Iran's presidential election has serious implications for the international community
The Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its 13th presidential election tomorrow, Friday, amid an economic crisis compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Western media and think tanks have already decided that the result is a foregone conclusion, the inescapable fact is that such elections are unpredictable. This was most evident in 1997, when reformists were brought to power, and again in 2005 which saw the ascent of an idiosyncratic principlist faction led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That said, there is growing domestic consensus that the frontrunner, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, is likely to prevail against his three rivals, fellow principlists Mohsen Rezaei and Seyyed Ami-Hossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, and the technocrat Abdolnaser Hemmati.
Whoever wins will face multiple daunting challenges, most of which are tied up with the economy. At the macroeconomic level, the new president's biggest challenge will be to overturn the neoliberal economic philosophy which has held sway for the past three decades. Beyond the ideological battles, the winner will be expected to wage a serious and sustained war against corruption as part of a broader strategy of restoring public confidence. And in the foreign policy sphere, a more cohesive posture is likely to emerge buttressing a recent shift towards China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Even if the 2015 nuclear deal is revived with world powers, tensions with the US and Israel are set to continue – and potentially intensify – as Iran presses ahead with developing its defensive capabilities.
One surprise may be a general détente with Persian Gulf states – notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Iran's regional adversaries come to accept the Islamic Republic's dominant political and security role in the West Asia region.
In some ways, therefore, tomorrow's election could be considered the most important since the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
An economic crisis exacerbated by a standoff with the United States and Israel gives an indication as to the depth and severity of the challenges facing Iran. This is why in his pre-election broadcast to the nation on 16 June, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged maximum participation as a means of building up resilience against outside pressure.
There is growing consensus that a principlist administration – backed by a majority of the electorate – will be best placed to tackle the country's foreign policy challenges. This basic fact is not lost on some Western media hostile to Iran which correctly see political cohesion as the key to overcoming the manifold foreign policy challenges, in addition to managing the economic crisis.
But is this election a political, or even an ideological, turning point as some Western analysts are arguing?
Two analysts affiliated to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have gone out of their way to argue in this Time piece that the election represents a leap from an Islamic Republic to "Islamic government", in keeping with the ideological vision of Ayatollah Khamenei. The implication is that the election has a predetermined outcome based on some grand ideological vision. Part of this putative vision, the analysts argue, is the watering down of the system's "Republican" features with a view to paving the way for an ill-defined "Islamic government", where presumably there are no elections. This is nonsense, and more a reflection of the ideological nature of the Blair Institute than the character of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has held regular parliamentary, presidential and other elections. These have always been held on time, even during the height of the Iran-Iraq War and amid significant internal unrest in the early 1980s. The election cycle is predictable, as is high voter turnout, especially for presidential elections.
The last presidential election, in May 2017, produced a more than healthy turnout of 73.3 per cent, which compares favourably to elections in Western liberal democracies. It is worth noting that the US presidential election last November had a turnout of just 66 per cent, which is considered a record high on account of the incendiary Trump-Biden contest. While voter turnout in tomorrow's presidential poll may be lower than previous elections, it is more than likely to be sufficiently high to make it respectable.
A better way to understand the transformations that are set to take place in Iran following tomorrow's election is through the prism of institutional and bureaucratic dynamics which shape policies in the country. For the past 24 years, since the 1997 presidential election which brought reformists to power, Iranian politics has been defined by an intense tug-of-war between reformists and a collection of conservative and right-wing factions lumped together as "principlists".
The period 2005 to 2013 can be considered an exception, at least in part, when the then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried but failed to transcend the reformist-principlist dichotomy.
That faction has since been decried as a "deviant current" by the establishment and Ahmadinejad was disqualified from participating in this year's election by the Guardian Council, which acts as an electoral vetting body. More broadly, the factional strife has overshadowed every aspect of statecraft, from the management of the economy to the conduct of foreign policy.
The absence of established parties in Iran means factionalism will remain a feature of politics for the foreseeable future, but the influence on public life is expected to decrease markedly as the new government – aligned with a principlist-dominated Parliament – will find it easier to formulate and implement policies in difficult areas.
One such arena is the fight against corruption which has increasingly become the bane of public life. The new administration is expected to place the fight against corruption at the top of the agenda as part of a broader strategy of restoring public confidence.
What does all this mean for countries with a deeply vested interest in the election's outcome? In the immediate short term, the most pressing challenge for the new administration is to secure a successful outcome at the talks in Vienna designed to restore the nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Both election front runners, the principlist Ebrahim Raisi and the reformist-aligned technocrat Abdolnasser Hemmati, have in principle supported the restoration of the nuclear deal, which the previous US administration abandoned unilaterally in 2018. However, if as widely expected a principlist administration takes the reins of power, there is likely to be more scrutiny of a possible US return to the nuclear deal.
Any demands by Western powers for follow-up talks, for instance, to cover Iran's defensive capabilities especially ballistic missile technology, are likely to be firmly rejected. Indeed, as I argued last month, if the negotiations become too protracted, or if the Western powers try to broaden the nuclear deal to cover other areas of national security, Iran may conclude it is better off without a formal agreement.
More broadly, a more cohesive Iranian polity will prove to be more decisive, bold even, in the foreign policy arena. This is particularly relevant to Iran's adversaries, notably the US and Israel, as they may find that any further provocations – for instance attempted sabotage against Iranian nuclear facilities – will likely be met with a kinetic response.
The outgoing administration headed by President Hassan Rouhani has exercised strategic patience with Israel, choosing not to reply in kind to repeated provocations. The incoming administration is more than likely to reverse this policy, opting instead for effective deterrence designed to make provocations by Israel and the US prohibitively costly.
There may be surprises in store as well, especially in relation to Iran's strained ties with Persian Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The tentative tension-reduction talks with Saudi Arabia may be placed on a more formal footing in the not-too-distant future, leading to the resumption of diplomatic ties which were severed in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.
Overall, though, Iran's foreign policy posture will remain broadly the same, in keeping with a decades-old policy of prizing consistency in the nation's external affairs.
What is likely to change in the mid to long term is the attitude of Iran's rivals and adversaries as they come to realise that accommodation with a more cohesive and confident Iranian establishment is a wiser choice than perennial tension and low-level conflict.