Rouhani’s toughest opponent?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is, as you know, up for reelection next year. There are many reasons to think that, barring some unforeseen security and/or economic crisis between now and the election, Rouhani shouldn’t have a particularly difficult time winning another term. For one thing, inertia is on his side. Rouhani is the seventh president of Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The first, Abolhassan Banisadr, was impeached about a year and a half into his first term because he apparently failed to get with the program to Ayatollah Khomeini’s satisfaction. His replacement, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, was assassinated less than a month into his presidency by the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The next four presidents–Ali Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–each won reelection (granted, Ahmadinejad’s reelection was shady to say the least). So Iranians seem to be inclined to keep their presidents in office for a full two terms.

Obviously there’s a first time for everything, but Rouhani looks like he’s in pretty good shape. He’s very popular, with an approval rating that usually falls somewhere north of 80% in most polls. Iranians are optimistic, with over 50% saying that economic conditions are “improving” according to that same poll. The recent parliamentary elections, which were as much a referendum on Rouhani’s performance in office and his successful conclusion of the nuclear deal (which also remains popular), went about as well for Rouhani and his ally, Rafsanjani, as they could realistically have expected, given the electoral constraints under which their candidates had to operate.

And, maybe most crucially, there’s no obvious candidate emerging to seriously challenge him. Most polls that ask the question show that the second most-popular political figure in Iran behind Rouhani is his own foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who (needless to say) is unlikely to run against his boss. Rouhani, who is personally at best a moderate and really shades more toward the conservative side of the spectrum (he’s no reformer), has nevertheless positioned himself as the only hope for moderate and reform-minded voters, and he’s slowly winning over all but the truly hard-line conservatives. There’s frequent chatter that Ahmadinejad, still the totem for Iranian hard-liners, might challenge Rouhani–Iranian presidents are limited to two consecutive terms but can, under the constitution, serve a third term later on. But I’ve yet to see any polling that puts Ahmadinejad’s approval anywhere close to Rouhani’s, and he’s such a known quantity that it’s unlikely he could dramatically build new support in a campaign (again, barring some major unforeseen event). So there’s no clear contender looming on Rouhani’s horizon.

However, there is one who could emerge pretty quickly, if he were to decide to run.

What? No, not the bodybuilder. The guy in the mural who appears to be creepily leering at the bodybuilder.
I’m referring to Qasem Soleimani, the somewhat enigmatic and seemingly omnipresent commander of Iran’s Quds Force. The Quds Force is a unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that is both the IRGC’s special forces arm and the unit that conducts Iranian military operations outside of Iran’s borders. When Iranian forces are engaged abroad either in direct military action or support roles, that usually means the Quds Force, which usually means Soleimani. He’s been in Iraq–so often, in fact, that he’s become kind of a divisive figure among Iraqis. He’s been in Syria–there were reports that he was injured, maybe seriously, late last year in fighting around Aleppo. He reportedly helped Russia plan its Syrian intervention last summer.

Soleimani has been a figure of some interest to US media for a few years now, ever since he and his Quds Force began heavily involving themselves in defending the Assad regime in Syria and in anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq. Dexter Filkins wrote a lengthy piece on Soleimani for The New Yorker a couple of years ago, in which a former CIA officer says that the Iranian general is “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.” Which, I mean, he’s powerful, and he operates in the Middle East, but that’s a pretty subjective designation. More powerful than Saudi deputy crown prince Muhammad b. Salman? More powerful than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? In 2013? More powerful than the guy to whom he answers, Khamenei? He’s certainly a bogeyman for American analysts and reporters, and Quds Force has been designated a “supporter” of terrorism since 2007. But after 9/11, when Iran offered to cooperate with the US in getting rid of the Taliban, Soleimani was very nearly a US ally. Then “Axis of Evil” happened, and Quds Force was implicated in attacks on American personnel in Iraq, and nowadays Soleimani is, for American policymakers, pretty much the embodiment of Iran at its worst. Even when the US and Quds are nominally on the same side, in Iraq, Washington argues that Soleimani’s involvement is counterproductive because it supports the work of sectarian Shiʿa militias rather than the Iraqi government.

Inside Iran, Soleimani is extremely popular, befitting someone whose entire career can be spun to the folks back home as service in defense of his nation from all its foreign enemies. Recent polling puts his favorability rating third among major Iranian public figures, behind Rouhani and Zarif, but crucially the percentage of Iranians who have a “very favorable” view of Soleimani is 52%, higher than either Zarif’s 45% or Rouhani’s 42%. Soleimani has been slowly growing his public presence inside Iran for a couple of years now, though it’s only recently that he’s started really speaking out publicly in a way that could be described as political. In March, he gave a speech defending Iran’s actions in Syria and its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon as protection against “takfiris” (by which he means ISIS, but also Saudi Arabia). Just a couple of days ago, he publicly lambasted the Bahraini ruling family for mistreating its majority Shiʿa subjects and threatened to support an “intifada” in the island nation.

Soleimani also got directly involved in February’s parliamentary elections when he endorsed (informally) the re-election campaign of Majles speaker Ali Larijani. This is interesting because Larijani, though a conservative, has been fairly close to Rouhani and supportive of the nuclear deal–Soleimani hasn’t taken any public stance on the nuclear deal, though it should be noted that the deal did give him, along with several other top figures in the IRGC, some sanctions relief. This has all led to speculation that Soleimani may be planning a transition into electoral politics, perhaps even a run for the presidency, perhaps even as early as next year. As that Al-Monitor piece points out, there are reasons to be skeptical. Soleimani isn’t a politician, and though he is very popular, entering politics has a way of taking the bloom off of someone’s rose. On the other hand, Soleimani’s stature as a defender of the Islamic Republic may make him unassailable even in the often ugly context of a political campaign.

If Rouhani’s popularity remains high, that may help convince Soleimani that making a run at the presidency next year isn’t worth potentially scarring his reputation. But if Rouhani’s popularly declines, or Soleimani decides to give it a shot anyway, he might be the most formidable challenger that Rouhani could possibly face.


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