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Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
Iran’s Bipolar Election
Iran’s Bipolar Election

Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?

Originally published in Reuters

The signing of the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 answered a question that has bedeviled the U.S.-Iranian relationship for 36 years.

Decades after the 1979 uprising that ousted Washington’s ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and led to the 444-day captivity of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the United States is no longer intent on effecting regime change and settling scores. The nuclear accord signifies a belated acceptance of, and accommodation with, the Islamic Revolution and the clerical order it spawned.

What does this mean for Iran? That a relaxed leadership can now look inward to fix the country’s ailing economy. But what if it also decides to invest further into Iran’s power projection in the region?

First the good news: The accord deserves to be embraced unabashedly as both necessary and sufficient, on moral as well as geostrategic grounds. It isn’t that one can trust either Iran or the United States to implement the deal to the letter, especially once these governments come under new management: Iran holds parliamentary elections in February 2016; the U.S. presidential elections follow in the fall, and Iran’s presidential polls a year later. Nor that Iran can be expected to temper its long-term nuclear aspirations. But any successful effort to reduce or push back the chances of war over the nuclear issue must be warmly applauded, and this particular agreement has two important additional assets: it reflects a rare — and very welcome — international consensus in bewildering times for the globe, and it constitutes a victory of diplomacy over options that are so much worse.

So hurrah! Well done!

Yet it’s fair to ask if now, thanks to this deal, we’re out of the woods. Looking at the Middle East, the answer must be an unequivocal no. This doesn’t make the nuclear deal any less necessary or praiseworthy; failure to reach one would have imperiled more than the Middle East. But it means that concerted efforts will now need to be made to fix a region that is increasingly coming undone, whose conflicts are spilling across borders, and that has generated both a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions and a transnational jihadi threat to which we have yet to find an effective response.

While the talks that led to the nuclear accord — involving the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union — were carefully walled off to prevent the intrusion of other pressing concerns, such as the wars in Syria or, more recently, Yemen, they were not merely about the complex technical problem of how to clip Iran’s nuclear wings. For the Obama administration, blocking all possible pathways to a bomb, establishing airtight verification mechanisms, and ensuring sanctions will be snapped back into place if Iran attempts a nuclear breakout together amount to circumscribing Iran’s ascendant power in the region. If fully observed, the deal guarantees that we will be able to tackle, and attempt to settle, conflicts in the Middle East for the next 15 years at a minimum without the shadow of nuclear blackmail — at least by Iran.

This won’t suffice to reduce growing tensions. Yet how seriously should we take the threat that Iran, rather than coming around from decades of isolation, reinforces it by stepping up its entanglements in the Gulf and the Levant? In respect of the latter, Iran’s leaders may find they have little choice, but it’s not as if they have much to cheer about: Tehran’s military backing of the tottering governments of Syria and Iraq is a direct result of its failure to protect these allies from internal upheaval through the use of its soft power.

In Syria, rather than encouraging Bashar Assad to reach out to demonstrators in the uprising’s early days, Tehran supported him when he cracked down. His violent response provoked an escalation into all-out civil war, and his loss of control over most of the country. If he survives today, it is only because of the military role Iran and its ally Hezbollah have played to protect the regime’s core assets. It is difficult to see how Assad could ever rule all of Syria again, or how Iran could maintain its vital link to Lebanon and Hezbollah when the Assad regime collapses — as well it may if Tehran fails to negotiate a transition that would end Assad’s rule while preserving Iran’s own strategic interests.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies and sectarian-imbued repressive policies further alienated a Sunni population that, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, threw in its lot with the Islamic State (IS), despite the latter’s brutal rule. Iran could have acted to moderate Maliki’s behavior but neglected to do so, content that a friendly Shi’ite Islamist coalition ruled a neighbor that, barely a generation ago, had launched a destructive eight-year war against it. The Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of Islamic State’s advance in June 2014 created a security vacuum that Iranian military advisers have tried to fill by commanding urgently mobilized Iraqi Shiite militias. But what will the proliferation of such militias do for the unity of the Iraqi state, which Iran claims to want to preserve? The country’s breakup into warring fiefdoms is now a more likely scenario.

