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Iran’s set to choose another angry president

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New York Post, By Benny Avni
Monday, 15 May 2017

What a surprise: Iran’s presidential election, scheduled for the weekend, is trending just the way Tehran’s powers-that-be like it — that is, a hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, is on course to edge past his sweeter-talking opponent, President Hassan Rouhani.

It’s, in part, a response to the change in leadership in the White House — and likely a sign of things to come for US-Iran relations. Fasten your seat belts.

Remember, in Iran, the public’s ability to decide the country’s leadership is limited: Though 1,636 people registered for this year’s presidential race, only six were OK’d by the top mullahs.

And just in case their favorite doesn’t garner the most votes, they’re not beyond simply ignoring the actual results — which is what they did in 2009, prompting Iranians to pour into streets in protest during Iran’s unsuccessful “Green Revolution.”

Fact is, in Iran the question isn’t who gets the most votes, but who’s counting them. And those counting them this year clearly favor Raisi, a hardliner judge.

Why? Just as Americans and others are reorienting themselves for the age of President Trump, so are the mullahs. In their calculation, they now need to replace the friendly sounding voices, like those of Rouhani and his sidekick, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, with angrier men.

Raisi is an insider who has climbed the political ladder. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is said to favor him as successor, when the time comes.

But before Raisi follows Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, at the top of the mullahs’ greasy poll, Raisi first needs a bit of public exposure. He could also use some governing experience, which he currently lacks. The position of president, which doesn’t have nearly as much power as Supreme Leader, is a perfect stepping stone.

Raisi’s path to the presidency became easier Monday, when a fellow hardliner, Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad-Baghar Ghalibaf, dropped out of the race. Ghalibaf won the TV debates and is clearly more qualified, but, under pressure, he’s now calling on supporters to vote for Raisi.

The opposing camp, often called “moderates” (though “good cops” to the hardliners’ “bad cops” is more to the point), is also expected to consolidate: Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri is expected to withdraw, possibly Tuesday, and endorse his boss, Rouhani.

And so, the race is between Rouhani and Raisi. Bet on Raisi. Yes, Rouhani won in the last election cycle, but official results gave him just above the necessary 50 percent victory — even as observers believe the margin, in fact, was larger. The mullahs wanted to signal to the victor that his mandate was limited.

The clerics let Rouhani win because during the Obama years he was useful to them. They believed an opening to the West, with the prospect of ending sanctions, was popular and could lead to an improved economy. Now the Obama-era approach, largely seen in the region as tilting toward Iran, is over, and the mullahs are recalibrating.

On Monday, President Trump hosted the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, an Iran-skeptic Gulf ally. Next week, Trump will go on his first overseas trip, starting in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s most formidable regional rivals, signaling what is hoped will be the formation of an American-backed, anti-Iran regional coalition.

The mullahs are acting as expected. They see the White House as more hostile now, and are returning the favor by pushing their own hardliners ahead.

True, the Revolutionary Guards started to provoke America (with missile tests, attacks on US vessels patrolling the Gulf, hostage-taking, etc.) even before it was clear who’d win our election. Some in Iran believe the Guards wanted to undermine Rouhani, slowing the pace of sanctions-easing, economic recovery and his re-election campaign.

But the elevation of Raisi signals a clear shift toward a more confrontational stance by Iran.

Rouhani has other points against him, too: corruption, inefficient governance, the still-ailing economy. His promise of a better life in the aftermath of sanction relief never materialized. His approval numbers plummeted accordingly. So Raisi might even win legitimately.

Raisi is far from a natural politician. He’s uneasy in public and has stumbled in debates. If he loses in a landslide, the mullahs may shy away from tilting the results in his favor. But sagging support for the current president and a sense that the public wants change make a Rouhani landslide unlikely.

All this seems to guarantee the next few years will be filled with hostility and provocations directed toward America from Tehran. Indeed, even if Rouhani gets another presidential term, it’s already clear: The age of phony smiles between America and Iran is now over.

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