Iranian Presidential Elections: Does It Really Matter Who Wins?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 5, May 2017

By Cyrus Nezakat

As the conclusion of the Iranian presidential election looms, there have been a plethora of opinions from analysts, political experts and journalists regarding the implications of the outcome of the elections. The prevailing opinions are centered on the status quo differentiation of the progressive and conservative parties in Iran and their respective candidates: incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and his chief opponent Ibrahim Raisi.

Iran has a relatively democratic political system, which even includes rural councils who interface with the 290 member Iranian parliament. Iranian parliamentarians represent the broad spectrum of the diverse Iranian population, including Jews, Christians and other minorities. The Iranian population is heavily involved in local and national politics and during times of elections especially, lively political debates run rampant among people in coffee shops, taxis, restaurants and living rooms. Most of these debates are regarding local and economic issues and less about foreign policy matters. The reason for this is not disinterest in foreign affairs, but rather the Iranian people’s understanding of the complex political mechanisms at play in their own country.

It is widely understood and accepted in Iran that national security and foreign policy matters are shaped by the office of the Iranian Supreme Leader and the numerous entities that make up the Iranian national security apparatus. Although the president does have a public voice regarding all local and international matters, the tacit consent of the Supreme Leader is a prerequisite for any substantive action implemented in Iran. The Iranian president and his cabinet have the most discretion in economic matters, such as the disbursement of subsidies and implementation of austerity measures.

Iranians know good and well that deciphering their own political system is much like peeling away the layers of an onion; difficult to separate the layers or to know when one is close to the center. One thing is for sure however, that the one peeling and seeking the truth will be left in tears at the end. That being said, voter turnout in Iran has been over 64% (IFES Election Guide) in the last 12 election cycles. Iranians are indeed passionate about their democratic elections and are quite opinionated about the various issues on the ballots.

Most western analysts and think tanks today predict that the future of Iranian foreign policy and Iran’s posture towards the west are predicated on the outcome of the current presidential election. This writer however contends that the current pro-engagement policy of the Iranian regime will continue irrespective of the victor of the presidential elections.  A parallel can be drawn to the recent U.S. presidential elections, where then candidate Trump vowed to tear up the JCPOA, eloquently characterized as “The worst deal ever negotiated”. Trump’s actions since his victory speak even louder than his words. The JCPOA has not been torn up by the Trump administration, with Secretary of State Tillerson recently reporting to congress that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA protocols with no violations of the accord. More importantly, the Trump administration recently heeded the advice of the powerful voices in the U.S national security establishment, by reversing their position to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

The U.S national security establishment is fully cognizant of Iran’s constructive and stabilizing role in the region, serving as a bulwark against Wahhabi/Salafi radical Islamists such as ISIS and Al Nusra. Although vocally supportive of Saudi Arabia and the GCC, U.S. national security policymakers are keenly aware of the roots of fundamental Islamic terrorism. Consequently the decision was made not to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group, because it fights the same radical terrorists that have been threatening and plaguing global security for the last two decades. Shia Iranians are viewed as apostates by Sunni Muslims who believe in a fundamental and rigid interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia has historically supported and funded radical Madrasas (religious schools) in Pakistan, Afghanistan and recently in Southern Europe. These schools preach an extreme, violent and expansionist Islamic philosophy and are in fact the primary source of fuel for the current terror threat. Henceforth despite the hawkish rhetoric by both Iran and the U.S. aimed toward one another, there exists an unspoken understanding among the two, that both powers share a mutual and potent enemy.

On the other side of the fence, the Iranian Supreme leader has also been reciprocating the subtle overtures made by the U.S. by calling off new ballistic missile tests to avoid escalation and calling on his conservative legion of supporters to give the JCPOA and rapprochement a chance. Games of brinkmanship in the Persian Gulf between the IRGC and U.S. Navy have also subsided noticeably since the Trump election, signaling a more measured and delicate approach by the Iranians.

In order to glean more accurate insights and predict the ramifications of the Iranian elections, one must measure the force and direction of the political undercurrents in both the US and Iran, not the waves and ripples made on the surface. Both the U.S and Iran have long standing and antiquated policies toward each other, and it seems that the changing threat environment in global security is slowly thawing 39 years of icy relations between the two powers. These undercurrents in both the U.S and Iran, hint that the momentum created by the successful conclusion of P5+1 nuclear negotiations and the implementation of the JCPOA is too powerful to be stalled by the rusted hulks of the hawkish agenda which are no longer seaworthy in the current geopolitical waters.

To this end, Stark predicts that incumbent president Hassan Rouhani will fail to achieve the 50% vote needed for a landslide victory in the first round. However he will decisively clinch victory in the week following this Friday (May 19th 2017), when the runoff will be held. And remember, to understand the colorful Iranian political garden, look not at the individual plants, but rather at the soil in which they grow.

Cyrus Nezakat is CEO of Stark General Trading LLC, a trading and consulting firm focused on Middle East markets. He specializes in market development in the non-Arab speaking countries and regions of the Middle East and Central Asia (Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq).

JPR Status: Opinion.