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iran elections

On the coming 19th of May Iran will hold presidential elections.

Even in a theocratic system such as the Iranian one, where the opinions of the Supreme Guide of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei, are highly valued, and where the power of the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, who can reject some candidacies, are influential, the election of the President is nonetheless based on the people’s preferences. That is, they vote and decide. Under this aspect, the Iranian system is to be considered “democratic”.

The Challenge lies in the two souls of the country: the moderates (or reformists) and the conservatives. The former are for the democratization of the internal system and for a more relaxed foreign policy; the latter intend to reinforce theocracy and to challenge the rest of the world. In fact, the Iranian conservatives, especially on the internal level, support the role of the Supreme Guide, uphold the values of the Iranian revolution and the religious principles that inspired it.

While presidents are elected in a democratic manner – on the internal level – elections are nonetheless conditioned by international relationships: the threat represented by Israel, the USA and the fight against the Sunni world and Saudi Arabia have the power to induce the Iranian electorate to vote for one party rather than the next. Therefore the verbal threats of US President Trump, the declared will to renegotiate the nuclear deal and the reiterated economic sanctions against Iran are all elements that could sway voter preferences to the radical area.

Presently, the main representative of the moderate wing is the current President Hassan Rouhani who is running for a second term. His candidacy appears to have found support throughout the Iranian moderate panorama. Rouhani’s name is prestigious, he is highly considered and is therefore the most authoritative candidate as of today.

On the opposite front, that of the conservatives, there hasn’t emerged any prestigious figure. The conservatives still haven’t reached an agreement on the name of their candidate, although the contenders are already in the race. In December the former Minister of Health, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerde, founded the “Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces” but fell short of uniting the conservatives.

Former President Ahmadinejad, who was told by Guide Khamenei to avoid being a candidate, decided instead to support the candidacy of his former vice, Hamid Baghaei, possibly in an attempt to interfere in the country’s political events through a proxy candidate.

The same is true of one of the former negotiators of the nuclear treaty, Saeed Jalili. He is also a conservative and he decided – despite suggestions not to do so – to run as an independent.

Even the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larjani, also a conservative, was critical of Dastjerde’s initiative. In other words, it’s everyone against everyone in the conservative camp.

Hassan Rouhani

Although the conservative front currently appears divided, it has a majority in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Parliament, that was renewed last year), in the Assembly of Experts (the body that designates and replaces the Supreme Guide) and in the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution (the ones selecting the candidates). Therefore, the outcome of the coming elections is anything but certain.

In addition to all this, the elections will also be influenced by the opinion of Khamenei, who acts as a referee but is not always impartial.

In the Iranian system, the Supreme Guide always has the last word on affairs of the State. His criticism of Rouhani two months ago for underachieving in the economic sector, especially with regards to investments and unemployment, did not pass unnoticed. His criticism was reiterated on the past 20th of March, when he cited the suffering of the many poor. Is Khamenei siding with the conservatives? Substantially, yes. Possibly in an attempt to boost the scarce chances of the conservative wing in the coming presidential elections.

Rouhani also fears that some State apparatuses could try to interfere in the presidential elections. He mentioned so much on February 25, when he specifically pointed his finger at the judicial system, the Armed Forces, the security forces and the improper use of State funds. Rouhani’s statements sound like an admonishment based on founded suspicion. In fact, during the 2009 elections there had been attempts to manipulate the vote on the part of the conservatives to facilitate the victory of Ahmadinejad.

Behind it all lies the conflicting relationship with the Council of the Guardians and their head, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. Rouhani is therefore trying to lay claim to the administrative control of the elections, while he would like to limit the Guardians to a mere supervisory role.

Rouhani is also lacking the prestigious backing of a figure like the Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died in January, and who was the element of connection and mediation with the establishment and a point of reference for the unity of the moderates. Rafsanjani played a decisive role after the 2009 demonstrations against the alleged manipulation of elections following the re-election of Ahmadinejad which had led to the arrest of Hossein Mousavi and of Medhi Karroubi and to the persecution of the moderate wing. In a separate incident, Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a well-known activist for human rights, was arrested in March and sentenced to 6 months in prison for offending the judicial power.

