On May 19, Iran’s going to host presidential election. The Islamic Republic will choose the development trend for the years to come. Largely it will be due to the influence of external factors. And the figure of Donald trump will play not the least role in the Iranian elections.

Changes to the extent possible

The political system of Iran is unique, it has no analogues in the world. Despite the fact that in the Iranian system, the President is the head of the Executive branch, his powers are limited by the will of the Supreme leader (Rahbar) Ali Khamenei, who has been ruling for almost thirty years. Iran is a personified country, Khamenei`s will means almost everything. With all this, modern Iran is a complicated system with its own checks and balances. Iran is endless, complex and incomprehensible. At the same time the magic of Iran is able to fascinate and to make a person bewildered.

After the Islamic revolution, the country introduced the principle of «Velayat-e Faqih«, that is the rule of the clergy. Iran is ruled by Shiite priests — ayatollahs. The development strategy of the country is set by Khamenei. Meanwhile, the President is the second person in the country and is the head of government, he appoints Ministers, represents the country in the political arena. There is some room for maneuver of the limited democracy as there are different political directions. The political system of Iran is rather decentralized, there are many centers of power in the country. But all this is possible only in narrowly permitted part of the Islamic Republic ideology. All that takes place under the Supreme leader`s control, who gives «advice» and «leads» the whole country into the necessary, according to his understanding, direction.

One could say, why are the presidential elections at all important, if practically, all the power belongs to Khamenei and the ayatollahs? The matter is that the Supreme leader is on the top of the Iranian political system, he does not rule the country on a daily basis, he does not meet representatives of foreign States, he does not conduct negotiations, he is not engaged in the daily issues of economic and social development. There is a state apparatus and bureaucracy for all that. Everything is in charge of the President, he sets the tone to the foreign policy as well. He’s sort of a Chancellor and Prime Minister, executing the will of the leader, but at the same time having some private space for maneuver.

Let me set an example. We all remember Iran during the presidency of the archconservatives and odious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was full of tough rhetoric, threats of war (mostly against, but sometimes by Tehran itself), accusations of nuclear weapons development, half-isolation. All that led, according to the Iranians, to the entry of crippling sanctions and unprecedented protests. In short, Iran was surrounded by the oppressive atmosphere that gave no chance to sustainable development. To replace Ahmadinejad came «reformist-liberal» Hassan Rouhani with his policy of open doors, dialogue with the world (read – with the West) and reforms. The rhetoric changed, foreign contacts intensified, much-needed investment were coming. All this ended up with the signing of the «deal of the century» — a Joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPA). Iran agreed to cover up its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The most severe sanctions were lifted, the rhetoric of the West became more tolerant. The most impressionable ones were even talking about the imminent Union of Iran and the United States (which was, to put it mildly, a simplification).


Now the Islamic Republic will once again choose its development vector and in this case the choice not a wide one: hard «conservative» line, or following the «reformist» agenda. This leads to such issues as cultural openness or «life in itself», increasing contacts with the West or their limitation. The format of the economic relations and the place of non-Iranian culture – one way or another, everything will be determined by the upcoming elections. The «USA factor» is hovering in all possible variations. But not everything depends on Iran, it often acts as number two. The pressure on Iran tightens it, the dialogue softens it. After all, the Islamic Republic is an oriental country and the Iranians are sensitive people.

All these issues undoubtedly have a strategic character and are the responsibility of the Supreme leader. However, Iran’s presidential elections can’t take place without his will, and the winner will be the one who is deemed more worthy by Khamenei. First, the leader and the people of Iran (Rahbar and the people, as everyone knows, are the single entity) will choose a strategic course for the years to come. With all this, Iran is not prone to abrupt moves. All of the above mentioned is a variation of the same regime with immutable principles. We are only talking about small accents. In this respect, Iran is as the scalepan and the President is like the symbol of change to the extent possible. It’s the peculiar magic of the Iranian domestic politics.

Conservatives or reformers?

On May 20, the Guardian Council admitted 6 of 1636 candidates to the election. Any candidate not matching the system was withdrawn from the presidential race without explanation. This body, consisting of clergy, is a kind of «filter». Thus, the following people  will participate in the elections: the «reformist» President Hassan Rouhani and his first Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, the «conservative» mayor of «liberal» Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, the conservative cleric, Ibrahim Raisi, the former Minister Mostafa Mir-Salim, the former Vice-President Mustafa Taba. The main candidates are Rouhani and Raisi. Jahangiri and Qalibaf are their proxi (another invention of the Iranian democracy), who will agitate not so much to their own favor, but to the «course». The other two candidates are just to make a picture.

The terminology familiar to us is not able to fully describe the political realities of Iran. However, the political factions of the Islamic Republic can be divided into two very conventional faction «conservative fundamentalists and reformers-liberals». It is therefore customary to write them in quotes. Moreover, in recent years, a thin border between the two factions has become more conventional. There are a few hundred political parties and associations, but the polictics here is strictly personal. Conditional «reformers» are represented by the current President Rouhani. His support base includes major cities. Everything here is like in the West.


