Iran elections: Rouhani declares, 'I will kiss the supreme leader's hand a dozen times'

On Monday, May 15, the Iranian elections scene witnessed two important events: Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran (and a controversial candidate), left the elections for the benefit of a top contender, Ebrahim Raisi (the 1988 massacre judge).

At the same time, the incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, in an election speech in Tabriz (the largest city in the northeast), said: "On some issues, I am ready to kiss the supreme leader's hand dozens of times."

The meaning of the first event is clear.  The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is tilting his hand toward his preferred candidates.  I predicted in an interview with French newspaper La Croix on May 5, 2017 that it would come down to just two: "Out of six candidates, four of them are extras and decor elements.  Two candidates remain: Hassan Rouhani and his main competitor, Ebrahim Raisi."

Rouhani's case in particular is worth watching, since not all signs point to his being in Khamenei's favor.  For one thing, his claimed readiness "to kiss the supreme leader's hand dozens of times" is considered despicable in Iranian society.

Some of the experts believe that his use of these words was to add balance his speech from last week.  In an election meeting in Hamedan (a big city in the west of Iran), he said to his competitive faction: "It is 38 years that you are only executing."  In response, Khamenei in a public speech threatened him, saying "he will receive a slap" without mentioning his name.

Another interpretation is that Rouhani is giving a conciliatory proposal to Khamenei.  According to informed sources in Tehran, in recent days, the supreme leader has summoned Eshaq Jahangiri, Rouhani's deputy and a withdrawn candidate, asking him to make his boss make a deal with the IRGC (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).  This compromise means that Rouhani will be president on the condition that 20% of Iran's oil revenue and its share of the cabinet be allocated to IRGC.

If we accept this interpretation, three different alternatives could be considered for May 19 election:

A: Khamenei with this proposal may be trying to deceive Rouhani into stopping his harsh comments, because these comments can activate dangerous social discontent.  In this case, it would be easier for Khamenei to organize the elections in favor of his preferred candidate.

B: Khamenei will accept Rouhani's presidency.  (Of course, on a condition: that he is totally obedient to him.)

C: Khamenei will take a risk and engineer a coup d'état to make Raisi the president.

Based on the last 38 years' experience, either of the two candidates could become president, and there would be no difference in foreign policy, defense, or security issues, let alone the handling of the greater part of the economy (which is under the supreme leader's and IRGC's control anyway), but how the election will be held could nevertheless make for far-reaching political instability.

Mohammad Amin (@EconomieIran) is a senior research fellow for the Paris-based Fondation d'Études pour le Moyen-Orient (FEMO) or Foundation for the Study of the Middle East.  He has written several books and essays about the ruling theocracy, the transformation of Iran's political economy under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.