Only in Yemen has Iran made headway, but this was hardly the result of its own doing. The Houthis exploited Saudi political fumbling when they marched virtually unopposed into Sanaa and parts south earlier this year, aided by forces allied with the former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Iranians were quick to take credit, and also to wave the flag, presumably to poke their Saudi rival in the eye and dissuade it from escalating its support for Syrian rebels. Yet this has amounted to very little in material terms. Iran’s role in Yemen remains mostly cost-free, and the country is too far from its shores to appear to warrant a major investment of resources. Nor would it be difficult for Iran to turn its back if/when the costs become too great, as they may now that a Saudi-led coalition has started to reverse the Houthis’ gains.

In other words, Iran cannot be said to have significantly expanded its influence in the region, but rather to have been forced to provide military protection to pivotal allies it risked losing. If this has caused panic in Riyadh, it’s mainly because of the Arab world’s state of disarray. The regional order that emerged out of the competition between Arab nationalist forces and conservative regimes in the 1950s and 1960s has rapidly come apart. The Arab Spring popular protests opened the door to Islamist groups, who are stepping into the political vacuum left by an exhausted state system, but Saudi Arabia, which is their ideological progenitor, has not been able to benefit. Instead, it is itself threatened by these groups, which consider the Saudi royal family illegitimate rulers of Islam’s holiest sites.

Saudi leaders have much to answer for. For decades they have actively worked to allow an extreme, intolerant strain of Islam to come to the fore in the Muslim world by spending billions on the construction of mosques, the distribution of literature, and the promotion of clerics prepared to do their bidding. The chickens are now coming home to roost: the new generation of jihadis has embraced the Saudi leadership’s religious ideology but — seeing its profligacy and corruption — rejects its right to govern. To ward off the danger, the late King Abdullah targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, a mainstream rival to the Saudi royal family, including by helping foment the group’s downfall in Egypt. His successor, King Salman, perhaps recognizing that the real threat derives less from the Muslim Brotherhood than from the radicalization its suppression entails, has tried a different tack, mobilizing the Sunni Muslim world against the perception of Iranian aggression. Support of the Saudi-led air assault on Yemen has been significant throughout the Sunni Muslim world, despite the immense suffering the often indiscriminate bombardments have caused, because the target is a (nominally) Shiite group that has declared affinity with Iran and Hizbollah–regardless of the absence of any significant Iranian involvement.

The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the entire region, with global consequences, and neither seems to have a workable strategy to exit the conflicts in which they are embroiled. At the heart of their competition lies Syria, a majority-Sunni country ruled by a minority regime allied with Iran. Riyadh has long wanted it to return to the “Arab fold”; the 2011 revolt offered an excellent opportunity, even though the protesters were fired by their opposition to autocracy (including, in theory, the Saudi variety) more than to rule by a particular sect. However, deep divisions among the rebels’ supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S.) helped create today’s military stalemate with its attendant humanitarian catastrophe.

If things are beginning to move again in Syria today it is in part because Turkey has decided to become more active in the north. IS has been extending its reach, and moreover has begun carrying out attacks inside Turkey. If this is a concern for Turkish leaders, even more so is their perception of an Iranian ascendancy. They have watched with alarm as the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Tehran-allied Kurdish rebel party in Turkey, has tried to ingratiate itself with the United States by joining the battle against IS in both Syria and Iraq, and showing itself an effective fighting force. President Recip Tayyep Erdoğan is in the midst of a political struggle, hoping to expand his powers following elections in November; playing the nationalist (anti-PKK) card may win him the votes he needs for his AK party to form a government without coalition partners.

King Salman’s strategic shift of focus was pleasing to Erdoğan, who promptly visited Riyadh, finding that he and the king could see eye to eye on most issues, with the exception of Egypt, which they agreed to put aside. Iran’s return to regional status, therefore, faces a tentative, uneasy “Sunni” alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with the U.S. trying to balance the three in pursuit of its own interests.

Many have found Washington’s Mideast policy mystifying, if not outright wrongheaded. They blame the Obama administration for abandoning its friends during the Arab Spring and then further destabilizing the region by opening the door to Iran — allowing Shiite Islamist parties to run Iraq; refusing to provide the kind of support that would have allowed Syrian rebels to topple Assad; and ratifying Iran’s regional standing via the newly signed nuclear deal — again at the expense of its Gulf allies. The Saudis may also feel that Iran is being rewarded for seeking to re-enter from its rogue orbit the constellation known as the international community without being asked to rein in its ambitions, and that as a result they are getting the short end of the stick despite being Washington’s longtime, reliable ally.