Apart from Rouhani, the moderate wing counts several emerging personalities like Hassan Khomeini, 44, nephew of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Rohullah Khomeini, who ran for a seat last year in the Assembly of Experts but who was rejected by the Council of Guardians due to his scarce knowledge of Islamic law. Yet there are also representatives of the conservative field who do not like the idea that their side be administered by political extremists. Rouhani himself had been active in the conservative field. Rouhani hopes that the young Khomeini, thanks to his prestigious last name and to his close ties with Khamenei, can fill in the mediation role left vacant by Rafsanjani’s death.

Despite the interference of the theocratic system, the Iranian presidential elections are based on popular vote and support. This has allowed for both reformists (Mohammed Khatami in 1997 and 2001 and Rouhani in 2013) and conservatives (Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009) to fill the office of President. So far, none of them were denied a second term by Iranian voters.

An important element of Iranian elections is its rate of participation: when it is high, it usually favors reformists, otherwise it favors conservatives.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Effects on foreign policy

The next 4 years of Iranian internal and foreign policy depend on the winner of the presidential elections. There are many controversies and crisis zones in the Middle East that could blow up if they are approached with a radical mindset. The election of a conservative, whoever he may be, could generate further struggles and wars. Not to mention the differences with the neighboring Sunni monarchies.

The latest meeting of the Arab League (of which Iran is not a member) in Amman on March 29 was focused on Iran; its faults and responsibilities were listed in 15 detailed points (interference in Bahrain, the attack against the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the occupation of the islands in the Persian Gulf, interference in Syria, support of terrorism, etc.)

When Rafsanjani was alive, he was very close to the now defunct Saudi King Abdullah. All the while he managed to force Khamenei and the conservative wing on a more moderate stance. Today, Iranian politics is nowadays lacking this mediating figure.

In addition to all this, there is the controversy with the USA which seems to have been worsened by the election of Donald Trump. Rouhani could make the difference, seen his preceding experience in the negotiations for the nuclear treaty. Even there, Rafsanjani had played a secretive role in the mediation with the Americans.

Effects on interior policy

The Iranian political system needs to be further democratized and this can only happen if the role of the Shiite clergy, supported by the conservatives, is diminished. Even in this respect, Rouhani, if he will be re-elected, will be hindered by Rafsanjani’s absence. With his great charisma and the role he played in the Iranian revolution, Rafsanjani could afford to negotiate and sometimes clash openly with Khomeini then and with Khamenei now. He firmly believed in economic liberalism; he could confront the all powerful Pasdaran and at the same time unite the moderate part of the country. Rafsanjani was also one of the main sponsors of Rouhani’s candidacy in 2013.

What can happen if Rouhani wins

Although they are less powerful then they used to be, in the 2016 elections the conservatives managed to hold on to the majority in parliament and in the Assembly of Experts. The conservative current still has the power to condition or block, according to its needs, the activity of a moderate president such as Rouhani. This circumstance makes his initiatives in the economic sector, regardless of Khamenei’s criticism, subordinated to the approval of parliament, which controls the balance of State.

Another element that could hinder economic reforms is the fact that the State budget, or at least the part regarding the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran), is not within the jurisdiction of the President.

Another limitation to the President and to his reforms is represented by the right of veto of the Council of the Guardians on any legislation if they believe that such legislation doesn’t reflect constitutional ‘requisites’. Both parliament, the Assembly of Experts and the Council of the Guardians are hostile to Rouhani. Not to mention the tense relationship he has with the head of the judicial system, the Ayatollah Sadegh Amodi Lariijani.

Even if Rouhani is re-elected, it doesn’t mean that he will have the strength to change the country, because the veto power of the various theocratic groups within the Iranian institutions will be able to block any and all reforms, especially if they are aimed at democratizing the country.

Despite all of these limitations, the Iranian President still presides the Supreme Council of National Security and is therefore responsible for security and defense policy. The nuclear deal (the renown “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) was negotiated by Rouhani and lies within his jurisdiction, as does foreign policy.

But what if Rouhani loses and someone from the radical wing is elected? What then? Currently, seen the conflicting relationship with the USA, such possibility could be very dangerous for the precarious stability of the entire Middle East.

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