Trump and the Iranian Elections

How His Rhetoric Could Affect the Outcome

U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed as he speaks to commanders and coalition representatives during a visit to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, February 2017.  Carlos Barria / REUTERS

The Iranian government is not a monolith. Its regime is actually based on decentralization. To be sure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does sit atop the formal hierarchy, and he calls many of the shots. But the other centers of power have considerable influence in domestic matters and foreign affairs. As a result, infighting in Iran on certain issues can parallel, or at times even surpass, that in Western democracies. And it often picks up during key national and international events, such as throughout Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1 and leading up to presidential and parliamentary elections.

Iran is scheduled to hold its next presidential elections in May. The campaign doesn’t officially start until just weeks before the date of the vote, and the list of candidates isn’t finalized until shortly before then, too. But even though most of the candidates have yet to formally announce that they are running and the Guardian Council, a body composed of jurists and clerics, has to validate their candidacy, the politicking leading up to the elections has already begun. The moderate, pro-dialogue president, Hassan Rouhani, is up for reelection, and his chances largely hinge on Iranians’ assessment of the benefits of engagement with the West and the resulting nuclear deal.

But selling the deal is an increasingly difficult task for Rouhani and his team. And the rhetoric coming out of the Beltway isn’t helping. For months, Rouhani argued that his country was better off engaging America and having the nuclear deal in place. This, he claimed, allowed his country to reintegrate the international community, rebuild its economy, and avoid military confrontation. Today, hard-liners (several of whom are likely to seek the presidency) argue that none of this has materialized. But despite the perceived lack of progress on the economic front, Rouhani is still the most viable candidate. This is mainly because none of the individuals potentially running for president have his name recognition or social and political capital. This, however,

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