Obama does appear to have a strategy, however; it’s called “tough love,” involving qualified backing of Washington’s Gulf allies. While the administration has provided half-hearted support for the Saudi air war on Yemen, it has also delivered a warning that if Gulf states fail to take steps to put their own house in order, they are simply inviting outside parties like Iran to take advantage of their internal weakness and regional missteps. The administration’s approach is, of course, also based on the realization that the United States no longer enjoys its global reach of yesteryear, and that direct military intervention in the Middle East, of the kind that has proved counter-productive in the past, would merely put a spotlight on this discomfiting fact.

Thus we have seen only a limited U.S. military projection in the region (seeking to contain IS – but barely – through airstrikes). What we have not seen is a more proactive diplomatic initiative to reduce tensions. U.S. officials hinted until recently that a more assertive posture could have undermined the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But now that an accord is in place the administration has both the opportunity and an obligation to work with the principal parties to start to defuse the rampant conflicts plaguing the region. The fact that the United States and Iran have established a solid channel of communications and, over the past couple of years, have built a modicum of mutual trust should be of tremendous help in this respect.

Their focus, first and foremost, should be on Syria. (In Yemen, Iran remains little more than a background player, and has shown it will step back when pressed to do so, as when it agreed last June to send a ship — laden with humanitarian aid but accused of carrying weapons — to dock in neighboring Djibouti for inspection by the United Nations rather than, provocatively, in Houthi-controlled Hodeida.) The opportunity to negotiate a deal over a Syrian transition is now – before Washington and Tehran fritter away the chips of their fragile rapprochement in mutual recriminations, as implementation of the nuclear deal hits a bump or goes off-track. Whether Iranian leaders will agree to a change in Syria that would still protect their country’s core interests (as per ideas outlined by the International Crisis Group last April) or instead decide to double down in their support for Assad’s faltering regime is a matter of conjecture. But accumulated mutual goodwill and the priceless experience of negotiating a complex treaty could and should be deployed to seek a negotiated way out.

In sum, the nuclear deal has not removed the question of the Iranian threat but reframed it. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been faced until now with what they saw as two bad futures: a nuclear-armed Iran throwing its weight around in the region or a non-nuclear Iran friendly with the United States doing so. With the signing of the Vienna agreement, a decision has been made for them. We are far from seeing the emergence of a new U.S.-Iran alliance, but the taboo has been broken and the first critical hurdle overcome. So now is the moment for diplomacy, not escalation. If there is anything significant Obama could add to his legacy during his final year in office, it would be to take the lead in guiding his partners in the region toward a less confrontational posture.

An Iranian woman stands next to a wall plastered with election posters of Iranian President and election candidate Hassan Rouhani on a street in the capital Tehran, on 17 May 2017. AFP/Atta Kenare

Iran’s Bipolar Election

Iranian voters have a real choice on 19 May between a president promising engagement with the West or one focused on the ideological purity of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, both leading candidates are clerical insiders who support the continuation of Iran’s nuclear deal.

Who are the leading candidates in the 19 May election and what should we know about the top two?

The May 2017 election is essentially a two-way race between the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of Iran’s holiest shrine in Mashhad. Their shadow candidates, incumbent Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, withdrew their candidacy in support of Rouhani and Raisi, respectively. The other two contenders would play a marginal role or could drop out at the last minute.

Never before has an incumbent Iranian president faced such a serious challenge to his re-election. The closest a challenger came to unseat a first-term president was in 2009 when then-President Mahmood Ahmadinejad faced Mir Hossein Mousavi – an election that ended in a highly-disputed outcome and a subsequent popular uprising against what many viewed as rigged results. But this time, it is the establishment’s candidate, Raisi, who is challenging the incumbent, compelling the latter to adopt an anti-establishment rhetoric that one would expect from a dissident, not a sitting president of the Islamic Republic. For instance, referring to Raisi’s role as a judge on the infamous “death committee” that executed thousands of leftist dissidents in late 1980s and later as attorney general, Rouhani said “the people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed; those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut; … those [who] banned the pen and banned the picture. Those people shouldn’t even breathe the word freedom, for it shames freedom”.

