Will Iran Turn Back Toward the Revolution?
Today Iranians go to the polls in order to either reelect incumbent President Hassan Rouhani for another four-year term, or vote in someone new. (If no candidate wins a majority of the vote during the first round, there will be a second round of elections.) While the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran has limited powers, and must defer to the unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on many decisions, he nonetheless has broad authority to shape the general direction of the country: Note how different Iran’s international behavior was under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in comparison to the present Rouhani government. Thus Iran’s election is pivotal to the evolution of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
Rouhani is facing off against three other candidates; originally a total of six candidates, including Rouhani, were approved by Iran’s Guardian Council to run in the election, out of a total of 1,636 individuals. (The most prominent of the rejected candidates was former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has fallen out with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei). Two of the original six have dropped out in the past week and endorsed other candidates.
The candidates currently in the running are:
Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and centrist, is popular because under his aegis, Iran negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, which decreased his country’s isolation. Rouhani has managed to reign in the most extreme elements in Iran, allowing some limited social freedoms. However, the economy has continued to struggle during his presidency.
Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani’s main rival. Raisi, who is the head of the wealthy Astan Quds charitable foundation in the holy city of Mashhad, is supported by the hardline and conservative establishment in Iran, although he has tried to soften his image by appealing to women during the campaign. John Allen Gay, writing in The National Interest, points out many of the more problematic aspects of Raisi’s career, in addition to his confrontational attitude toward the West. Gay notes that Raisi, who sounds “just a little bored when speaking,” was a judge during the infamous hangings of over 5,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988, an action that has been described as a crime against humanity: “Raisi is not Hitler but Eichmann, a Schreibtischtäter—desk murderer.”
Two other candidates, Mostafa Hashemitaba, a reformist and Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative, are also in the running, but the big battle is between Rouhani and Raisi, a situation underscored by the withdrawal of candidates Eshagh Jahangiri, who dropped out to support Rouhani, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who was running in third place and dropped out to support Raisi.
With multiple candidates competing in a relatively open election, the Iranian political system appears much more flexible and populist than those of many of its dysfunctional or despotic neighbors. Much derided as a “dictatorship” in the West, Iran is actually rather pluralistic, balancing clerical, military, and technocratic factions—although the electoral victory of Ahmadinejad in 2009 was questionable. Friday’s elections will probably be fair: The establishment does not want to court the controversy that surrounded the 2009 elections, and moreover, all the candidates have been pre-approved and vetted by the Guardian Council. The candidates also participated in three live-televised debates, and most commentators and viewers believe these were won by Rouhani
Iran, like China or Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to became a Western-style liberal democracy anytime soon, so the West must learn to deal with it as it is. And besides, do not nations have the right to pursue their own political and social paths in accordance with their histories and cultures? All Iranian politicans, whether liberal or conservative, believe this, and generally support their political system. Individuals such as Rouhani and Raisi differ primarily in how much internal reform and international engagement is needed. To draw an analogy with China, recall that the very different leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were ultimately still members of the same Communist Party. Most Iranians are content for now to participate in their current semi-democratic but chaperoned political system, since they fear the alternative is to become another Syria.
In all likelihood, Rouhani will win the election. He is the favorite and has been running at or above the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. We cannot be too sure of this, though, as Iranian voters, like their Western counterparts, have produced surprises before. Rouhani may lose some votes to Raisi, especially among the conservative poor in rural areas where the main concerns are the economy—not the liberal freedoms desired by the urban population. Nonetheless, over the past couple of decades, Iran’s population has become younger and better educated after a baby boom and the spread of universal education after the Islamic Revolution of 1979; despite continued economic hardship, few people want to go back to the confrontational politics of the hardliners, many of whose views were shaped by the anti-American fervor of the Islamic Revolution.
The best outcome for most of the world is a Rouhani victory, which will keep Iran on a path of engagement and moderation with the rest of the world—and eventually, hopefully, full normalization with the international community. Those in the West pushing for a confrontation, as well as Iran’s enemies in the Arab world, would prefer the election of Raisi, because this fits their narrative of confronting Iran, limiting its influence, and ultimately effecting regime change. This line of thinking was summed up by Elliott Abrams in Politico:
Raisi is the true face of the Islamic Republic, while Rouhani is a façade. Rouhani has shown himself powerless to effect any change in the regime’s conduct and his only role is to mislead the West into thinking ‘moderates’ are in charge. We are far better off, as we were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, when there are no illusions about Iran’s regime and the men who lead it….If Raisi wins, two things will happen. First, it will be evident—especially to Iranians—that the election was stolen, so the Iranian people will be that much more alienated from their rulers. The day the regime falls will have been brought that much closer. And second, the entire world will have a much clearer view of the nature of that regime today.
In other words, many would scoff even at the reelection of Rouhani. In their eyes, Iran’s political system is fundamentally flawed, and the ideas of moderation, give-and-take, and incremental change and engagement are alien to them. A victory by Raisi would give neocons the fuel they need to turn up the heat on Iran. This also suits Iran’s hardliners well, who thrive on confrontation with the West. Under no circumstances should rational and realistic political figures root for Raisi.
An electoral victory for Rouhani won’t make all of the West’s problems with Iran disappear. In the nature of geopolitics, countries will often have differing and opposite strategic goals throughout the world, and this would hold true even if Iran were a liberal democracy; under the Iranian monarchy, the Western-aligned Shah also wanted to assert Iran’s power over its Arab neighbors. Yet under a Rouhani government, these tendencies will be checked by a desire for engagement and realpolitik to a greater extent than if Raisi takes over.
In the case of a Raisi victory, the West should tread more carefully, but should avoid overreacting and pushing Iran into a corner, as the U.S. and its allies may have done in North Korea. Realism in international relations is largely the art of working with what you have and making the most out of any given situation, rather than hoping for the world to ideally rearrange itself to one’s liking. Western and Arab governments should hope to continue to engage Iran and dissuade it from causing mischief throughout the Middle East, a more likely goal if Iran continues along a more moderate path. The revolutionary mindset, in contrast, not only damaged Iran’s international standing for decades, but broke with centuries of Shia and Persian tradition by putting clerics in political power.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.