Sanam Vakil
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The Supreme Leader and conservative candidates are playing on old fears of international interference in an attempt to see off reform in the Islamic Republic.
2 May: Supporters of Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf at a campaign rally in Tehran. Photo: Getty Images.2 May: Supporters of Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf at a campaign rally in Tehran. Photo: Getty Images.

In the run up to Iran’s presidential election on 19 May, the idea of ‘resistance’ has become a key theme. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei set the tone in his annual Persian New Year address in March by declaring the coming year the ‘Year of the Resistance Economy’, a term that has been reiterated by conservative candidates who also speak of ‘the axis of resistance’ and ‘Islamic resistance’. But exactly what is Iran supposed to be resisting?

Resistance is not a new concept in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, since the 1979 revolution, conservative politicians have continued to invoke the concept of ‘resistance’ to exploit popular fears of Western meddling in Iranian affairs. The narrative of resistance has also stoked the spirit of Iranian nationalism and independence inspired by the words of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Iran to be dependent on ‘neither East nor West’. The Supreme Leader and conservative politicians have long used the narrative of economic and political resistance as a means to preserve Iranian autonomy.

Enmity with the United States and by extension Israel is also tied to a national concept of resistance.  Over the years, this national spirit has been used to justify Tehran’s unconventional foreign policy of supporting proxy groups as well as to provide support for its nuclear program. Resistance takes the form of political, revolutionary, social, cultural, economic and foreign resistance to change and interference from abroad all of which would result in the erosion of power. Ultimately, resistance is about protecting and preserving the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary ideals that have been gradually loosing sway and giving way to notions of reform from within.

In the upcoming election, this notion of reform is personified by the incumbent president, centrist Hassan Rouhani. For him, the concept of resistance contradicts his agenda of an economically and regionally integrated Iran.  Through foreign investment, Rouhani has hoped to revitalize and diversify Iran’s economy, creating employment and addressing macroeconomic structural problems while promoting stronger regional and international ties.  He himself stated: ‘In the coming election, the main issue is whether we want to begin confrontation with the world and bring back the ominous shadow of war to the country or whether we want to continue engaging in honorable interaction with the world.’

Rouhani’s main achievement in office has been the nuclear pact with the P5+1, which compromised on developing Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief from grueling economic sanctions, including an embargo on Iranian oil sales. But while investment has trickled in and economic growth has returned, albeit at a limited rate, Rouhani has struggled to translate growth into tangible popular economic gains. This has left him vulnerable to conservative attack.

The Supreme Leader’s New Year address argued for a ‘strong, reliable and self-sufficient economy… without which we will neither achieve permanent dignity nor permanent security.’ This call for an indigenous resistance economy is geared to protecting Iran from undue outside influence and interference and is a clear critique of Rouhani’s focus on foreign investment.  The Revolutionary Guards have also stated that Iran is leading the charge of Islamic resistance in the region fighting Israel and terror groups. Resisting the erosion of Iran’s revolutionary values is also part and parcel of this narrative.

Together these issues form the conservative platforms of the main conservative candidates, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, current mayor of Tehran, and cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who is head of Iran’s largest religious charity, Astan Qods Razavi. Raisi has called upon ‘the activation of a resistance economy as the only way to end poverty and deprivation in the country.’  To accomplish this, he is promising to increase cash subsidies and create employment. Both have also heralded Iran’s regional involvement in Syria and the wider Middle East as a signal of national resistance.

Six clerically approved candidates are officially running, but it is likely that a few will drop out in the final days before the election, leaving Rouhani to face off against Raisi and Qalibaf. Should Rouhani fail to capture 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the top two contenders will face off in a 26 May runoff. A Rouhani victory would signal popular support for his policies of economic and political integration as well as moderation. The election of Raisi or Qalibaf, however, could usher in a more confrontational approach to domestic and regional policies. The outcome very much depends on the level of public participation and their belief in the narrative of resistance, revolution and confrontation against that of reform and change.

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