While Rouhani has succeeded in taming inflation, unemployment is the main cause of economic malaise.

Rouhani and Raisi, however, have some similarities:

  • Both are consummate insiders. The former is a product of the system’s national security apparatus; the latter spent more than three decades in the judicial system;
  • Both have a close relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even though Raisi is ideologically closer to him than is Rouhani;
  • Both are clerics, but Raisi’s descendance from the Prophet’s lineage allows him to put on a black turban, whereas Rouhani wears white;
  • They are both members of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the supreme leader’s successor, a position to which both aspire;
  • They are both committed to the nuclear deal, even though Rouhani is its most prominent proponent and Raisi in the past has been its critic.

But their differences also are stark:

  • The two men present different visions for the future of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, who is more pragmatic, tends to emphasise the role of elected institutions and the constitution more than divine authority, supports integration into the global economy and engagement with the West, and advocates for relative socio-cultural freedom. Raisi, a so-called principalist (one who seeks to protect the ideological principles of the revolution), espouses more conservative Islamic socio-cultural norms, and sees an unavoidable clash of interest between the West and an independent Iran.

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  • Rouhani has had a long record of executive experience (as national security advisor for sixteen years and as president for four), while Raisi has a meager one (a year and a half as the custodian of the Astan Quds Shrine in Mashhad), having spent a lifetime in the judiciary.

What do Iranians think they are choosing between in this election?

The electorate, which is aging and more mature than in previous elections, seems to mostly care about one thing: making ends meet. The nuclear deal, Rouhani’s key achievement, has undoubtedly benefitted the country’s economy, which grew by 7 per cent last year. But 6 per cent of that growth was in the energy sector and the dividends are yet to trickle down to the population. Both candidates have promised to improve the country’s economic wellbeing, fight endemic corruption and end smuggling.

Should the system opt for short-term stability – a crucial requirement of a successful transition to the next supreme leader? Or should the system opt for long-term protection of the revolution?

Taking a page from former President Ahmadinejad’s economic populism and social justice agenda, Raisi has promised to triple cash handout subsidies for the disenfranchised. While Rouhani has succeeded in taming inflation, unemployment is the main cause of economic malaise. It is now at 12.7 per cent generally, while youth unemployment (for ages 18-29) hovers around 31 per cent for men and 53 per cent for women. Raisi has pledged a government of “Dignity and Work” that would create 1.5 million jobs per year by relying on domestic capabilities, based on the supreme leader’s favorite theme of building an “economy of resistance”. Rouhani, however, argues that tripling the subsidies would trigger runaway inflation, that the economy cannot thrive in isolation and that, without foreign capital and technology, there is only so many new jobs Iran can produce. Neither has presented a concrete, detailed program.

What is at stake in this election for the establishment?

In a sense, it boils down to a fundamental choice between two priorities: short-term stability of the system versus long-term survival of the revolution.

Iran is at an inflection point: the supreme leader, now 78, is paving the ground for his succession. His generation of Iranian leaders, the revolutionary Jacobins, are fading away by the force of nature, while a frustrated Iranian youth is seeking jobs and a move away from crisis to normalcy. This is while the leadership in Tehran sees dark clouds gathering as the Trump administration seeks to once again put Iran under pressure. And herein lies the dilemma. Should the system opt for short-term stability – a crucial requirement of a successful transition to the next supreme leader? Or should the system opt for long-term protection of the revolution by empowering Raisi, one of Khamenei’s students and a loyal disciple, to consolidate the principalists’ power and marginalise the pragmatists?

If the system chooses stability, continuity would serve its interests better than change. This would allow it to implement its strategy of presenting the Islamic Republic’s best face, protecting the nuclear deal, and seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and other members of the P5+1(China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK), should the Trump administration seek to undermine it, by leaving it in the steady hands of Rouhani as well as his team of professional – and smiling – diplomats. But this option has the risk that Rouhani, who doesn’t share Ayatollah Khamenei’s vision for the future of the revolution, could influence the succession.

Choosing revolutionary purity, however, would present some immediate downsides. If an uncharismatic man who was virtually unknown to the public defeats a sitting president whom all polls have shown ahead in an upset, albeit close victory, unrest could follow. This would be a risky gambit for a system that believes regime change is once again on Washington’s agenda and has barely recovered from the near-fatal 2009 experience. But the same fear could incentivise the system to close ranks now in order to better manage more serious future threats. The other immediate risk is that a Raisi presidency, in particular given his human rights record, would make it easier for Washington to demonise Iran and more difficult for the Europeans to side with Tehran.

