The result of Iran’s presidential elections will come out later today. According to the rules, if no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the votes plus one, the election enters a second phase: A run-off between the top two candidates. The timeline for a run-off is normally the next Friday. But regardless of who wins, moderate or hard-liner, do not expect any fundamental changes in Iran’s domestic or foreign policy.
It is likely to more forcefully pursue its regional hegemonic ambitions via military adventurism in the next few years. The final decision-maker in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Directly underneath him is the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Other hard-line institutions such as the Intelligence Ministry, the Basij and the judiciary play important roles as well.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, its presidents have mostly played a cosmetic role in decision-making. Khamenei and the IRGC have always preferred a president who does not wield real power, but is held accountable for domestic or foreign policy failures. Iran’s presidents set the regional, international and diplomatic tone, but that tone is aimed at serving the objectives of the supreme leader and the IRGC.
Every four years for nearly the last four decades, Iran’s elections fool many into believing they are democratic and dynamic. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, and Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, appear to be the two frontrunners in this election. Both are excellent choices for Khamenei and the IRGC, but not the people. Despite what Khamenei says publicly about Rouhani, the supreme leader is satisfied with him.
Khamenei’s public statements and private instructions can be completely contradictory. For example, he used to criticize the nuclear negotiations publicly, but privately instructed Rouhani to get the deal done so sanctions would be lifted.
Every four years for nearly the last four decades, Iran’s elections fool many into believing they are democratic and dynamic.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Rouhani was instrumental in empowering and emboldening the IRGC and Khamenei. Due to the president, the IRGC received billions of dollars of extra revenues thanks to the nuclear deal and the lifting of all four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions. Rouhani enjoys Khamenei’s blessing, otherwise he would not have been permitted to run. For most Iranians, the election is a choice between bad and worse, so Rouhani’s odds are better than Raisi’s.
The president passed Khamenei’s and the IRGC’s test in his first term because he did not challenge them or cross their red lines. If re-elected, Rouhani will be more than willing to allow Khamenei and the IRGC to continue to run the show. Raisi would play the same subservient role if he wins.
Iran’s presidential elections are based on a well-orchestrated mechanism in which a few of the pre-selected candidates, who have the blessing of Khamenei and the IRGC, are permitted by the Guardian Council to run. So regardless of who wins, there will be no fundamental changes in Iran’s domestic or foreign policy.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.