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Why the Iranian presidential election matters

17 May 2017 - 13:49
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Iranians will go to the polls this Friday (May 19th, 2017) to vote for a new Iranian presidency. Six candidates (out of sixteen hundred) were cleared by the establishment to run. Three candidates have come from the conservative camp and three from reformist/moderate camp. Besides, some have dropped out of the race in favor of their factional frontrunners and others are expected to do the same. It is a common practice in Iranian presidential elections for candidates from the same faction to drop out in favor of the frontrunner in that faction. The conservatives are expected to drop out (as did Ghalibaf on May 13) in favor of Raisi and the reformists are expected to do the same in favor of Rouhani. Effectively, it will be a race between the moderate Rouhani (the incumbent president) and the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi is a close ally of the Iranian Supreme Leader. He has a controversial judiciary background. Currently, he is in charge of Astan Quds Razavi, the largest religious charity organization in Iran and one of the largest in the Muslim world. This organization also functions as an economic conglomerate. He is also the custodian of the holiest Shia shrine in Iran. He has recently been rumored to be one of the candidates for the position of Supreme Leader after the passing away of the current Leader. Raisi’s conservative credentials and the powerful conservative establishment behind him have already made sure this is not going to be an unimpeded smooth run to the finish line for President Rouhani.

Domestic Issues: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

For all intents and purposes, the focal point of all domestic and foreign policy issues discussed in campaigns and television debates (while there were still six candidates) has been the economy. It suffered badly during the previous two terms of the controversial former president, Ahmadinejad, despite the high oil prices during his eight years in power. He led the country into economic stagflation.  

Mr. Rouhani and his two other reformist teammates emphasize the miserably poor performance of the economy during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, which is still impacting the economy negatively. They constantly argue that the three conservative candidates in this race belong to the same problematic mode of economic and political governance as Ahmadinejad. Raisi has adopted the cash-handout approach of Ahmadinejad, and has even promised to double the amount. The Rouhani camp has harshly criticized him for this highly populist mode of governance.

Rouhani and his team have managed to bring the inflation under control and consider this a major achievement. Stagnation, or rather slow economic growth, and unemployment are still major problems. Raisi has repeatedly criticized Rouhani for that.  Creating jobs, unemployment issues, poverty, and corruption have been heatedly argued over in TV debates and campaigns. This shows a widening schism in the Iranian political system. All such issues point to the economy at the core of this election process. Another way to read this election is by looking at it as a referendum on the nuclear deal (JCPOA). The deal was agreed upon in 2015 and at least temporarily wards off the threat of the military nuclear development of the Iranian nuclear programme. In exchange for sanctions relief. However, even JCPOA has been discussed in terms of its domestic economic achievements (or lack thereof). 

Foreign policy

In terms of foreign policy, it is worth noting that geostrategically speaking all six candidates were more or less in agreement with the overall direction that the country is pursuing. They all highlighted a “strong” “independent” Iranian foreign policy in the region and the world in line with Iranian national interests. They all advocated dialog and diplomacy with legitimate actors and a strong fight against terrorism in the region.  They all praised the anti-terrorist struggles of Iran against ISIS, Al Qaeda and their affiliates in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq. Without praising Assad explicitly, they all see the Assad government as the only legitimate state apparatus that can keep Syria intact. They all argued that the future of Syria should be resolved through diplomacy and, in the final analysis, by the Syrian people. It is then safe to conclude that no matter who gets elected, the overall geostrategy of Iran in the region will not change. This argument is strengthened by the fact that the main lines of Iranian geostrategic thinking come from the office of the Supreme Leader and not the presidency. 

As for the sanctions and the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with global powers, all six candidates stressed that they will comply with commitments made by the Rouhani government in that deal. This is good news for regional and global peace and stability. However, Raisi has criticized the current government of Rouhani for not materializing the economic potentials that should have followed from the deal (again back to the economy as the core issue). Despite this geostrategic agreement among the two camps, the Rouhani side has put much more emphasis on the role of diplomacy and positive interaction with the world and paving the way for foreign investors to enter Iran at an increasing rate. The conservatives, needless to say, have had a more confrontational tone. They have been criticized by the Rouhani/reformist camp for this tone. Rouhani said in a campaign rally recently:  

“We will not let Iran become isolated once again. We would like to have constructive and effective interaction with the world.”

Prospects: Perils and Promises

There are no highly reliable polls at this moment. In numerous unofficial polls, Rouhani seems to be leading. However, nothing is guaranteed. If no candidate gets a minimum 50% majority, there will be a runoff election. If all candidates except Rouhani and Raisi drop out before Friday, the Friday election will be the final round as one candidate is certain to have at least 50% of the votes. It seems, as of now, the election will be wrapped up on Friday (May 19).

Under the current Rouhani government, Iran has improved its international image, foreign tourism has increased, inflation has been stabilized, and diplomacy has worked at least in the case of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of multilateral sanctions on Iran. Iran has regained its place in the global energy market. If not in a tacit cobelligerency, Iran and the US are fighting on the same side in Iraq against ISIS. They are fighting on opposing sides in Syria. If Rouhani gets re-elected, one can be reassured that the same diplomacy-oriented approach to foreign policy and economy-oriented approach to domestic politics will continue. He has promised further efforts to attract foreign investment in his second term. He can therefore serve as a predictable element in a world of geopolitics that has far too many unpredictable elements already.

It is also worth mentioning that the Iranian power establishment should see no rational reason to disturb the status quo too much. It is in their own (existential) interest to not introduce any additional uncertainty in the global, regional, and domestic systems. Further uncertainty might backfire against them. In other words, Iran has enough on its plate at the moment, both domestically and internationally. The establishment boasts of Iran being ‘an Island of stability’ and security in a region riddled with instability and insecurity. However, this stability is not foolproof; it is within the interest of the establishment to keep things stable no matter what the outcome of the election. The Supreme Leader of Iran has emphasized unity and security in the background of this election and its heated debates. Therefore, it should be rational for the establishment to pursue the current diplomacy- and economy-oriented approach of President Rouhani.  

We are living in a time of tectonic shifts and intensities in global geopolitics. These intensities and uncertainties have been augmented even more by the recent election of Donald Trump. Remarkably, the anti-Iran sentiment of President Trump (and his team) seems to be one of the rare constant and predictable elements (so far) in a Trump presidency that is overflowing with unpredictability and changes of mind. If Raisi wins this election in Iran, the risk factor in Iranian-American relations will possibly multiply and so will (potentially) regional instability. This will happen despite the fact that both the Trump administration and Iranian conservatives have stated that they will abide by their respective commitments in the nuclear deal.

If Rouhani is reelected, he is set on intensifying the diplomatic approach that his administration boasts of at the moment. He has even suggested on a couple of occasions during the campaign that he is ready to engage in negotiations ‘to remove all sanctions on Iran’. If not a hyperbolic campaign promise, this statement implies a much deeper and more positive engagement between Iran and the West, beyond the nuclear deal. In the heated debates regarding the economy, unemployment, and corruption, this statement (that he made twice) did not get much traction. He did not expand upon its implications. However, it can be a positive indication that his administration is potentially ready to take Iran’s relations with the West to a new level of diplomatic negotiations and (potential) positive engagement if circumstances allow him. Foreign investment in the country is also expected to increase in his second term if he is reelected. This Iranian election, therefore, matters immensely, not only for Iranian citizens but for the region and potentially the world. History is in the making.