Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Iranian elections and the new president's obstacles

Iranian reformist candidate Cleric Hassan Rouhani on June 15 was announced the winner of Iran's 11th presidential election. Mr Rouhani won 50.7 percent of the vote, avoiding a run-off election. He was one of eight candidates hand-picked for the presidential ballot by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The new president is likely to closely adhere to Ayatollah Khamenei's policies and continue to tentatively reengage with the West.

Now that the elections are over, and the violence and demonstrations which ignited following Iran’s previous elections have been avoided, Iran can step back to get a good look at their new president. Mr Rouhani surprised many international observers, and those following the pre-election polls, because he appeared to come out of nowhere to clasp victory.  

Election polls can be dubious at the best of times, and Iranian polls would find little comparison in the western world in terms of accuracy. As with many elections around the world, accusations of shadow support and backroom dealings surrounded each of the candidates as the Iranian election campaign progressed. And a common supposition abounded that the Supreme Leader was the true puppet master who would never let an election pass without some form of central, clerical control.

But in the end, Iranians conducted a relatively free and fair election this week. The result really does appear to have been decided on the day with Mr Rouhani’s win appeasing the electorate for the time-being.

Mr Rouhani’s victory over his more hardline opponents can be partially explained by the affinity Iran’s reformist movement felt with him. The recent arguments amongst his hardline opponents likely split their votes critically, leaving Mr Rouhani with a good chance to claim victory. It was the factionalised bickering during the last four years between outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah Khamenei which characterised the Iranian state’s political face in spite of many other pressing concerns.

During his long, turbulent tenure at the helm of the Iranian state, Mr Ahmadinejad gradually divorced himself from the Supreme Leader by revamping the powers of the presidential seat away from the clerical elite and towards figures in the political sphere and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The resulting infighting at the top levels between Iranian political and religious circles essentially nurtured a growing support base from the clerical establishment favouring moderates like Hassan Rouhani.

The Ayatollahs are still firmly in control of Iran, although a surprisingly robust democratic political system exists in parallel. Not wishing to see their power diminish by the hand of an irritated President Ahmadinejad, and yet equally concerned that a reformist movement led by the people might present an equivalent threat if permitted to grow, Mr Rouhani is probably a good compromise and bulwark on both accounts for the clerical elite.

There is a desire from both Mr Rouhani and his clerical supporters to maintain the balance of theocracy and democracy in Iran. Mr Rouhani took part in the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and enjoyed close ties to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. And even though his victory is partly built on voter support for his moderate and reformist ideals, Mr Rouhani will not be nearly as rambunctious as his predecessor and he can be expected to take seriously the advice of the clerical regime without compromising too much of his clearly popular policies that ultimately put him in power.

Consolidating control over the Iranian political system – having been somewhat diluted over the last four years - will be the top priority of the clerical regime. Ideally, from the clerical regime’s perspective, the political trajectory President Ahmadinejad set the country on should be brought back into line with Mr Rouhani in power. Many in Iran are nervous of the power the IRGC has gained over the years during Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency and would like to see the leash of those military-political figures tightened.

Just as important for the Iranian political and clerical elites will be the dire state of Iran’s economy. Iran has been subjected to crippling sanctions by the United States and other European nations for a number of years in response to the controversial Iranian nuclear program. However, sanctions on Iran’s primary export of crude oil have not been completely effective because India and China are refusing to recognise the sanction’s legitimacy and have continued purchasing oil from Iran for their hungry nations.

But even with these legitimate sales of Iranian oil - and the superbly functioning black market and smuggling program - the country has faced intense economic and fiscal obstacles over the past few years. Iran’s new president takes the stage in the middle of rising inflation and an economic crawl. If the Iranian economy is to be revived, the new president will have to sit down with the United States to negotiate how Iran can plug back into the world system without losing its strategic and regional influence or giving up important ground in regards to their nuclear program.

What Mr Rouhani brings to power is a new face for negotiations around Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He has said he would seek “constructive interaction with the world”, a statement which will be met with understandable scepticism by observing Western countries. After all, previous Iranian leaders have promised similar things in the past. But there might be good reasons to believe Mr Rouhani clutches a brighter torchlight than most.
The former nuclear negotiator
Hassan Rouhani as been elected
president of Iran - Photograph: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media

During the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, Mr Rouhani was the country’s chief nuclear negotiator. He has always defended Iran’s nuclear program, but his time as negotiator from 2003 – 2005 stands in stark contrast to the stalemates and filibustering surrounding recent rounds of unproductive talks with the West. Mr Rouhani’s ability to balance conservative and reformist ideals, with an understanding that issuing rhetorically fierce demands to the West stifles the conversation, actually bought Iran and the United States closer to a deal than they have ever been. Mr Rouhani is remembered from this period as being “extremely professional”, according to former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The new president brings not only a deep understanding and experience of geopolitical issues to his position, but also an appreciation for Iran’s slipping control of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Sunni Muslims have reacted violently to Shiite Iran’s increased political presence in Iraq and Syria, while the Arab Gulf States have been quietly working to undermine Iranian influence throughout the region for a number of years.

Recently, 4000 IRGC troops were sent to Syria to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime against the largely Sunni rebels. Without Mr al Assad’s regime leading Syria, Iran would lose an important lynchpin in its political influence in the Middle East, so propping him up has morphed into an obsession for Tehran. The incoming president will likely continue to support Mr al Assad’s regime and work closely with Moscow to further this objective.

While a good deal of significant obstacles faces Mr Rouhani in his first term as president, it is at home that his attentions will mainly be focused. Before Iran has historically felt comfortable with extending power from its upland mountains, the Iranian economy and population must be working as one entity. If Mr Rouhani can connect the disparate elements of the military, the political establishment, and the Iranian people with the powers of the theocratic regime, he should be able to negotiate with the West much more coherently and revive the Iranian economy with greater efficiency.

It will take a president with immense diplomatic skill to deal with the IRGC and the marginalised regular army in a way in which both institutions’ interests are maintained. Mr Rouhani will also need a similarly sweet touch to balance the overarching clerical regime with an increasingly educated and young broader populace who have little memory of the Islamic Revolution and are looking to bring Iran into a more secular era. And it will take patience to ensure infighting between clerics does not escalate and end up undermining Mr Rouhani’s efforts elsewhere.

In this sense, the scorecard for Iran’s new president has already been drawn and it is now up to Mr Rouhani to make sure he ticks as many of the boxes as he can before his term is through. It remains to be seen just how much change Mr Rouhani can truly bring for Iran in the long term. Certainly, until he can consolidate his presidential prerogatives and begin to implement some of his changes, very little change to the status quo can be expected in the short term. 

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