Iran set to elect a conservative president

Experts fault former US president Donald Trump's maximum pressure policy for the shift in Tehran's political landscape


Hammad Sarfraz June 18, 2021
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi ​attends an election debate at a television studio, in Tehran, Iran June 8, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

KARACHI:

As Iranians head to the polls to elect a new president, observers predict the successor to two-term moderate President Hassan Rouhani, is most likely going to be a conservative, who will be fully committed to advancing the Supreme Leader’s domestic and foreign policy goals.

According to several independent political experts, Friday's election will have one winner – and that is the ailing Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who needs a lifeline for Iran’s fading revolution and the country’s clerical regime. “The guardian council has already disqualified most candidates. The next Iranian president will be a regime loyalist with limited authority,” said Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, a Distinguished Professor and former director of the Rutgers’ Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In a no-holds-barred interview over Zoom, Dr. Amirahmadi, who has been a presidential candidate himself, said the strict vetting of candidates by the ‘unelected’ Guardian Council, the most influential clerical body in the country, that operates under the close supervision of Khamenei, shows that the winner has already been 'ordained'. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s chief justice and a close ally of the country’s top cleric, Dr. Amirahmadi said will win the contest.

The guardian council has already disqualified most candidates. The next Iranian president will be a regime loyalist with limited authority

Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Distinguished Professor and former director of the Rutgers’ Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Having been rejected by the Council, the New Jersey-based political expert said the watchdog routinely disqualifies moderate candidates. “Surprisingly, they even rejected former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was fit to serve for eight years, but not anymore,” he quipped.

Read: Front-runner for Iran presidency is hardline judge sanctioned by US

Ahmadinejad, who famously railed against former US president George W Bush at the United Nations, accusing his administration of promoting hegemony, is not the only one barred from contesting the presidential election. He joins more than 1,600 candidates, who have been excluded from the race, leaving only four men on the ballot for the top job in Tehran: the frontrunner and predicted winner, Ebrahim Raisi, Abdolnasser Hemmati, Mohsen Rezaei, and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi.

Friday's election, Dr. Amirahmadi said, is not about Iranians or the country’s laundry list of domestic issues. “It is about ensuring that the regime cleanses secular and moderate taints from Iran’s society – making it a devout Islamic nation as envisioned by the country's Supreme Leader.

“To revive Iran’s revolution, the Supreme Leader wants to establish a government that is full of conservative clerics. Only then can he create an Islamic government and be able to implement policies that would advance the objectives of the revolution,” explained Dr. Amirahmadi.

While most experts appear to be fixated on the idea of high voter turnout and its ability to change the outcome of the election, Dr. Amirahmadi predicted a low turnout -- and that he said would help the clerics. "It helps them more than it helps the moderates,” he added.

Trump's support

In Washington’s policy circles criticism aimed at former president Donald Trump has been increasing since he left office this year. Experts fault the 45th president for helping the conservatives in Iran through his maximum pressure policy. “Donald Trump may no longer be president, but he looms large over Iran’s presidential elections,” wrote Trita Parsi in a piece he recently coauthored with Rouzbeh Parsi.

The idea that US sanctions have brought it to the brink of collapse is just false. Iran has found ways to bypass the restrictions. It is certainly suffering, but it is not on its knees

Mark Fitzpatrick, Former director of the Non-Proliferation Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

In his article for the Responsible Statecraft, a publication of the Quincy Institute, Parsi, who is also the Washington-based think tank’s Executive Vice President wrote that the regime has benefited from president Trump’s sanctions. “His maximum pressure has had a devastating effect on the economy, but not the priorities and policies of the Iranian state.” Parsi’s views were also supported by Dr. Amirahmadi, who said the sanctions were aimed at crippling the state and not the ideology behind it.

Former director of the Non-Proliferation Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Mark Fitzpatrick, was quick to say that Tehran has been under immense pressure from the United States over the past four years and generally over the past 40 years, but it has survived. “The idea that US sanctions have brought it to the brink of collapse is just false. Iran has found ways to bypass the restrictions. It is certainly suffering, but it is not on its knees,” said Fitzpatrick from Washington over Skype.

The veteran US Foreign Service Officer said: “While many Iranians would want a different leadership, they are not seeking to overthrow the clerical leaders, who happen to be an important component of Iran’s complex political ecosystem."

Fitzpatrick, who has also served as the acting US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation criticized the Trump administration for imposing the sanctions on Iran, which he said, brought no benefit to the United States. “They brought no benefit to Washington other than weakening a potential adversary. None of the policy objectives were met.”

To the contrary, the Washington-based expert said, Iran became more problematic – particularly its nuclear program expanded in ways that are concerning. “The sanctions were certainly counterproductive,” he added.

Foreign policy

On Tehran’s foreign policy, Dr. Amirahmadi said: “Regardless of who wins the race, Iran’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. The Supreme Leader had the final say and will continue to call the shots.” "Expect no change in the manner in which Iran will conduct business with the rest of the world,” he added.

Anti-Americanism, in some form or shape, the Rutgers professor said will continue to define Tehran’s foreign policy. In Dr. Amirahmadi’s view, through its new conservative president, the regime will continue to advance Tehran’s objectives. "They will continue to lend support to militant groups wherever and whenever possible."

There is no reason for this election to make any difference to Iran’s foreign policy. The presidency in Iran does not shape strategic policy; that is mostly done by the Supreme Leader

Alex Vatanka, Middle East Institute's senior analyst on Iran

Alex Vatanka, who specializes in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran had similar views about Iran’s foreign policy under its new president. “There is no reason for this election to make any difference to Iran’s foreign policy. The presidency in Iran does not shape strategic policy; that is mostly done by the Supreme Leader,” explained Vatanka, from the Middle East Institute, the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated to the study of the Middle East.

Nuclear deal through diplomacy

After four years of tough rhetoric from former US president Donald Trump, Iran’s regime is hoping to make the most of the Biden administration’s leniency. “The regime will sign the deal. There is no doubt about that,” said Dr. Amirahmadi from New Jersey where he is based.

Taking a potshot at the Biden administration, he said: “The president has no plan. He is simply trying to revive the deal his former boss signed before leaving office.” Obama, he said, wanted to cement his legacy and therefore he rushed to seal the agreement.

Read more: Khamenei set to tighten grip in Iran vote as frustrations grow

Other than preventing Tehran from producing nuclear weapons, the deal, he said, offered nothing. “If you view it from Washington’s lens, the nuclear deal that Obama signed was a complete waste of time,” the professor said.

Once Washington manages to bring Iran back to the agreement, the former presidential candidate said, very little will change on the domestic front for people in Iran. The sanctions and restrictions, he explained, only account for 20% of Tehran’s financial problems.

Referring to the situation in Iran, he said, the most pressing domestic issue for Iranians is the economy, which has been teetering on the edge of collapse since Washington imposed sanctions in 2018. “Lifting of sanctions – particularly on the oil and other sectors will be on the to-do-list for the incoming president when he walks into office,” said Dr. Amirahmadi.

“So, yes, the regime will sign the agreement, but it is an insult to see the manner in which the Biden administration is negotiating,” he added.

Supporting Dr. Amirahmadi’s views about the possibility of reviving the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran, Middle East Institute's senior analyst on Iran, Alex Vatanka said: “Both sides clearly want a deal for various reasons. Iran needs the sanctions lifted; the US wants to contain Iran’s nuclear program and open up space to deal with other foreign policy issues.”

Vatanka said the incoming president will employ nuclear diplomacy to relieve the economic burdens that came with the sanctions.

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