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Presidential Elections in Iran and American Foreign Policy
Iran will hold presidential elections on May 19. These elections are not democratic, nor are they free or fair. We are not even certain that the announced vote counts are accurate. What makes these elections interesting is that Iran is not a one-man dictatorship. The fundamentalist regime that rules Iran is an oligarchy. The fundamentalist regime is a terribly reactionary, extremist, dictatorship that uses domestic and global terrorism on a mass scale. On the one hand, the regime suffers from a severe crisis of legitimacy and on the other, it suffers from severe intra-elite conflicts on how to resolve the crisis. Thus, the election outcome is the result of intense struggles, which includes not only appeals to the people but various forms of fraud and cheating.
The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the most powerful member of the oligarchy and leads the hard-line faction. The rival faction, the expedients, was led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani until his death on January 8, 2017. President Hassan Rouhani is currently the leader of this faction. The third main faction of the fundamentalist oligarchy is called the reformists because they promote (minor) reforms to preserve the fundamentalist rule. All the fundamentalists were members of the Islamic Republican Party until it was dissolved in 1987. The 12-member Council of Guardians vets candidates and only allows trusted members of the three fundamentalist factions to run for presidency (and other institutions).
The leading hard-line candidate this year is Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. Many observers were surprised that Raisi became a candidate because he was being groomed by hard-liners for the much more powerful position of Supreme Leader after Khamenei dies. Since 1981, all presidents (Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad) won their second terms. Although a victory in the May election would greatly increase Raisi’s chances, a defeat would almost surely destroy his chances to become Supreme Leader. Raisi was a member of the “Death Committee” in 1988, which ordered the mass executions of about 4,000 to 5,000 political prisoners who had already gone through unfair trials, given prison sentences, and were serving their terms. When it comes to human rights, there is not much difference between Rouhani and Raisi. For example, Rouhani chose as his Minister of Justice Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, who was also a member of the “Death Committee,” working alongside Raisi. Rouhani, himself, also held powerful positions such as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which has been responsible for decisions on large-scale assassinations of dissidents and intellectuals inside and outside Iran. However, Rouhani has done a much better job camouflaging his brutal actions than Raisi has. In this article, I analyze the election and its ramifications for American foreign policy.
Khamenei is 78 years old. If Rouhani is re-elected on May 19, he will become one of the most powerful members of the oligarchy who will have a determining role on the selection of the next Supreme Leader. Rouhani is a member of the Assembly of Experts, a body composed of 88 fundamentalist Shia clerics that, according to the fundamentalist constitution, would select the Supreme Leader. To become Supreme Leader, the candidate should get two-thirds of the votes. It is believed that the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction within the Assembly of Experts controls about 29 seats (it was 30 before Rafsanjani’s death); therefore, they have enough votes to block a candidate they consider undesirable but not enough to select their own candidate. A committee of three would serve as the Leadership Council exercising the powers of the Supreme Leader until the Assembly of Experts reaches two-thirds vote for one person. The members of the Leadership Council are the President, the Head of the Judicial Branch, and a clerical member of the Council of Guardians selected by the Expediency Council. The Head of the Judicial Branch is chosen by the Supreme Leader and serves at his pleasure. Khamenei has always appointed hard-liners to serve at Head of the Judicial Branch and that is why the judiciary is a reliable hard-line bastion. The Council of Guardians, too, is under the tight control of the Supreme Leader who selects six clerical members directly and the other six members indirectly (they are nominated by the Head of the Judicial Branch and confirmed by the Majles). In case of a deadlock at the Assembly of Experts, Rouhani will be one of the three members of the Leadership Council. Hence, his voice at the Assembly of Experts will be a powerful one. At a minimum, he may use his power of de facto veto to eliminate the choice of those he does not like and select a hard-line candidate that would support him.