If an uncharismatic man who was virtually unknown to the public defeats a sitting president whom all polls have shown ahead ... unrest could follow.

Arguably, a relatively narrow incumbent win could allow the system to reconcile these seemingly incongruous priorities. Rouhani would continue presenting a reasonable Iranian face to the world, but would be sufficiently diminished internally so as not to pose a challenge to the establishment. Raisi’s defeat would be a setback, especially given his political allies’ considerable last-minute efforts to boost his candidacy and the principalist camp’s hitherto elusive unity in backing him, but it has already catapulted him to national politics, raised his profile and created a constituency for him, which could serve as a prelude to his succeeding the supreme leader.

How much say do the people have in this choice?

They have an important say. The rule of the electoral game in Iran is for the most part that the system controls the ‘input’ by weeding out unwanted candidates, but accepts the ‘output’ of the result. The only real exception to this rule was the 2009 elections. Since Iran has no voter registration system, there could be tampering with the results. If such tampering is marginal, it might not have serious political consequences. However, brazen rigging that appeared to rob Rohani of his victory could well trigger unrest. This is something the leadership might think twice about before encouraging it, as this would occur at a time of growing U.S. pressure and possible renewed appetite for regime change.

Rouhani leads in the polls, but a large segment of the electorate remains undecided. Each campaign is seeking to swing the undecideds in its favor, though they are focused on mobilising different demographics. Raisi’s team is targeting rural areas and lower-income strata, the support base of ex-President Ahmadinejad, while Rouhani is courting the often apathetic urban middle class. Turnout can significantly tilt the balance on Election Day. Since 1980, participation rate for presidential elections has varied between 50 and 85 per cent. Around 56 million Iranians are eligible to vote this round. Given that elections for nearly 200,000 local council seats are held on the same day, a relatively high turnout is expected.

What has the campaign shown about the state of Iranian democracy?

Iranian elections are unfree, unfair and unpredictable. This is because the Guardian Council, an unelected body, vets the candidates and bars those whom the system deems undesirable. Of the 1,636 contenders who threw their hats and turbans in the race, only six could go through the Guardian Council’s filter this year. Apparently even being an ex-president is a disqualifier: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified in 2013, and this year Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the election.

As imperfect as elections are in Iran, they possess a degree of maturity and pluralism that is rare in the region.

Yet at the same time elections are highly contested. The electoral campaign is as short as it is vivid, prompting a degree of political openness that is not tolerated at other times. For instance, candidates accused one another of corruption in live televised debates and questioned the government’s diplomatic and defensive strategies, statements that could put a journalist or an academic in prison in normal times. As imperfect as elections are in Iran, they possess a degree of maturity and pluralism that is rare in the region.

Given restrictions on state-controlled media – which stifle criticism of state policies and even censure the candidates’ campaign videos – social media have become the main platform for political debate, smear campaigns, fake news and “alternative facts”. Messaging apps like Telegram, which has millions of users in Iran, have created a sphere of debate that is no longer controllable by the state.

How will the elections impact the Iran nuclear deal?

In contrast to what was witnessed during the U.S. elections, none of the Iranian candidates promises to tear up the nuclear agreement or renegotiate it. This is for two reasons: first, the accord was the product of a strategic decision taken by consensus and approved by key stakeholders in the Iranian political system; and second, recent polls suggest the deal remains popular despite widespread discontent over its limited economic dividends. All candidates have pledged to remain committed to Iran’s obligations under the deal.

Raisi, however, criticises Rouhani for being weak and naïve in expecting the U.S. to remain committed to its end of the bargain. He argues that only a strong Iranian leadership willing to stand up to the U.S. is able to “cash in the deal’s cheque”. For his part, Rouhani has emphasised that Raisi and his allies, who opposed the agreement during the negotiations, must not be allowed to become its custodian.

Regardless of the outcome, Iran is likely to pursue a strategy of remaining committed to the deal. Tehran will try to prevent the revival of a united international front against it by seeking to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the other negotiating parties (the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China). But as noted above, Rouhani and Raisi can be expected to do so in widely diverging ways.