between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as Germany, in 2015, and it was implemented in 2016.
Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and significantly cut down its nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities to monitor and verify Tehran’s compliance. The P5+1, in exchange, agreed to lift or suspend most of the international sanctions imposed on Iran.
The conservatives, who support Raeisi, have always been unhappy with JCPOA, labeling it as Iran’s submission to “arrogant world powers,” by which they traditionally mean the West led by the United States.
The upcoming election is widely viewed as a referendum on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with P5+1. Many Iranians are unhappy for not seeing the reflection of its tangible benefits in their own pockets. On that basis, Raeisi has proposed larger than ever cash handouts, a controversial scheme that was first adopted by Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad.
Yet, most of the economists in Iran believe that no government can afford raising the level of the handouts.
Raeisi started the day on May 16 energized by comments from his former boss, head of the judiciary Sadeq Amoli Larijani.
“We as the (Iranian) nation, have a duty to disappoint the enemy and therefore the degree of enemy’s dissatisfaction from the election of a candidate can be a very good criterion for distinguishing the most qualified candidate,” Larijani said.
He did not mention his “most qualified candidate” by name, but his comment was an implicit reference to his former first deputy, Raeisi.
A day earlier, in a campaign rally in Shiraz, Raeisi, grateful for Ghalibaf’s decision to quit the presidential race, cheerfully said, “I thank him. His move was revolutionary!”
According to Tasnim, a news website close to IRGC and conservatives, Ghalibaf earlier on May 15 said he came to the decision to pull out of the race in favor of Raeisi as part of efforts against Rouhani’s “inefficient and impotent cabinet.”
With Ghalibaf out, the race has become more difficult for the incumbent to win. Nevertheless, most of Rouhani’s supporters believe Ghalibaf’s decision is not going to have any impact on the incumbent securing a second term.
“Vendor of the city, [Tehran] mayor’s quitting the presidential race was nothing but accepting another defeat. If he [Ghalibaf] in fact has a desire to serve, hopefully he will put on the sacred uniform of soldiers and go back to [his former] barracks,” the outspoken reformist MP Mahmoud Sadeqi wrote on Twitter.
This was a reference to Ghalibaf, who is a former Revolutionary Guard member, having had two previous unsuccessful runs at the presidency.