Although Rouhani’s election in 2013 clearly served the interests of Khamenei, that may not be the case this May. If Khamenei and the hard-line elements want to select a strong hard-line candidate to become the next Supreme Leader, they would have to defeat Rouhani in this election. Elections are conducted by the Ministry of Interior, which also appoints provincial governors who conduct and count the votes there. The Minister of Interior works for the president. Therefore, unlike in 2009 (when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Minister of Interior were hard-liners), orchestrating fraud would be much harder in 2017 (when Rouhani and his Minister of Interior are expedients). The office at the Ministry of Interior that conducts, counts, and announces the election is called “Setad Entekhabat Keshvar” (Election Headquarters of the Country). Its current Director is Ali-Asghar Ahmadi, who in 2005 held the same position. Mojtaba Vahedi was the official representative of Mehdi Karrubi (one of the approved candidates) at the Monitoring Room at the Ministry on the election day where the results were being announced as the votes came in. In a recent interview at the BBC Persian television Vahedi said: “… around 6:30 a.m. [after the election night] as the results were coming in, Karrubi was at the first place, Rafsanjani second place, and Ahmadinejad a distant third. Then, all of the sudden, Mr. Ahmadi turned off all the monitors and kicked us out of the room. As we were forced out of the Ministry of Interior building, we saw at the kiosk next to the building the [hard-line] daily Kayhan with the banner ‘Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani win the first round’.” (my translation).
President Obama pursued a policy of rapprochement with Ayatollah Khamenei, which meant distancing the U.S. from its allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, and Egypt as well as giving in to many of Khamenei’s demands, and overlooking Iran’s expansionist policies in the region (see here, here, here, here, and here). These concessions includes undermining the consensus on zero uranium enrichment by the fundamentalist regime on Iranian soil, a consensus that included six major UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions supported by Russia and China as well as the EU. These UNSC resolutions were chapter 7 resolutions, which considered the regime a threat to peace and security of the world. Obama even gave up real thorough investigation of the past weaponization program as well as current concerns such as inspections on Parchin by IAEA inspectors to all the suspect locations. These major concessions to Khamenei were put into a secret side agreement between the IAEA and the Iranian government and not into the official public accord, a tactic that successfully hid the concessions from the U.S. Congress until it was discovered much later. The accord allows the regime to keep the nuclear infrastructure including over 6,050 centrifuges, Fordow site deep into a mountain, and all the research and development of centrifuges (e.g., IR-8) that enrich about 8 to 20 times the current ones. Obama also released agents and collaborators of the fundamentalist regime responsible for illegal exports of nuclear and missile technology to Iran who were in American prisons, under trial, or sought by the Interpol. The magnitude of this concession came to light in an investigative report by Politico in late April 2017.
President Trump pursues a policy of standing up to the fundamentalist regime. According to the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, and the CIA Director Mike Pompeo this policy includes: (1) repairing alliances with America’s allies in the region; (2) countering Iran’s expansionist and destabilizing efforts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia; (3) re-imposing sanctions for missile tests and human rights violations; and (4) at a minimum strict enforcement of the nuclear accord with Iran and a possible termination of the accord after a 90-day review.
Rouhani’s election in 2013 served the interests of both Khamenei and Obama. Rouhani’s government provided the fundamentalist regime a number of cadres to negotiate a nuclear accord to get rid of the sanctions (that had badly undermined Iran’s economy and the survival of the regime) as well as eliminating UNSC chapter 7 status (that considered Iran a threat to peace and security). Rouhani also provided the Obama administration the façade of a moderate government in Iran that made the concessions to the fundamentalist regime less unpalatable to Americans.
Rouhani’s re-election may not serve the interests of either Khamenei or Trump. For example, Raisi’s transparent genocidal past would make it much easier to isolate the fundamentalist regime in Europe, Asia, and at the UN. Then it would be much easier for the Trump administration to recreate the sanctions that were suspended during the Obama administration by the U.S., EU, and the UN. Moreover, Raisi’s policies would further isolate the fundamentalist regime from the Iranian people, the overwhelming majority of whom already oppose the regime. The regime has lost legitimacy but not the ability to coerce the population into submission. A great deal of resentment and anger are smoldering beneath the surface. It is hard to predict when the people will no longer accept oppression or what would trigger the suppressed masses to revolt. The combination of international and domestic pressures may push the crises over the tipping point and result in the overthrow of the regime. The overthrow of the fundamentalist regime would be the greatest strategic victory for the U.S. since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The Iranian people deserve a government far better than the fundamentalist regime that rules them. They deserve democracy, freedom, and human rights. Unfortunately, Obama’s policies greatly strengthened the fundamentalist regime and terribly hurt the pro-democracy and progressive forces in Iran. Wise polices by the Trump administration would enhance both American national interests and those of the Iranian people. For example, the administration should pursue policies that would undermine the regime as a whole such as designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as Foreign Terrorist Organization and placing sanctions on both Raisi and Rouhani for gross violations of human rights of the Iranian people.