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  May 17, 2017

Upcoming Presidential Vote in Iran Tight Race Between Conservative and Moderate Incumbent

The sluggish Iranian economy is the main issue for President Rouhani's reelection says Trita Parsi, author of "Losing an Enemy"
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Trita Parsi was born in Iran and grew up in Sweden. He earned a Master's Degree in International Relations at Uppsala University, a second Master's Degree in Economics at Stockholm School of Economics and a PhD in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He has served as an adviser to Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH18) on Middle East issues and is a co-founder and current President of the National Iranian American Council ( Dr. Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States, and most recently, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He has followed Middle East politics for more than a decade, both through work in the field, and through extensive experience on Capitol Hill and the United Nations.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Iranians will be heading to the polls on Friday to elect a new president. Of the six original candidates, only two remain. Here's the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on the campaign trail.

VOICEOVER: We must think about people's progress and hope of Iran and not to deceive the Iranian people.

SHARMINI PERIES: Here's the challenger, Ebrahim Raisi.

VOICEOVER: The main rival of Rouhani's government is its four years of poor performance.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us now to discuss the election is Trita Parsi. Trita is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. His most recent book is Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Thanks for joining us Trita.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Trita, what are the main issues this election? What are the people thinking about as they head to the polls?

TRITA PARSI: Clearly, economy has always become a very critical issue. It's, in this specific case, something that the conservatives have tried to use to weaken Rouhani, mindful of the fact that the economic pick up and rebirth that many had hoped for would happen as a result of sanctions being lifted have not materialized. As a result, they've been hitting Rouhani on that, but Rouhani has been defending himself rather strongly there, pointing out that had it not been for the nuclear deal and the investments his government made into that nuclear deal, they would be in a much worse situation because sanctions would have continued.

So that's one of the major issues, but in general, you can also see that there's a strain in which it is about the very, very nature of the government right now. You see Rouhani speaking as if he's an opposition leader criticizing a lot of things that in the past was not even touched upon in the public discourse. Talking about the extremism, talking about some of the things that have happened in the country with mass executions, et cetera. It is now starting to become a pattern. Whenever Rouhani needs to win elections, he increasingly acts and speaks like a representative of the Green Movement because it's those votes that will decide whether he will win or lose.

SHARMINI PERIES: Tell us a bit about Rouhani's challenger, Ebrahim Raisi. Who is he, and what does he represent?

TRITA PARSI: Ebrahim Raisi was, up until just a couple of months ago, a completely unknown figure. He had a low profile position but not unimportant necessarily. He was tasked with managing the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, which is the city where the current Ayatollah Supreme Leader is also from. He had, in the last couple of months, started to be promoted as someone who is starting to be groomed to take over from Khomeini, or at least that's the perception he himself has wanted to give.

As a result, he had very little recognition within the Iranian public. Very few people knew that much about him. His first performances in the televised debates were rather boring and really didn't make much of a mark. The reason why he still has managed to become the leading conservative candidate is precisely because the fact that the conservatives have been uniting around one candidate this time around, making sure they don't recommit the mistake that they did four years ago when they had six candidates, which split their vote. And he's the one who's been chosen to do this.

For many people, it's really a stark choice between the idea of moving Iran into a more moderate direction, less radical, toward someone like Raisi who is seen as a traditionalist, a very, very conservative figure, which would be to take Iran back to the period before Rouhani and before even Khatami became president.

SHARMINI PERIES: Yet, the recent opinion polls indicate that the race is too close to call. Usually, incumbents have an advantage, a decent chance at getting reelected. What is making President Rouhani, his reelection difficult for him?

