On Thursday 18 May BICOM hosted a phone briefing with Meir Javedanfar, lecturer in Contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and Editor of the Iran-Israel observer. In this briefing, Javedanfar discusses the potential repercussions the Iranian Presidential elections, which took place on 19 May, could have on the JCPOA, Iranian integration into the international community, and the future direction of the country. Below is an edited transcript.
In terms of domestic politics the two biggest issues that the Iranian electorate will have had on its mind when it goes to vote tomorrow will be the economy and corruption. The two leading candidates, the incumbent President Rouhani who represents the more moderate wing of Iranian politics, and his main rival Ebrahim Raisi, who represents the more conservative line of Iranian politics, have tried to address these issues. Rouhani has stated that Iran needs to develop its economy through more interaction with the international community and to open up its markets to more foreign investment. Other plans that Rouhani has mentioned in order to boost Iran’s economy are to involve more women, who are underrepresented in the economy, and also a more planned and disciplined expenditure policy where money is spent on development projects inside Iran. He also severely condemned corruption, but what is important to note is that in Iran the only power that can fight corruption is the judiciary, whose head is appointed by the Supreme Leader, not the president.
But nevertheless, in order to attract more votes, Rouhani is saying what a lot of Iranians think; he is condemning corruption by state bodies such as the Bonyads (foundations), the main one being the Iman Reza Foundation, which is headed by Ebrahim Raisi, and he has also condemned other bodies in Iran which are connected with the regime as well as some of the policies of the Revolutionary Guards. In fact I’ve not heard of any other serving president in Iranian politics condemn as many bodies connected to the regime (though not of the Supreme Leader) than Rouhani. He has condemned corruption but let’s be honest, it’s not in his hands. The fact that he has been so open about corruption in the regime has definitely got him more votes.
Raisi’s platform is based on his belief that in order to develop Iran’s economy it needs to look at itself more, it needs to trust itself and not foreign powers and he’s also suggested some populistic policies such as increasing the cash handouts to Iranians by 500 per cent. Right now they received something like US$15 and he wants to increase it to US$75. It’s populistic but some Iranians like that. These two principles of looking inwards and giving cash handouts seem to be the basic foundation of his economic policy, and in terms of corruption he has accused the Rouhani camp of being corrupt as well.
On the foreign policy issue, Rouhani has stated that Iran should improve relations and interaction with the international community, that Iran’s foreign policy should be based on dialogue with all countries (except for Israel). Raisi has condemned the US and Rouhani’s nuclear deal with the US, and he has said that every time they have tried to improve relations with the US they have cheated them. For example, Raisi says that the US were supposed to remove all sanctions as part of the nuclear deal and it hasn’t done so, but this is incorrect because the nuclear deal was only supposed to deal with the nuclear sanctions and non-nuclear sanctions were not included. This has not changed the narrative of the Raisi camp, which believes that the US and Saudi Arabia are the enemies of Iran and Iran must do everything it can in order to distance itself from these two countries.
What is interesting and what both camps have in common is that they believe it is in Iran’s best interest if the deal continues and regarding Israel neither camp has mentioned it during the campaign and I will finish with the common phrase “no news is good news”.
Question 1: What are the consequences for the JCPOA and the events in the region if Rouhani or his main challenger wins?
MJ: The election of either Rouhani or Raisi will not change the content of the deal, but it can change the spirit of the deal. If Raisi is elected we would see more support from the presidential office for policies of Iran in places in the region and the testing of ballistic missiles, which are policies that are not related to the contents of the deal but impact the spirit of the deal. The spirit of the deal was to create bridges between the US and Iran, and not to push them apart. If Rouhani is re-elected we are not going to hear any kind of support for ballistic missile testing; if anything Rouhani condemned the Revolutionary Guards for testing ballistic missiles and for putting slogans on them which called for the elimination of Israel so soon after the implementation date of the deal came into effect. Rouhani’s re-election would mean good news for the spirit of the deal, whilst Raisi’s election would mean bad news for the spirit of the deal, but neither side is going to be able or want to the change the content of the deal.
Question 2: What effect will the presidential election have on the choice of choosing a new Supreme Leader given when Ali Khamenei goes?
MJ: That’s an excellent question. When it comes to choosing the next Supreme Leader it is a very secretive process. According to Article 108 of the Iranian constitution the Assembly of Experts is the body to choose and review the candidates shortlisted for the position, but now the Assembly of Experts has sub-contracted this task out to three people to shortlist the number of contenders. Do we know who these three people are? No, it’s an absolute secret. Do you we know who the shortlist candidates will be? No. Are they reporting to the Assembly of Expert or the Supreme Leader? Again we don’t know. My answer is based on that caveat; the selection of the next Supreme Leader will be one of the most secretive processes that we will see in Iran. However, there are two schools of thought in Iran on this issue. One says that if Raisi does not win in this election then he will not have the support of the people to become the next Supreme Leader. Assuming that he is on the shortlist of people to become the next Supreme Leader, losing will not help his chances.
