Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Why Iran’s presidential elections don’t matter

While a reformist — Hassan Rouhani — took a second term as Iran’s president, the core of the political regime remains elsewhere, Rouhani’s win but a surface phenomenon, writes Hany Ghoraba

With the fall of the Soviet Union, 26 December 1991, and the peaceful secession of its former republics, most Western political circles dreamt of the rise of an Iranian Gorbachev who would dismantle the Islamic Republic from within. Gorbachev altered history by applying what was known as “perestroika” — a political movement of reform within the Communist Party aiming to reverse decades of failed political and economic policies. These reforms constituted a new policy of openness known as Glasnost, but they were too little and too late to save the ailing Soviet Union from its final descent and dissolution.

Ever since, Western governments and media have been engaged in wishful thinking, hoping that what occurred in the former Soviet Union would take place in Iran, to defuse ongoing conflict with the Iranians since the Islamic regime was formed in 1979. Many do seem to ignore that the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran has to be approved and cleared first by the Guardian Council, which is a high political council that supervises the vetting process of the Iranian presidential nominees. Whenever a nominee seems to stray from the rules set primarily by the Guardian Council, which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the nominee is immediately rejected without question. Even former president Ahmedinejad was prohibited from running for president in the 2017 elections. It was believed that Ahmedinejad brought a lot of hardships on the Iranian state and people during his two-term presidency, and the sanctions that befell Iran were mainly his fault. The fact remains that presidents still answer to the supreme leader whose blessings are imperative for any candidate to run. At the same time, no Iranian president can take major executive decisions, domestically or internationally, without the consent of the supreme leader.

The Guardian Council of Iran cleared six candidates for the 2017 presidential elections that ended 20 May in a victory by 57.13 per cent for the reformist candidate and incumbent President Hassan Rouhani who defeated the conservative Ebrahim Raisi who won 38.3 per cent of the votes. Undoubtedly, many within Western political circles will rejoice at this result which, according to their understanding, may spare them an imminent conflict with Iran and its allies. However, that is a delusion that many in the West choose to believe instead of facing the reality of the situation. Iran is not a country ruled by politicians but by religious affiliated ideologues represented mainly by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who enforces his radical vision through multiple state bodies, of which one is the Guardian Council, another the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council, along with the militant scourge that is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

These are the real players in the Iranian political spectrum and while the Iranian president may have influence within certain domestic issues on reform and the economy, he has little or no control over state policies, especially foreign policies set by the aforementioned institutions. The wishful thinking displayed by Western politicians and pundits have been consistent in hoping that a president such Mohamed Khatami, who was elected in 1994, would change the tide of history and alter the Islamic Republic into a modern state of government. Despite some reasonable reforms within Iranian society, Khatami couldn’t bring what the world anticipated and he never turned into the Gorbachev of Iran. Instead, by 2009, and upon his support for the failed campaign of reformist Mir-Hossein Mossevi, who lost in a controversial and rigged election to radical hardliner Ahmedinejad, he was banned from being mentioned or having his photograph appear in any Iranian media as a form of punishment.

 

IRANIAN SURVIVAL OF SANCTIONS: For decades, all the way till the Obama administration, the Iranian regime after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been under a barrage of economic and political sanctions for its terrible human rights record and military ambitions in the region. These ambitions witnessed their peak with the initiation of the nuclear programme that was aimed at protecting the Iranian regime from possible future invasions by the United States or NATO. The Iranians were relieved to sign the deal with the Obama administration that provides them with breathing space and unlocks over $100 billion sanctioned by the United States. To the Iranians this was a clever tactical move to replenish the losses of their economy and industry. Nevertheless, there are signs that the nuclear deal signed with the United States and five other countries during Obama administration will not hold. Especially that Iran openly threatens to attack its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab Gulf States such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that has three of its Islands in the Gulf occupied by Iranian forces.

Russia, who lost most of its allies in the Middle East subsequent to the fall of the USSR and all the way to the Arab Spring revolutions, attempts to remain influential by backing the Iranian regime, purely on a pragmatic basis since the Russians wouldn’t normally accept to deal with religious-ideological regimes such as the Iranian one. Now, the Chinese have also entered the fray with projects and investments to counter-balance the United States in the region. The Chinese look beyond human rights issues when assessing economical benefits, and they are successful in doing that so far.

While some may argue that the Shia-affiliated Iranian regime is different from Sunni-based Islamist regimes, they remain one and the same. In fact, the Iranian regime is notorious for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas terrorist organisations along with many other smaller organisations.

Despite its survival tactics, Iran remains a pariah state on the regional and global stage as a result of its aggressive and interventionist policies for the past four decades. The democratic process in Iran is a charade to say the least run by the supreme leader and the Guidance Council who still retain the upper hand in all procedures. The democratic process in Iran is no more than a catharsis to the Iranian nation that is getting fed up with the ill practices of the Islamic regime. Unlike most countries around the globe, Iran is not run by politicians but religious ideologues who believe in spreading the horrid Iranian Islamic revolution all across the Middle East and preserving it domestically by all means necessary.

For every Iranian reformist politician there are layers upon layers of radically conservative politicians who are blessed and supported by the mullahs and clergymen in the upper echelons of political power. The reform movement hardly stands a chance till the majority of Iranians unanimously stand up for their rights against one of the most notorious and oppressive regimes in modern times that has literally killed, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents since 1978-1979. Till then, whether the president is Khatami, Rouhani or any proclaimed reformist, the end result and policies in effect will remain the same, because the hierarchy and core of the political regime remains intact.

The Iranian revolution was a Pandora’s Box that opened to unleash a swarm of evil on the Middle East, contributing nothing except the further radicalisation and instability of the region. Its effects will not be moderated through the election of a smiling face in Iran, regardless of how liberal he claims to be. Iran has proven to be much more complicated than the wishful thinking of Western pundits gave it credit for. Accordingly, observers may reconsider holding their breath in hope of major change in Iran, despite promises made by consecutive reformist presidents such as Rouhani.


The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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