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Analysis

Iran’s presidential elections and Israel, assessed by Meir Javedanfar

With Iran’s presidential election due on 14 June, Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian born Middle East analyst living in Israel, assesses the significance of the elections for Iran and its policy towards Israel, in a podcast with BICOM. Meir Javedanfar writes and publishes widely on Iranian affairs and teaches on contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The following is a summary of his remarks. You can listen to the interview in full here.

What is the significance of the Iranian elections?

The selection of the Supreme Leader for the post of President is going to tell us the direction he wants to take the regime. If he selects Saeed Jalili (a conservative figure currently leading Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West) this tells us the regime wants to continue its current policy of non-compliance with UN resolutions, not suspending uranium enrichment and refusing to hold bilateral talks with the US. But if someone like Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, is selected there may not be changes in the short term, but his more moderate views may mean a bigger chance of compromise in the medium term. Ultimately, however, the regime will not risk allowing the Iranian people to choose freely. If they feel the candidate who suits its interests is not winning, they will have no problem falsifying the results.

Which other candidates should we look out for?

More reformist candidates like Stanford graduate and former vice-President Mohammad-Reza Aref or former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani can expect to get a lot of genuine votes. However, they are unlikely to be allowed to win, and this is a lot to do with the business. The candidates the regime wants to pick are ones who don’t want to challenge the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) monopoly over large parts of country’s economy. The more reformist candidates want a more open economy that gives others a fair chance. This is why the focus is in on the more conservative candidates, such as  Saeed Jalili, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and possibly former-foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati.

Is Iran’s election as straightforward as the regime and the Supreme Leader picking the winner?

Absolutely. The Supreme Leader will consult others including senior IRGC officers, the highly influential intelligence organisations, and senior members of the Guardian Council. But Khamenei is not going to risk allowing the people of Iran to choose the President, because the regime is going in a different direction to the people. The people want a nuclear programme but also want good relations with the West, and an open economy where they can thrive and provide for their families.

The regime and especially Khamenei, on the other hand, thrives in isolation, which he believes serves his regime. For Khamenei, peace with the US is more dangerous than war. If you take away the animosity with the US and replace it with rapprochement there is not much left for the regime to stand on. For this reason he will not allow the people of Iran to choose.

Do you expect protests similar to 2009?

There is a lot of simmering anger under the surface. The priority for the people is the economy, which the regime is ruining. Whether the anger will explode is very difficult to predict, but the more closed the regime becomes the more it isolates itself and damages its popularity.

Do you expect a less confrontational posture towards Israel?

The supreme leader sets Iran’s Israel policy. All those terrorist operations carried out in recent years against Israeli targets around the world would have required the approval of the Supreme Leader. The regime would have no qualms about carrying out further attacks on Israeli targets in the future. With regard to denial of the Holocaust, I think we will hear a reduction of such statements, which the regime has realised are counter-productive. However, it was not just Ahmadinejad who denied the Holocaust but also the Supreme Leader, so this is something now in the ‘operating system’ of the regime. Certainly calls for end of the Zionist regime will continue, though perhaps a somewhat more moderate tone than the particularly extreme rhetoric adopted by Ahmadinejad.

Where do you see the regime going in terms of its nuclear policy?

Khamenei has created a bubble of ‘yes men’ around himself. He seems to believe that the West can’t live without Iranian oil and that it will come crawling back to Tehran asking for compromises. Events have proved this to be wrong, with President Obama extending sanctions.

Nonetheless, the regime is going to continue with its strategy of creating ‘facts on the ground’ by building more nuclear facilities and installing more centrifuges, in the belief that when the West comes back begging for Iran’s oil, it can say what is already built is not up for negotiation.

The regime also hopes to wait out Obama’s last term, as it fears the legitimacy that Obama has established in the international community has enabled the US to increase international sanctions. They hope Obama will be followed by a Republican warmonger who will threaten Iran with all out war, taking away US legitimacy and bringing Russian and Chinese support back to Iran.

But more important than the impact of sanctions is what Iran is doing to its own economy, which is far more ruinous than anything the West has been doing. This is a factor that will help in bringing Khamenei to the negotiating table.

How do you assess the effectiveness of sanctions?

The best way to measure it is the change in Iranian policy. After the declaration of the EU oil sanctions in 2012, we saw in the P5+1 talks that Iran was willing to discuss its nuclear programme, which it had refused to do before. We also see Iran converting some of its 20 per cent enriched uranium to nuclear fuel, temporarily putting it beyond use for a bomb. This is another conflict alleviating measure, attempting to reduce tension with the West.

If people expect Iran to fold within a year – that’s not going to happen. But sanctions are slowly biting into the regime’s legitimacy. What is helping make sanctions more effective is the regime’s choice of unpopular leaders for senior posts, which has made it hard for the leadership to shift the blame for the sanctions onto the West. Had Mousavi, a reformist candidate, been elected in 2009 it would have been harder for the West to impose sanctions.

Iran’s popularity garnered in the Arab world through opposition to Israel has been eroded by its support for Assad in Syria. Do you see that changing any time soon?

Khamenei is not going to sink with Assad. The moment he realises Assad does not have a chance he will drop him. But for now it’s important for the regime to continue supporting Assad, for several reasons. Of all countries in the Middle East, the country Iranians know best is Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians visited Syria as a regime subsidised holiday destination. If the people of Syria get rid of Assad it will set a precedent for the people of Iran who know Syria quite well. At the same time, Iran does not want to lose its current weapons transfer route to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Syria is the last state in the region to be whole heartedly in support of Iran’s regional policies.

The policy is costing Iran a lot of money at a time when it is facing economic difficulty, and so it is not very popular with the people, but Khamenei regime will continue to support Assad until such time a he is definitely on his way out.

Follow Meir Javedanfar on twitter @Meirja.


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