TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's hard-liners are hoping they can benefit from the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, arguing that their own country needs a tougher leader to stand up to an American president whose administration has put the Islamic Republic "on notice."
They say it's time for a "revolutionary diplomacy" to confront the U.S. after four years of a more conciliatory policy under moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.
Hard-liners feel energized by the Trump administration's repeated criticism of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. The agreement found little support among the group, who feel Iran gave too much away in exchange for too little in the way of sanctions relief.
The U.S. president's tough talk on Iran plays into hard-liners' hands too, reinforcing anti-American sentiments they can use to rally their base.
A group of hard-liners banded together late last year to form the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, which is assessing more than a dozen potential candidates. But with less than two months to go before the May 19 election, they have yet to settle on one to run against Rouhani.
One potential candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, a former chief of the elite Revolutionary Guard, has lashed out at the administration for lacking revolutionary spirit — tough words in a country that prizes the heroes of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that created the current governmental system.
"A group (of officials) has become hopeless and tired while trying to find a prescription for problems outside the revolutionary framework," he said.
A lack of reliable polling in Iran makes it difficult to gauge how the election could play out, particularly given that no hopefuls have formally declared their candidacies yet.
But Tehran-based political analyst Soroush Farhadi said Trump's stance on Iran could bode ill for Rouhani's chances because it gives hard-liners a way to denounce his foreign policy of outreach and negotiation with the West and regional rivals.
Earlier in March, the current chief of the Guard, Mohmmad Ali Jafari, warned that an "un-revolutionary viewpoint" that had taken hold in recent years was the greatest danger facing Iran.
The daily Javan, which is affiliated with the Guard, has meanwhile criticized the Rouhani administration for choosing "smile diplomacy" that has done little to improve Iran's standing with the rest of the world.
While candidate Trump said he'd renegotiate or dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel fiercely opposes, his administration is continuing to implement the accord for now. Because the agreement was negotiated with a group of international powers, Washington does not have the ability to tear it up on its own. But continued hostility to it by the Trump administration could discourage Western companies from doing business in Iran and embolden U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia that are hostile to Tehran.
The administration, meanwhile, has implemented additional U.S. sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated Sunday that the Trump administration "has put Iran on notice," and will not tolerate Iranian efforts to "destabilize the region and jeopardize Israel's security." The warning first came in February after Iran test-fired a ballistic missile.
Hard-liners are also hoping to capitalize on voters' pocketbook anxieties, including Rouhani's failure to significantly alleviate poverty and Iran's longstanding double-digit unemployment rate. Officials say some 11 million of the country's 80 million people are living below the poverty line.
Iran has been freed of crippling economic sanctions and secured multibillion-dollar deals with Boeing Co. and Airbus for hundreds of passenger planes as a direct result of the nuclear deal.
But many average Iranians say they are still waiting for the deals' benefits to trickle down. They include Houshang Lotfi, a 43-year-old welder in Tehran who has turned to selling cheap toys on the street because of a lack of jobs.
"I know Rouhani did a lot to save our country from hassles but I am still selling toys," he said. "Streets are not my place. I must work in an industrial field."
Other hard-liners considering running include Hamid Baghaei, who is an ally of former controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The crowded field means multiple hard-liners — who belong to the conservative "principalist" camp in Iranian politics — could end up running, as was the case in 2013.
That could help ensure the re-election of Rouhani, whose 2013 win as a relative moderate surprised those who had assumed another hard-liner would replace his firebrand predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani rode to victory by beating his nearest two rivals, who split the hard-line vote.
"If principalists' choice is to send various candidates to the field, they — in practice — open the road for reformists. The choice will keep principlaists in the margin of power for another four-year term," said a commentary in the semi-official news agency Fars, which is close to hard-liners and the Guard.
Those running formally register their candidacies during a five-day period beginning April 11. They must then be vetted by the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, which will announce who is approved to run by April 27.
Rouhani has not said yet that he will run, but he is widely expected to do so. Incumbents typically announce their candidacies late to keep their rivals guessing. However he has pushed voters to go to the polls.
A Tehran-based political analyst, Saeed Leilaz, predicted that Rouhani would win the election with a weak majority "The sphere is yet not polarized and this leads to lower turnout. So Rouhani will be a president with a weaker majority."
Rouhani won the 2013 presidential election with nearly 51 percent from a turnout of about 38 million. Approximately 52 million are eligible to vote this year.