Israel hopes Iran's next president is the lesser of two evils

Pragmatist Rouhani is running for reelection against hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in a vote that will have wide-ranging implications for Israel.

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attends a campaign rally in Tehran, April 29 (photo credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attends a campaign rally in Tehran, April 29
(photo credit: ATTA KENARE / AFP)
On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to elect their president.
The elections are arguably the most important in Iran this century, coming as they do after the nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (the five UN Security Council powers plus Germany), which, in essence lifted financial sanctions worth billions of dollars on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program, theoretically making an Iranian dash for “the bomb” almost impossible without early detection.
The deal can be deemed – without fear of hyperbole – to be historic. The months leading up to its signing saw Iran and the US negotiate face to face for the first time since the 1979-1981 hostage crisis in which a militant Iranian student group stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held captive all the diplomats and staff inside for more than a year. An enraged US broke off all relations with Iran and froze billions of dollars of Iranian assets abroad.
Iranians campaign on streets in lead up to presidential election (credit: REUTERS)
The deal was not without controversy in both the US and Iran – with hardliners on both sides seeing it as a form of “capitulation” to the “enemy.”
On the sidelines, of course, was Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu voicing consistent opposition to any sort of compromise over Tehran’s nuclear program and repeatedly describing the prospect of a nuclear- armed Iran as an “existential threat” to the State of Israel. In his eyes, the nuclear deal was a “historic mistake.”
The May 19 elections are about far more than just electing a president; they are about differing visions of the Islamic Republic and the future path it should take. Added to this, the country is fighting proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq and, most importantly, Syria (where its desire to keep President Bashar Assad in power to maintain its land bridge to Hezbollah has cost it billions). Whoever emerges as winner will play a large role in shaping events in the region that will inescapably affect Israel as well. The question is: How? The first step to answering this question is understanding the relevant candidates, both in terms of their respective platforms and the position they occupy within the broader spectrum of Iranian politics. Many hopefuls registered their candidacy (including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), but Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, struck down most of the applications, rejecting those it deemed incompatible with the values of the state.
Of those that remain, two are most relevant.
The first is the incumbent, the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani (often mistakenly called a reformer in the West) who took power in 2013 and is seeking a second term.
The second is Ebrahim Raisi, a member of the group known as principlists or hardliners, the Osul-Garayan, that congregates around the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani is a pragmatist, open to greater economic and political ties to the West.
While remaining at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s establishment, he has found himself at odds with Iran’s hardliners, who fear that a more open Iran could pose an existential threat to the Islamic Republic – a perennial fear from Iranian conservatives since the republic’s founding in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ever since, timing has played a central role in relations between Iran and the West – notably the US. Former Iranian president, the reformist-minded Mohammad Khatami, offered an olive branch to the US with his “Dialogue Among Civilizations” speech in 2001 but was rebuffed by a Bill Clinton administration that had introduced the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and was determined to get tough on the country.
In 2008, Barack Obama came to power and, during his inauguration speech, unequivocally stated that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” His overtures were, however, met with Iran’s then-president, the hard-line Ahmadinejad’s response that the US should apologize for its actions toward Iran over the previous 60 years.
THE 2013 election of Rouhani, who campaigned on a more open attitude toward the country’s international relations and, crucially, a resolution to the nuclear crisis that had dragged on since 2002 when an Iranian opposition group, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MKO) (People’s Mujahedin of Iran), revealed details of nuclear activities that Iran had been conducting clandestinely. Officially, the revelations came from MKO sources in Iran but ‒ as was revealed to me ‒ the real source was entirely different: Israel.
For once, however, timing proved fortuitous.
The presidents of both countries appeared to want some sort of détente – especially in the nuclear sphere – at the same time. On September 23, 2013, just over a month after he took office, Rouhani spoke to Obama over the phone. It was the first time a US and Iranian president had spoken directly in more than 30 years.
Rouhani remains the favorite to win. He delivered on his promise to the Iranian people to resolve the nuclear deal and improve the country’s international relations.
Then there are the financial and commercial benefits it brought. Iran received around $100 billion in unfrozen assets and, perhaps more importantly, signed deals with the French company Airbus to buy 100 passenger aircraft shortly after agreeing to buy 80 aircraft from the US company Boeing.
In addition to overhauling Iran’s badly out of date commercial airliner sector, which had suffered from decades of sanctions, he opened up commercial channels to some of the world’s premier companies.
Rouhani has shown he can bring stability to the political system and has popular support among the upper-middle class and the most educated segments of the population.
His constituency is based on what the hardliners call “Westernized” Iranian citizens.
He does have weaknesses. His inability to reduce unemployment and the introduction of neoliberal policies that have produced greater economic inequality among the population have proved unpopular. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States will also hurt him given that his narrative of positive dialogue with the United States – which the hardliners have consistently contested ‒ is far less appealing, given the early anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of the White House.
His reelection, as Clement Therme, a research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS], observes, will depend mainly on the turnout.
A high turnout will likely indicate that Iranians are willing to get out and vote for who they believe to be the least-worst candidate.
