Middle East

Iran waits for elections before flexing muscles

Rouhani presents a draft of the country’s new budget and sixth development plan to Speaker Ali Larijani in parliament.

BEIRUT: Much attention has been focused on the potential impact of the nuclear deal on Iran’s – already very interventionist – foreign policy, however analysts say nothing can be clear until the Islamic Republic gets its political house in order, as the country prepares for three important upcoming elections. In a region suffering from different crises, it would appear that, on the surface at least, sanctions relief and Iran’s shedding of its pariah status is a new dynamic that will have a ripple effect militarily and diplomatically.

However, according to Sanam Vakil, associate fellow at Chatham House MENA Programme, “a cosmetic effort at building bridges and using diplomatic relationships to improve Iran’s image” is expected, but the deal is “not going to alter Iran’s regional alliances and priorities.” The reason behind this, she says, is the opposing dynamics within Iran’s domestic politics.

The nuclear deal has aggravated domestic tension between the conservative and moderate camps. Moderate President Hassan Rouhani is seeking to capitalize on the deal, which he predicts will inject some $50 billion into the country in the coming year, to help his camp in the elections.

The country’s hard-liners, however, are looking to devalue it and undercut Rouhani’s influence.

“Iran has a very schizophrenic approach currently because you have a pragmatic president who has a different agenda than those who oppose him,” Vakil told The Daily Star.

She added that Iranian conservatives are “fearful that the deal would diminish their power within the country and their economic monopoly over certain industries.”

The implementation of the deal comes at a time when three important elections are to take place in Iran over the next two years. The elections for the 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which selects the next supreme leader, are due in February, while the presidential election is to be held in June 2017.

Of the 3,000 moderate candidates who applied to stand for both elections, the Guardian Council recently approved only 30 to run, including four endorsed by Rouhani. The Guardians Council is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the parliament to vet candidates.

Analysts agree that the likely outcome of the Iranian elections is a balanced and pluralistic Iranian government. “But it will not be completely tilted toward Rouhani,” Vakil said.

International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst Ali Vaez argues that Khamenei has his own electoral objectives: a consensus within the Iranian system.

“He [Khamenei] wants neither a redux of the 2000 takeover of both the legislature and executive branches by the moderates, nor the 2009 polarization and controversy over tainted elections,” he added.

Payam Mohseni, director of the Belfer Center’s Iran Project at Harvard University, believes that “moderates will likely gain an important foothold in the Majles [parliament] despite the current round of vetting candidates.” According to Mohseni, the incoming political confrontation in Iran will be “precisely over whether its political posture in the region will be more reconciliatory instead of confrontational.”

Although analysts contend that no profound change is anticipated in Iran’s foreign policy vis-a-vis its neighbors, the Islamic Republic’s rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are warning that Iran will use its new financial muscle to further fund its allies fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Vaez, however, said that there is small indication that Iran’s regional policies are interlinked with its incoming monetary resources.

“The commitment to regional allies does not seem to have changed much over successive budgetary ups and down,” Vaez said in writing to The Daily Star.

He added that Iran’s commitment stayed “consistent when sanctions were at their height (2011-13), when the country received $15 billion in sanctions relief under the interim nuclear deal (2014), and when it had a $20 billion budget deficit due to the drop in oil prices (2015).”

Conversely, Mohseni said that although Iran will circulate its new income “among its various factions domestically ... some of this money will back Iranian regional policies and strengthen its support for its allies.”

According to Vakil, this domestic economic relief is what the nuclear deal was primarily aimed at, and its effects are expected to resonate not just within Iran, but across the region.

In its Global Economic Prospect report, the World Bank estimated that the Iran’s economy – one of the biggest emerging markets in the region – would grow 5.8 percent in 2016, a considerable leap from 1.9 percent last year, largely due to new international investment opportunities.

And despite low oil prices, the region is already witnessing the impact of the deal. According to the World Bank, the growth of developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa as a group is supposed to reach 5.1 percent in 2016. The reason behind this improvement, the financial organization says, is Iran’s expected growth surge.

Although Iran’s adherenceto its ideological principles looks set to remain unchanged in the wake of the nuclear deal, and its foreign policy is not expected to make any abrupt turns, a balanced Iranian parliament would mean a closely administered flexibility with rivals, primarily the United States and the EU.

The nuclear deal has brought Iran back to the diplomatic table, and as efforts intensify to bring an end to the war in Syria, the matter of diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. is at the heart of the discussion among political analysts.

For Vaez, the reality of the deal is that Iran and the U.S. “have only been able to find a framework for managing their differences, not a framework for advancing their common interest.” But analysts also agree that an increase in diplomatic cooperation and in efforts to negotiate over the different conflicts in the region is likely to take place between both countries.

“The United States recognizes Iran’s importance in the region and will ... accept that Iran is a regional power that should be included in the solving of multiparty regional issues,” Mohseni told The Daily Star.

Vakil also maintains that the world will witness some superficial changes in American-Iranian relations, but “there will be no official diplomatic recognition.”

“You will perhaps see more Iranian effort to cooperate in Syria by pushing for a diplomatic peace process,” she added.

Nonetheless, Vakil insisted the deal was very important “because whether the region wants to admit it or not, 36 years of marginalization never changed Iran’s behavior. So it is time for the region to try something new.”

With both countries facing important elections – the American presidential election later this year could produce an administration that is opposed to the deal – questions about the viability of the nuclear agreement are also being addressed.

Analysts say that while domestic opposition in both Iran and the U.S. is an issue that must be taken into account, it will be very difficult, nevertheless, to walk away from the deal.

“This is an issue that places international reputation at stake and has required a significant consensus to be reached within each country, which will not be easily dismantled,” Mohseni said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 01, 2016, on page 5.




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