Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution.
Even in Iran, the globalist-nationalist theme has overtaken political discourse surrounding Friday's presidential election. While critics of the Iranian government might doubt the value of its elections – calling it a procedural sham that attempts to legitimize the autocratic regime – the elections will play an important role in shaping the future of Iran and that of its 80 million people. So we need to take notice, welcome a likely win by Hassan Rouhani and take another sigh of relief that populism has been kept at bay, for now.
In recent memory, we have watched election after election being shaped by the discourse of populists appealing to a nationalist base that seeks economic retrenchment and using slogans that harken back to a golden age. Pitted against these nationalists are globalists who want increased engagement with the world and who espouse a message of hope. When Iranians go to the polls on Friday, the two front-runners embody these discourses.
Following a globalist vein, incumbent president Rouhani has talked about modernizing the Iranian economy with investment in technology and finding knowledge-based solutions to the country's continued economic malaise. Carefully not proclaiming himself to be a reformist – lest he be disqualified by the hardline political establishment – Mr. Rouhani has used the language of hope. He also has reminded the Iranian people that his key opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, would return Iran to a past of exterminations (Mr. Raisi indeed has blood on his hands from the 1988 execution of thousands of political dissidents).
Mr. Rouhani's signature foreign-policy achievement over the course of his four-year rule has been signing a multilateral agreement that lifted economic sanctions in exchange for the destruction of thousands of centrifuges, increased monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities, and limits on future uranium enrichment. Mr. Rouhani promised that this agreement would open Iran to foreign investment and end its economic isolationism.
While sanctions relief helped return sorely-needed imports to Iranian markets, investors did not rush in as hoped, thanks to continued U.S. bilateral sanctions and international banking's continued hesitance to re-engage with Iran. Despite Mr. Rouhani's progress in providing Iranian poor with health care, reducing inflation, and introducing new environmentally-friendly policies, Iran's economic woes continue; its educated and cosmopolitan youth and urbanites pay the price of high unemployment.
Mr. Raisi, like many populists, has railed against rising poverty, increased unemployment, decreased production, and over-reliance on foreign banking interests and investors as forms of neo-colonialism. Railing against the international financial industry, Mr. Raisi called on Iranians to rely on themselves – to reactivate the industrial engine of growth in order to capitalize on Iran's educated work force. Using the campaign team of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Raisi is appealing to the masses with promises to significantly increase subsidies without clear plans of how to pay for it.
Many might rightly be cynical that it does not matter who wins the Iranian election. After all, Iran's deep state will continue to reflect the will of religious hardliners in Qom city, regardless of who is president. Iran's foreign policy is unlikely to change; it will continue to support Syria's Assad regime and Lebanon's Hezbollah. One could also be cynical that despite 1,636 registered candidates for president, Qom's supreme council of clerics only allowed six men to compete for the position and, as always, denied women and religious minorities from running for the top office.
And yet, this election may be an important inflection point in Iran's modern history. Qom's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is 77 and ailing, and Iran's next president could likely be in office during the next transition of power. Mr. Rouhani would be a valuable voice during this time, one who could help Iran truly embrace future opportunities of global engagement and retreat from the dogmatic rhetoric of the ayatollahs.
The fact that the hardline Ayatollah has done all he can to undermine Mr. Rouhani, short of disqualifying him, is sign enough that Mr. Rouhani is seen as a threat to Iran's religious hardliners. Mr. Rouhani's predicted win should be a relief, as it could shape Iran's next succession process to reflect the reality that its liberal youth are fed up with living in a theocracy that isolates itself from the world.