Lower turnout, which indicates greater voter apathy, is likely to favor his main challenger, Raisi. According to Therme, he is the “candidate of the Iranian deep state.” What this means is that he is deeply embedded – both politically and ideologically ‒ within the unelected institutions of the Islamic Republic: notably the judiciary and the supreme leader and those around him. He is also a senior cleric (indeed, some tout him as a successor to Khamenei) and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, the organization that manages several of Iran’s holiest sites. As Therme points out, “In a theocratic system, this can be a significant asset because he can potentially bridge the divide between the non-elected and the elected institutions of the Islamic Republic.”
Equally, as Therme further points out, in stark contrast to Rouhani’s economic views, he is “closer to the [founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini doctrine of the “Islamic Economy,” which prioritizes giving Iran’s oil money away to the poorest of the country’s population. He rails against neoliberalism and the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund but, in practice, he is a religious businessman who plays by the rules of the liberal economy.”
In a country as vociferously anti-Israel as Iran, it is hard to detect obvious differences among the candidates toward the Jewish state. Nonetheless, on key issues, such as the nuclear deal, the terrorist group Hezbollah and the Syrian conflict that is fracturing the Middle East, subtle differences, which have the potential to affect both Israel and the wider region, are clearly discernible.
Regarding attitudes toward Israel, Raisi, as a staunch principlist, represents the traditional far-right wing of the clergy. He would almost certainly be the most vocally anti-Israel Iranian president and a Raisi victory would likely see a return to Ahmadinejad- like rhetoric against Jerusalem.
The Islamic Republic’s deep state is deeply anti Zionist. This impulse was at the center of their many attacks on Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran overthrown in 1979. For Raisi’s brand of theocratic politics, the destruction of the State of Israel is a religious duty.
ROUHANI, MEANWHILE, is a centrist mullah. He is, of course, anti-Zionist, too, but Therme argues, “thinks that the Islamic Republic needs popular support to survive.”
Therefore, he prefers to focus on economic development over empty revolutionary slogans such as “Death to Israel.” He has criticized his conservative competitors’ use of anti-Zionist slogans and the Iranian missile program to disrupt the conclusion of the nuclear deal with the West. He will probably follow Khatami’s strategy on Israel: ‘Iran cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves.’” 
Both of the candidates support the nuclear deal as a general policy of the Islamic Republic. It was, after all, sanctioned by Khamenei himself and no candidate could publicly come out against it.
But differences lie in the principles that undergird it. Rouhani wants to apply the JCPOA diplomatic model to every problem: dealing with OPEC and the tensions with other Persian Gulf countries, to name just two issues. For the other candidate, the JCPOA was merely a means with which to lift the financial sanctions and ensure the regime’s survival. For him, the JCPOA was not the beginning of détente with the West; it was the end.
Iran’s hardliners fear the West’s soft power far more than they fear its hard power.
The US establishment has long been sick of Middle East wars and its new president has seemingly isolationist inclinations.
While Trump’s rhetoric means Tehran does not rule out potential limited conflict, it fears regime change and bombs less than it fears HBO and McDonalds. This fear of cultural invasion or “Westoxification” is long-standing in the Islamic Republic, and with a young Western-leaning population, it is a justified one. For the supreme leader and his coterie, the JCPOA was always a potential Pandora’s box. Conversely, Rouhani calculates that Iran can be more open economically, without paving the way for a cultural invasion that could potentially threaten the continued existence of the state.
Syria – and especially Hezbollah’s role in it ‒ is another issue on which the candidates will be fundamentally agreed but, again, the slight differences they hold on the issue have the potential to affect both Israel and its neighboring states. Raisi will be most steadfast in his support for the group and its role in Syria because Hezbollah comes under the direct control of the supreme leader and the non-elected institutions of the Islamic Republic. Not only will the group be seen as vital to continuing Iran’s proxy war with Israel, but also as a potential asymmetric strategic player to confront any possible military threat arising from the Trump administration.
On the other hand, Rouhani will view Iranian support for Hezbollah through the prism of the fight against ISIS and what Iran calls the takfiri (apostate – i.e. Sunni) groups in the Middle East. All the candidates will continue to back Iran’s support of Assad and are likely to favor more coordination with Russia in Syria. For Iran, Syria is an existential issue – without it there is no land bridge to Hezbollah, and Tehran is pouring huge resources into the fight. The more it can get Russia to help shoulder the burden, the better.
The best result for Israel on May 19 would be a Rouhani win. This is because of all the candidates he is most likely to subordinate geopolitical competition with Jerusalem to Iran’s economic development.
But, whoever wins, relations between Israel and Iran will almost certainly remain hostile as long as the Islamic Republic continues to exist. Anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism lie at the heart of the state’s core values – without these “foes” to “resist” the Mullahs will lose much of their legitimacy, and popularity in the wider Middle East, vital for a Persian Shi’ite state in an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Middle East.
The truth is that as much as the Islamic State hates Israel it needs it far more. And as long as that is the case, détente between the two countries will always be an impossibility – at great cost to both countries, and to the region as a whole.