On May 19, Iran held presidential elections. The moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, won a second four-year term by a landslide. Rouhani ran on a platform of engagement with the world, including the United States and Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, and domestic social, political, and economic reforms. The hardliners ran on a populist and isolationist platform, and they lost the election by a large margin. But that doesn’t mean that the battle is over; hardliners are now seeking to oppose Rouhani more forcefully by creating a shadow government.
The idea of a shadow government has floated around Iran’s political circles in the past. In 2005, reformists who had lost the election to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the possibility. But it never materialized, mostly because the regime tends to favor stability and continuity and likes to present an image of unity. But campaign seasons, although short in Iran, can be brutal. People openly discuss their country’s future; the candidates approved by the Guardian Council debate the options on national television. Almost inevitably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who tries to present himself as remaining above politics, steps in to remind the candidates that they should be mindful not to step over the boundaries or target each other personally. As a result, the system emphasizes unity after the elections even as it can create or reinforce divisions during campaigns.
This time around, to avoid creating instability, Rouhani’s hardline opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, congratulated the president and wished him success. But that was after he initially questioned the results, and he continues to stress that his constituents’ wishes shouldn’t be ignored. Raisi managed to tap into the growing dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal’s implementation; average Iranians still don’t see much of an effect from sanctions relief and economic recovery. He received 15.5 million votes—or 38.5 percent of the total cast by his compatriots—while Rouhani won 23 million—or 57 percent. Raisi and his principalist allies, who believe in self-reliance and returning to the core values of the revolution, see the result as a source of legitimacy and political capital to push back against Rouhani’s ambitious agenda. They want to try to block his policies of engagement with the West, social opening, and economic reform through the legislature and by relying on the unelected bodies, which tend to be more conservative. The 2017 presidential elections were a resounding “yes” for the moderate and reformist agenda in Iran.
Matters became even more complicated days after the election, when Saeed Jalili—whose name is familiar in Western foreign policy circles as Ahmadinejad’s chief nuclear negotiator and as a presidential candidate in 2013—announced he’d be creating a shadow government. This plan, as outlined by Jalili, will involve a number of expert working groups designed to tackle key challenges and issues before the country. These range from foreign policy to social issues, as well as industry, economics, corruption, transparency, and public health. This move builds on calls by principalists to make use of the large bloc of votes cast for Raisi. Jalili is a fringe figure in Iranian politics. But the move is consequential and can affect Rouhani’s second term and his overtures to the international community.
The hardliners and conservatives have been fairly divided in recent years. Most key principalist figures, both conservatives and hardliners, including Jalili, lack the basic name recognition, let alone the social capital or popular support, they would need to be effective opposition leaders. For example, before becoming a household name as a result of the 2017 presidential campaign, Raisi was virtually unknown to average Iranians.
Thanks to the divisions and lack of recognition, the hardliners have been able to obstruct Rouhani’s agenda only on an ad hoc basis. This was particularly the case during the nuclear talks, where the most hardline factions were told off by Khamenei. The hardliners were unsuccessful in their efforts to derail the negotiations and the resulting nuclear agreement. Today, they continue to criticize the deal while also recognizing that they’ve lost that battle.
But the principalists have emerged from that experience and the elections ready to consolidate their efforts. And the creation of this shadow government fulfills this function. If executed well, it would allow the principalists to undertake more sustained, focused, and substantial efforts to counter Rouhani and undermine his agenda. It would also allow them to play a bigger role in shaping the narrative about Rouhani’s agenda at home and abroad without waiting for the next campaign and election season.
Since the nuclear agreement was signed in July 2015, Khamenei has distanced himself from and even voiced substantial criticism of Rouhani. In this past election, Raisi was believed to be his preferred candidate. But Khamenei tends to favor stability. If the shadow government can function to limit Rouhani’s ability to move forward with his ambitious agenda without rocking the boat too much, Khamenei will likely be on board.
If the principalists can present a unified and strategic vision for the future of the Islamic Republic and unify the different conservative factions, they’ll be able to stymie Rouhani. Doing so, they believe, is more important than ever given Rouhani’s growing willingness to undermine the Revolutionary Guards outside the defense sector. The guards’ presence in and influence over Iran’s political and economic spheres are a major barrier to the country’s reintegration into the international community, which Rouhani seeks to facilitate during his tenure. And so far, the guards have been the most effective force against some of moderates’ objectives.
The 2017 presidential elections were a resounding “yes” for the moderate and reformist agenda in Iran. The results reflect a young, largely educated, and urban population’s eagerness to open up the country socially, politically, and economically. Rouhani’s second mandate is even stronger than his first, an anomaly for a two-term president. But the principalists are doubling down on efforts to limit what he can achieve. And the shadow government can channel their efforts and allow them to do so much more effectively than ever before.