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Michael Jansen: On the verge
May 19, 2017
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Today’s Iranian presidential election could determine whether Tehran will continue to reconnect with the international community made possible by the 2015 agreement to dismantle the country’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

If the moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani wins, this effort can be expected to continue and, perhaps, accelerate. But if his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner said to be backed by supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were to be elected, Iran could turn in on itself once again.

Rouhani, a moderate cleric who became Iran’s seventh president, was elected in 2013, pledging to negotiate a deal over the nuclear programme, resurrect the sanctions-ridden economy, restore relations with the West, and boost civil rights of Iranian citizens.

He succeeded by securing the adoption of the nuclear agreement, a major achievement. He inherited minus 5.4 per cent growth and 44 per cent inflation. In 2016, the growth rate was 5.8 and inflation had fallen to nine per cent. He has, however, failed to loosen the grip of conservative clerics on social, economic and political life and deliver economic benefits to Iranian voters. 

 Raisi is a cleric who is chairman of the country’s oldest and richest charitable organisation, Astan Qudi Razavi Institute with an annual revenue of $210 billion (Dhs771b). He brings unsavoury baggage to the campaign, including rumours of corruption in the institution he heads and participation in purges. He previously served in the judiciary, as special court prosecutor and as deputy prosecutor at the time of the 1988 mass executions of opponents of the clerical regime which ousted the Pahlavi dynasty and seized power in 1979. He has served on the Assembly of Experts which chooses the supreme leader and has been named as a possible successor of Khamenei, but defeat in the presidential election could scupper his chances. 

On Monday, the other main contender from the right, Mohammad Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor dropped out in favour of Raisi. A former police chief and member of the elite Revolutionary Guards, Qalibaf ran and lost in the 2005 and 2013 presidential elections and has suffered from corruption allegations and the collapse in January 2017 of a 17 storey commercial block in Tehran that killed 20 firemen.

If Raisi were to win, Iran could restrict normalisation with Europe and Asia and make challenging moves in the region but would not revoke the nuclear deal. Tehran’s hardliners have committed themselves to abide by its terms as long as Iran’s partners — the US, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany — continue to honour their obligations.

The US could, however, pose a threat to the deal if the Trump administration, prodded by Israel, decides to tighten sanctions. The administration is currently conducting a review of the nuclear deal and broader US policy toward Iran. Nevertheless Washington could issue waivers to permit the further lifting of sanctions ahead of the election. This could give a boost to Rouhani. Polls show he is the frontrunner. Vice President Eshak Jangiri, who was also standing for the presidency, withdrew in favour of Rouhani on Tuesday. The other two contenders have no hope of winning.

Once the review is completed, sanctions not related to the nuclear deal could be tightened. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has castigated Iran for backing the Syrian government’s campaign against multiple insurgencies, Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement, and Yemeni rebels fighting the Saudi-sponsored government. While Rouhani has indicated if elected he might try to negotiate with the US over non-nuclear sanctions, Raisi would not contemplate such an initiative. Among hardliners the US remains the “Great Satan.”

 Both moderates and conservatives need to preserve the nuclear deal because Iran has just begun harvesting its benefits. Iran’s oil exports, its chief foreign currency earner, have increased to three million barrels a day, a level not reached since the 1979 revolution, and trade with the European Union (EU) has increased threefold over the past year. Iranian embassies have reopened across the EU which is eager to cooperate with Iran in the nuclear and clean energy sectors. With EU help Iran could meet 30 per cent of its needs from renewable energy resources by 2030.     

Iran’s clerical bosses — Khamenei and the Guardian Council — and the military understand they cannot abrogate the nuclear deal although they are using its failure to deliver instant economic improvements for the public to accuse Rouhani, who spearheaded negotiations, of not securing the best deal for Iran. 

Growth is not only stalled by sanctions, but also rampant corruption, a major election issue. Corruption is extremely difficult to tackle because it has reached the top of the clerical super-structure which dominates the executive, legislature and judiciary. Corruption boomed during the tenure of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad (2005-13). During this period Iran earned $650b (Dhs2.387 trillion) in oil revenues but none of this money was invested in upgrading the oil sector or new infrastructure. Billions of dollars were used for populist hand-outs or simply disappeared. Powerful figures in the clergy, military, parliament, and banking and business have resisted efforts to curb corruption for decades. Their lucrative sanctions-breaking arrangements have been undermined by the nuclear deal, turning them against Rouhani.

Iran’s system of governance has contributed to this unsavoury situation. While the supreme guide is the ultimate authority, beneath him are a number of clerical bodies which decide on candidates for election and public appointments. The vetting process imposes considerable limitations on who runs the country. Once candidates for political office are approved, voting is largely free and fair although the clerical establishment throws its weight behind conservative candidates. This time round, Ahmadi-Nejad did not get approval and could not stand for a third term.

Clerical and lay conservatives, backed by the military, can and do block progressive programmes put forward by reformist presidents and their supporters in the legislature, obstructing reforms which are essential if the country is to move ahead economically and politically in the post-nuclear deal era when Iran should make the most of the lifting of sanctions and commercial openings to the world.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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