The first debate of the Iranian presidential contest may cause a shakeup in the campaign, as the more hardline candidate favored by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was seen as the big loser of the debate and Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri came out as the clear winner — so much so that Iranians on social media have nicknamed him “Super Eshaq” and “Thug Life.”
Before we go any further, let’s be clear: The presidential “election” scheduled for May 19 is not democratic, free or fair. The regime only permitted six of around 1,600 candidates to run. Regime opponent Shahriar Kia explains why such elections are held, citing the words of senior regime cleric Mesbah Yazdi:
“In this Islamic state the people’s vote has no religious or legal credibility, neither in determining the country’s political structure or defining the constitution, nor electing the president …The only legal credibility criteria is the supreme leader’s consent… the people’s vote has no impact.”
However, there is some form of an actual contest between the approved six. There is true bitterness and political maneuvering between the various factions they represent. Campaign developments can alter the vote tally (assuming that they are honestly counted) and perhaps the preference of the Supreme Leader, Revolutionary Guards Corps and other powers if a candidate is exposed as unprepared.
The six candidates debated for three hours. By almost all accounts, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri stood out as the victor. Normally, his gains would be at the expense of President Rouhani, who is seeking re-election and comes from the same “reformist” camp. However, the purpose of Jahangiri’s candidacy is widely interpreted as a move to have a bulldog on Rouhani’s side during the debates, after which he’ll drop out and endorse Rouhani.
Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the candidate seen as being closest to Supreme Leader Khamenei (and his most likely successor) was a big let-down and his backers may reconsider whether his ascent is premature. As the Washington Post summarized, Raisi “quickly floundered” and his “candidacy is already in doubt.”
Tehran Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf gained ground at Raisi’s expense, utilizing populist rhetoric accusing Rouhani and Jahangiri of running a government for the “top four percent” of the country. Observers saw this as an appeal to former President Ahmadinejad’s supporters.
The highlight of the debate was Jahangiri calling out Qalibaf as an “extremist” for his close
ties to Hassan Kerd Meehan, a cleric who was arrested (and released) for orchestrating a mob assault on the Saudi embassy last year. He is reportedly Qalibaf’s campaign manager. Jahangiri said the attack harmed Shiites in Saudi Arabia, preventing an estimated 700,000 from visiting Iran.
The other two long-shot candidates, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mostafa Mir-Salim and former Industry Minister Mostafa Hashemitaba failed to make a splash. The former is from the hardline conservative camp and the latter is from the “moderate” reformists.
Three candidates filed complaints with the body overseeing the process. Rouhani complains he wasn’t given enough time to respond to Qalibaf’s criticisms. Qalibaf filed his own complaint that Rouhani was given two minutes more to talk and accused a moderator of being biased. Raisi filed a complaint about procedural issues.
Accurate polling in Iran is obviously very difficult, but a Canada-based company conducted the most recent poll. It found widespread disappointment in economic progress under Rouhani. Yet, depending on how you look at the data, you could argue that either Rouhani or Qalibaf is the frontrunner.
Rouhani has the most enthusiasm on his side. He has the highest percentage of people viewing him “very favorably” at 23%, as opposed to Qalibaf’s 19%, Raisi’s 9% and Jahangiri’s 3%.
Qalibaf is overall more well-liked. He has an overall favorability rating (combining “very favorable” and “somewhat favorable”) of 67% and unfavorable rating of 25%. Rouhani follows with 62% favorable and 35% unfavorable. Raisi was at 30% favorable and 22% unfavorable. Jahangiri was at 29% favorable and 23% unfavorable.
Raisi and Jahangiri have the most room for growth as 46% and 48% of Iranians did not know who they were before the debate. We should expect a growth in Qalibaf’s support (precipitating a decline for Raisi), as well as a sharp spike in Jahangiri’s support as he makes his introduction to so many people.
Again, it is assumed that Jahangiri will end up endorsing Rouhani, so we cannot say he is necessarily undercutting the current president for now.
The next debate is scheduled for May 5 and Clarion Project will update you afterwards.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. To invite Ryan to speak please contact us.