TRITA PARSI: This year, IMF has predicted that Iran's economy is going to grow 6.6%. Usually, if you had an incumbent who had an economy that grew at six or seven percent, they would almost be a shoo-in for reelection. That is, however, not the case in Iran, which is because much of this growth has been in the oil sector. It's really oil-driven growth. In order to actually pick up the economy in a broader way and make sure that jobs are being created because right now, jobs are not being created at the rate that they need to, you actually proper investments into the country. Those investments are not coming to Iran primarily as a result of problems with remaining sanctions and problems with fear amongst companies that sanctions will be reimposed. As a result, he has a growing economy that is growing in such a way that the average Iranian remains quite unconvinced and quite discontent, and that is why there is this vulnerability that he's facing right now.

But it's important to keep in mind as well, Iranian elections have oftentimes actually been decided in the last 48 to 72 hours before election day, so there's still things that can happen, and the polls that we see right now may be very, very different in 48 hours from now.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Trita, the former president of Iran, Khatami, is playing a role in all of this. You had written an article where you imply that he is the kingmaker in Iran. What did you mean in this article, and how and what role is he playing in this election?

TRITA PARSI: What I argued in the piece is that to the extent that there is a kingmaker in the Iranian elections, it would probably be Khatami rather than the current Supreme Leader. A lot of people have been focusing on who the Supreme Leader seems to be supporting right now and thinking essentially that whoever the Supreme Leader supports in the person who is going to win. Well, when you actually look at it in the last couple of elections, the pattern is the opposite. The Iranian public has overwhelmingly tended to vote for the anti-establishment candidate. Since Khomeini very much personifies the idea of the establishment, the persons that he has been perceived to be favoriting in these elections actually have lost. All the way back to Khatami who defeated Nateq-Nouri in 1997, who was seen as the favorite of Khomeini to what we just saw in the last election, for instance, in which a lot of people thought that the person that Khomeini was backing was Jalili, and he ended up only getting 11% of the vote.

The anti-establishment candidate, however, whether that was Khatami in 1997, Ahmadinejad in 2005 because was seen as an outsider, or Mousavi in 2009, and Rouhani himself in 2013, are the ones that have tended to get the most support. It's precisely because the elections is a way for the Iranian public to really express their discontent with the situation they're faced with but with the government as a whole. That's, again, part of the reason why Rouhani right now is speaking as if he is an opposition figure.

Khatami is very important in this because he is probably one of the most respected politicians inside of Iran right now. When he urges people to go out and vote and vote for a specific candidate, he has a tremendous following. He played a critical role in getting Rouhani elected in 2013. He played a critical role in convincing people that they should participate in the elections, and that was crucial because voter turnout will be a critical factor that will determine who wins. If there's a high voter turnout, chances are very, very good for Rouhani. If the voter turnout goes down, it's going to be much more difficult for him. Who determines voter turnout? Khatami has a tremendous impact on that issue.

SHARMINI PERIES: Trita, as you know, Trump is headed to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week, two of Iran's nemesis in the region. What is the significance of this trip? Will it be used to mobilize people to come out and vote for one candidate or another?

TRITA PARSI: The trip is coinciding with the elections, so most likely, we will not see any statements or any decision made as a result of the trip that would impact the elections unless the elections goes into a second round. Then certainly, the expected anti-Iran statements and some decisions that are likely to be made there can have an impact.

But something that Trump may do or not do prior to going to Saudi Arabia can have a very decisive impact on the elections, and that is that Trump is scheduled to either decide whether to renew the waivers of sanctions on Iran by May 18th or decide not to renew them. If he does not renew them, then the United States is clearly in violation of the nuclear deal, and the nuclear deal would then be given a significant blow, potentially a lethal blow. With the nuclear deal collapsing a day before the Iranian elections, that could be a tremendous detriment to Rouhani's reelection chances.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Is there any indication from Washington that he will be acting on this before he leaves? Because the elections are on the 19th.

TRITA PARSI: He has to act on it before May 18th. If he doesn't, then automatically, the waivers expire. So here's a point in which he cannot duck a decision. He has to actively renew them in order for them not to expire, and if they expire, the United States is in violation of the deal.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Trita. I thank you so much for joining us and hope you can join us after the election as well.

TRITA PARSI: Happy to-

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you so much.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.



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