The other school of thought says Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, the head of the Guardian Council, came 16th in Tehran’s election for choosing the Assembly of Experts, the last place for a seat, but when it came to selecting the head of the Assembly, the conservatives and those closest to the regime chose him as the General Secretary, so popularity to a certain extent doesn’t matter to the Islamic Republic of Iran when popularity and interests clash. These are the two current theories and I would say if Raisi’s name is on the list and loses, then his chances to be the next Leader will be reduced. If Rouhani is elected, does that mean he’s going to have a say over who’s going to be the Supreme Leader? The answer is no, because those three people have already been selected and I very much doubt Rouhani is one of them because his positions regarding the future of Iran are not similar to that of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Question 3: And Rouhani would not be a candidate for the next Supreme Leader?
MJ: The Supreme Leader said that his replacement should ‘think revolutionary’ and ‘be revolutionary’. In Iran, revolutionary thinking is one which is based on countering the influence of the US in the region and the soft power of the US in Iran. Rouhani doesn’t fall into that category. He doesn’t want Iran to turn into a puppet state of the US, but he does want better relations with all countries including the US. So based on the criteria of Khamenei, Rouhani’s chances are not very high.
Question 4: Say Rouhani wins, is there any scenario where he might have greater authority or power in the next term to pursue his own agenda vis-à-vis Iran’s position in the world or will he still be subservient to the Revolutionary Guards and what the Supreme Leader wants?
MJ: In the Iranian constitution, the President should be the second most powerful person after the Supreme Leader. In reality in Iran today there are unelected bodies in the political, security, judiciary and economic areas that exercise far more power than the president, and their heads are selected directly by the Supreme Leader who is a conservative. The history of Iranian politics is that every time conservatives lose elections to moderates/reformist, they settle the score as soon as they lose an election (for example after the nuclear deal, the conservatives tried to humiliate their opponents in front of voters). They tried to make them look toothless, feeble and incompetent so that the people would not vote for them anymore. And based on that precedent I think if Rouhani is going to be elected, then he should expect hard times ahead. In fact, I think they will try to undermine him even more than they did during his first term. Rouhani can just speak to the reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 2001 won with over 70 per cent of the votes but the conservatives made life very difficult for him. Even during President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s second term between 1993-1997, the conservatives made life very difficult for him. For example, one of Rafsanjani’s signature foreign policy goals was to improve Iran’s relations with the Saudis and in 1996 Hezbollah, which is backed by the Revolutionary Guards, bombed the Khobar Towers and killed over 20 Americans. Rafsanjani sent a message to the Saudis saying this had nothing to do with him, and it was security-regime people trying to undermine me. So if history has shown anything in the post-Revolutionary Iran if the conservatives lose, they will try to settle scores. So if Rouhani wins, the celebrations in my view will be short-lived.
Question 5: Iran is still highly involved in Syrian, Iraq and Yemen. Can we expect any change in policy depending on who wins?
MJ: Not in the content on the Iranian foreign policy but in the spirit. Iranian involvement in the Middle East is decided by the Revolutionary Guards and not with the Foreign Ministry, despite the constitution giving the government much more authority over foreign policy. But the deep state of the regime, in contrast to the constitution, has taken the responsibility onto itself. If Raisi is elected then he will probably be much more supportive than Rouhani over Iran’s foreign policy. Rouhani has been quite mooted on this issue, and if he is re-elected I doubt we are going to hear many messages of support for Iran’s policy in these areas, except when he has to because the Supreme Leader stands over his head.
The real question is where the people of Iran stand in relation to Iran’s foreign policy, especially in Syria. On Syria it is very obvious that the hard-liners in Iran know that the people are against their Syria policy in overwhelming numbers. We know this because one issue which is censored in the Iranian press is Syria. In Iran it is unbelievable how many issues are open and debated compared to other countries in the region – except for Israel and maybe Turkey – and the Iranian press is actually more open than the press in most other countries in the region. But on Syria there is no debate allowed whatsoever by the judiciary. Why? Because the regime knows they are in a minority and once they open the Pandora ’s Box it is going to be very difficult to close it.
I think the people of Iran want to develop their economy first and foremost and they see these adventurous policies in the region making it more difficult for Iran to have better economic relations with Saudi Arabia and the West and so they are against these policies. But the file of these policies lies with the Revolutionary Guards, and they are not answerable to the government or the people of Iran, but to the Supreme Leader.