The Iranian election does not change the fact the West is in a catch-22 situation

The Iranian election does not change the fact the West is in a catch-22 situation

The Iranian election does not change the fact the West is in a catch-22 situation
Iranian ultraconservative cleric and presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gives a news conference after voting in the presidential election, at a polling station in the capital Tehran, on June 18, 2021. (AFP)
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Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s presidential election in Iran, most Iranians were already resigned to a familiar fate. Disillusionment and voter apathy have chastened the fervor and passion for reforms seen throughout the conservative Ahmadinejad era, which facilitated the rise of the moderates headed by the departing President Hassan Rouhani.

However, despite a changing of the guard eight years ago that was accompanied by promises to implement a platform curated by a disaffected Iranian public, the Rouhani years failed to result in any substantial improvements in the daily lives of most Iranians. 

While some modest changes encouraged personal liberties, and a conciliatory Tehran experienced an improvement in diplomatic relations, Iran’s flirtation with tamped-down conservatism proved to be short lived.

Yet in that same period the Iranian “shadow government” has only grown in size, influence and complexity. This “deep state,” composed of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and elements loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has become the tool of last resort to quell a seemingly growing protest movement and tighten the regime’s grip on the Islamic Republic, where general strikes and civil disobedience have become annual occurrences.

Neither hardliner conservatism nor piecemeal moderate policies have managed to absorb the shocks from a free-falling, sanctions-riddled economy, or prevent the Iranian rial losing as much as 80 percent of its value, let alone reduce unemployment that is at record highs. It is unsurprising that for most Iranians the foremost priority is the restoration of the economy, which has not recorded any growth in the past four years.

Such a transformation will only be possible if US sanctions on the oil and banking sectors are lifted. This would be conditional on Tehran returning to full compliance with the terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Khamenei’s deep state is eager to secure a deal by August, before the new president takes office, possibly to link the achievement of sanctions relief and expected improvements in economic conditions to what will likely be a conservative presidency under the Guardian Council’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s chief justice and a close associate of Khamenei.

Of the more than 500 people seeking candidacy in the presidential election, only two notable figures were clear stand-outs in an election that most observers derisively labeled a mere selection process by a panel of unelected jurists and scholars.

At first glance, the election appears to have been engineered to guarantee victory for Raisi, given that the other approved candidates had considerably less name recognition and public support than a front-runner who enjoys close ties to the IRGC and is widely considered a potential successor to the supreme leader. 

However, Iranian elections can be unpredictable. A record turnout would certainly help Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former governor of the central bank and the leading reformist candidate, especially if moderates defy expectations and the calls to boycott the election.

On the other hand, a Raisi victory with a low voter turnout of 40 percent or less would be disastrous for the Khamenei deep state, since it derives much of its legitimacy from a popular mandate.

This is perhaps why there is some measure of impatience in Vienna, where talks have been taking place between Washington and Tehran on reviving the nuclear deal, because sanctions relief and an improving economy under a conservative presidency will stifle some of the proposals from moderates for populist reforms and reduce the grievances that could spark renewed protests.

The Iranian president may nominally be the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which determines overall government strategy, but control rests firmly in the hands of the supreme leader, through his two representatives among the council’s 12 permanent members.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

This sort of calculus and long-term planning is emblematic of Iran’s quixotic power structure, where presidents do not materially influence foreign or domestic policies despite the ambitions outlined by candidates every four years. Such policy deliberations and determinations are the purview of an unaccountable internal system that is mostly dominated by hardliners, IRGC stalwarts and Khamenei loyalists whose priorities rarely coincide with those of the public. 

The Iranian president may nominally be the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which determines overall government strategy, but control rests firmly in the hands of the supreme leader, through his two representatives among the council’s 12 permanent members.

This structure ensures that the final decisions of the SNSC can sometimes conflict with the president’s policy preferences and campaign pledges. The departing Rouhani attempted to circumvent such hurdles, and seemed to have succeeded, when the JCPOA was signed six years ago. However comments made by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this year seemingly exposed the realities of the long reach of the IRGC.

For now, though, it appears as though the SNSC is in the driving seat in terms of Iranian foreign policy, so it is likely the new president will abide by any agreement reached in Vienna. This would be a win for the Biden administration but in no way an indication of improving relations between Tehran and Washington. If anything, the relationship is likely to become more tense. The US will be keen to ensure Iranian compliance with a revived deal, while Tehran will look east to steadily develop ties with Russia and China in an effort to boost its military and secure backing for vetoes should its continued support of malign forces in the region attract the attention of the UN Security Council.

For an Iranian public desperate for jobs that would be created in an improving economy, and possibly an end to their country’s status as an international pariah, there was little motivation to head to the polls to choose a president with such limited power.

However, low turnout and disenchanted citizenry only incentivize malign interests to supersede the national will. As a result, rather than dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and prioritizing domestic issues, the regime has instead focused on accelerating its nuclear-enrichment programs in defiance of global nuclear non-proliferation treaties, escalating regional tensions through its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and the Gaza Strip, and continuing its long-range missile-development program.

Furthermore, the Vienna talks on the nuclear deal ultimately will only deal with one aspect of Iran’s troubling behavior. Meanwhile the sanctions and related restrictions that target its missile-development program and regional destabilization activities simply do not go far enough.

The result is a Catch-22 scenario: Success in the Vienna negotiations and the re-emergence of Iran on the world stage will effectively rubber-stamp for the next eight-to-12 years the continued leadership of an IRGC-dominated, hardliner government that will resist any efforts to extend the JCPOA or negotiate follow-on agreements targeting Tehran’s malign and destabilizing influence in the region.

However, failure to agree a return to compliance with the nuclear deal will result in acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which some experts estimate could produce highly enriched uranium on an industrial scale within weeks for military purposes.

There is therefore no alternative but to ensure the talks in Vienna succeed, and so US allies in the Gulf must continue to press Washington to develop a coherent strategy for addressing Tehran’s other troubling activities.

In seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the P5+1 nations (the UK, the US, China, France and Russia, plus Germany) must not inadvertently underwrite its malign influence in other countries or the Lebanization of the region’s Shiite Crescent.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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