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Campaign Update: Fierce Rhetoric Continues

Ebrahim Raeisi (L) and Hassan Rouhani during registration for presidential election nomination.

With two days to go until Iran’s presidential election on May 19, the race between the two main candidates has become a fierce clash of black and white clergy. The incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, a white-turbaned cleric, is facing a black-turbaned challenger in Ebrahim Raeisi.

Shi’ites, as a rule, have more respect for the black turbaned clergy who claim to be direct descendants of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, whereas the white turbaned clergy count as commoners.

Raeisi also has another advantage. He is the custodian of Imam Reza’s shrine (Shi’ites holiest site inside Iran). He is accused of using this spiritual and monetary privilege to downgrade chances of the incumbent for staying in power.

“Leave Imam Reza for the people; do not drag him into politics. Stop sending candies wrapped in [sacred] green cloths to the villages [to buy votes]; send the bundles after the election. It is the public treasury that pays for the expenses of the people who are transported on the buses, by the security agents, to attend your campaign rallies,” Rouhani lashed out at Raeisi.

The challenger was not unprepared to retaliate. While more than 15,000 supporters chanted, “Bye-bye, Rouhani! You’ll be gone on Friday!” Raeisi said in Tehran, “[Rouhani’s] government is incapable of defending itself, therefore it is scare-mongering. Yes, we are going to build walls! We have already declared that we are going to raise a wall between people’s rights and the looters [of the nation’s wealth].”

Responding to Rouhani’s accusations of buying villagers’ votes, Raeisi hit back, “On the eve of the election, you called up the village elders and paid them 10 million [tomans] (less than $3000) each. Where did you get the cash from?”

Citizen’s Rights or God-Given Freedoms?

Referring to the Citizens Rights Charter, proudly initiated by Rouhani’s government last year, Raeisi lambasted the incumbent in a derisive tone, “Your government policies have widened the gap in the society. [The real] citizens’ rights mean no starving people. It means no unemployment amongst the youth.”

Supporters of Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeisi gather during a campaign rally at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, May 16, 2017
Supporters of Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeisi gather during a campaign rally at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, May 16, 2017

The mid-ranking cleric, who is a member of a committee nicknamed as the Death Quartet responsible for condemning thousands of prisoners to death while they were serving their sentences in 1988, defended his record.

“My record is removing the ominous shadow of terrorism over the country. How have you forgotten it?” he said.

Furthermore, he derided Rouhani’s comments on the necessity of giving women their due rights.

“You say we are a menace for girls’ freedom. [However], have you given them freedom? God has given girls freedom. Have you given the Sunnis and other ethnic minorities freedom? God has given them freedom, and it is the government’s duty to preserve that.”

Dust Storms and Iran’s Neighbors

Meanwhile on May 16, in Ahvaz (the capital of oil-rich Khuzestan Province), Rouhani accused his challenger of “dividing Iranian youth into revolutionary and anti-revolutionary.

“Who are you to divide people [into different categories]? We will not accept any rift between ethnicities,” he said.

Furthermore, Rouhani reminded his audience, “We are living in a sensitive situation, regionally and internationally. We cannot have progress without a wholesome and genuine relationship with our neighbors or the whole world.”

The incumbent’s comment on having a genuine relationship with the outside world was in contrast with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent comments on the necessity of “governments to avoid looking to foreigners [for assistance] in the process of Iran’s development.”

However, Rouhani’s most bitter response to Khamenei’s comments came a day earlier, on May 15, in Tabriz.

“The supreme leader has mentioned, ‘It was the presence of the people [not the government] that removed the shadow of war over the country.’ That’s an accurate saying. Nevertheless, which government was capable of implementing national power [effectively]? The Iranian nation was always there; the power of the Iranian nation was also there; but why were they still threatening us? There was nobody [except my government] to impose the nation’s power.”

JCPLOA, Begging Diplomacy, or A Win-Win Game?

In a campaign rally in the city of Bushehr on May 16, Raeisi dismissed Rouhani’s nuclear deal with world powers as failed diplomacy.

“Rouhani has tied all of the people’s [problems] to JCPOA, whereas [his government’s] policy was nothing more than begging diplomacy,” he said.

Hassan Rouhani believes JCPOA is the greatest achievement of his government. The deal canceled or suspended most international sanctions imposed on Iran. Tehran, for its part, deactivated most of the country’s nuclear-processing facilities and reduced its uranium enrichment and stockpiles.

The sanctions were estimated to cost Iran about $60 billion annually.

However, the conservatives argue that most Iranians have not seen the actual benefits of JCPOA in their pockets.

Raeisi has called the nuclear deal an uncollected check.

“Only a revolutionary government can cash the check,” the challenger has maintained.

Burning Embassies Doesn’t Pay Off

Referring to the recent troublesome dust storms in Ahvaz, the incumbent said, “We can stop the dust storms through co-operation with the countries in our region, but you cannot solve the problem by attacking and burning embassies.”

Rouhani was referring to an attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in January 2016, which led to severing diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran.

Flames rise from Saudi Arabia's embassy after it was stormed by hardline protesters during a demonstration in Tehran, January 2, 2016. Lack of police intervention led to suspicions of complicity by security forces.
Flames rise from Saudi Arabia's embassy after it was stormed by hardline protesters during a demonstration in Tehran, January 2, 2016. Lack of police intervention led to suspicions of complicity by security forces.

At the time, the conservatives were blamed for the attack. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently labeled the attack “stupidity” and “high treason.”

While dozens of Rouhani’s supporters are talking about the imposition of a “police state” in larger cities, particularly in Tehran, the incumbent has started May 17 energized by new endorsements.

New Endorsements for Rouhani

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, have declared their support for Rouhani, a Green Movement news website, Kalameh, reported. Earlier, Mehdi Karroubi had endorsed the incumbent.

The trio have been under house arrest for the past six years after widespread protests against Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Mousavi and Karroubi, both candidates in the 2009 presidential election, protested against Ahmadinejad’s re-election and called it an engineered vote-rigging scheme by the IRGC and Khamenei’s allies.

Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Iranian government, also joined the detainees in endorsing Rouhani.

Meanwhile, a prominent figure in the conservative camp, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, reaffirmed his endorsement of Rouhani.

“One of the main reasons I support Rouhani is the enhanced credibility of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the international arena,” he said.

More than 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote in Iran’s 12th presidential election, ILNA reported, quoting Ali Asghar Ahmadi, head of the Election Headquarters of the Interior Ministry.

If none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the votes, a run-off will be held on May 26.

The turnout in the last presidential election in 2013 was 72.77 percent of the eligible population.

Rouhani won the last election by 50.88 percent of the popular vote.

Campaigning practically ends on May 17 as campaign silence begins 8 a.m. on May 18.