The «conservatives» are all arranged a little differently: they have no unity among them and there`s no clearly defined leader. The strongest candidate is cleric Raisi. The «conservatives” support base includes rural areas of Iran, where the population will vote as the Imam will say on Friday prayers. Raisi is the custodian of the Imam Reza Mausoleum in his native Mashhad and the Chairman of the largest Islamic Fund. He can hardly be called a religious fanatic or a blinded mullah. Raisi is a politician weighted enough by Iranian standards. In addition, Raisi has the support of the powerful security body, which, thanks to journalists, has become the legend and horror story at the same time – the Islamic revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

The Iranian President has no power over the IRGC. It is controlled by only one person – the Supreme leader. According to the Constitution, the IRGC, like other law enforcement agencies, do not have the right to influence the electoral process. Despite this, their position is tacitly taken into consideration. The IRGC is really powerful. After the outbreak of war in Syria, the position of security forces became only stronger. Moreover, the Agency has expanded its presence in the economy. Any reforms, «opening» of the country or foreign investments are considered by security forces as a threat to their position. Business is business. In this sense, the IRGC is against Rouhani and his reformist course. The most fundamentalist forces consider the open door policy to be a threat to the regime, an attempt to disrupt the existing status quo and, thus, to undermine the power of the clerics and their security apparatus.

Is Trump a friend of «Islamic Revolution»?

Paradoxically, Iran has been captured by political events in the West. In many ways, the choice of the Iranian people (read – of Rahbar) will be dictated by the US attitude toward Teheran. Trump`s anti-Iranian rhetoric, that has similarities with the neocons politics of President Bush, increases the chances of the Iranian «fundamentalists». Similarly, a few years ago, the course of Barack Obama’s normalization of relations gave trumps to the «reformers». Much will depend on Trump`s rhetoric and actions of his administration. The Iranians are very receptive and any actions will give cause a reaction.

The head of the White house, to put it mildly, has never shown sympathy with Iran. His campaign rhetoric was filled with anti-Iranian talking points. Teheran was blamed for all the problems of the Middle East. Moreover, Trump has gathered exclusively ant-Iranian people around him. The head of the Pentagon James Mattis, named «mad dog», the head of the CIA Mike Pompeo or the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In recent weeks it came to specific allegations. The owner of the Oval office called Iran «terrorist state number one» and «nuclear deal» – the worst deal imaginable. Trump criticized Teheran’s unwillingness to perform JCPA and didn`t rule out the option of revising it. The head of the Pentagon, being in Saudi Arabia, said that Iran plays a destabilizing role in the region. A new package of sanctions was introduced against Iran. Tehran paid back in their own coin (the Iranians always pay back with their own coin) and also made several anti-American statements. Apparently, both sides return to the well forgotten old – propaganda and psychological war. It was this war that the essence of American-Iranian relations in the 2006-2014, but both sides only suffered from it.

However, the question arises whether the USA needs that? Why would Washington play along with the Iranian «fundamentalists» and sink Rouhani, who really is up to a dialogue. Can it be that Trump`s administration has no specialists who could explain the simple truth – don’t give the «fundamentalists» trump card before the election? Sometimes there is a feeling that the new administration deliberately wants to remember the well forgotten old and start a new cold war with Iran.

US relations to Iran have their own history. We can say that anti-Iranism is part of political reality, or at least the paradigm of some part of the American elite. Washington’s attitude is based on a set of historical facts, including the attack on the American Embassy in Teheran in 1979, the civil war in Lebanon, crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. A special role in the formation of anti-Iranian position is played by the US allies – the Arab monarchies of the Gulf and Israel. Saudi, Qatari and Israeli lobbies have unprecedentedly strong (hard to imagine, how really strong) influence on American think-tanks, which play not the last role in political decision-making.


However, the question arises whether the USA needs it? Why would Washington play along with the Iranian «fundamentalists» and sink Rouhani, who really is a dialogue. Surely in the administration of the tramp there are no specialists who could explain the simple truth – don’t let the «fundamentalists» trump card before the election? Sometimes there is a feeling that the new administration especially wants to remember well forgotten old and start a new cold war with Iran.

Anti-Iranian Trump`s rhetoric is advantageous for Iranian «conservatives». They traditionally rely on anti-Western and anti-American forces. Revelations made by Trump and his administration increase the chances of Raisi that, in turn, will impact the processes started by Rouhani. The main «reformer» of Iran will be told: «Your strategy didn’t work». Perhaps, over time, the collective Ahmadinejad will win. And the middle East, as well as the whole world, will get a new round of confrontation. This will affect Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. The USA can but immediately forget about the liberation of Mosul from ISIS terrorists. Even the least possibilities of influence on  Bashar al-Assad`s regime in Syria will disappear. Moreover, Iran has a serious influence in the West of Afghanistan, with all the ensuing consequences. Is it what Trump needs?

The relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic can be called the best in the history of the two countries during Obama`s rule. But there was a period comparable to it – the first months after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Thanks to the efforts, including those of Iran, the United States was able to use the Afghan «Northern Alliance», consisting of anti Taliban forces in order to defeat the Taliban. But President Bush made a mistake, which, after years, is repeated by Trump. Iran was even included in the «axis of evil» — the neocons` know-how. Few remember, but the Iranians responded immediately — the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was in Iran under house arrest was sent to Afghanistan. In the end, the USA had to face not only the Taliban, but also thousands of Hekmatyar`s radical «Hezbi Islami» supporters in Afghanistan.

«Reformers» are afraid that Trump`s efforts will bury the successes of previous years. One can`t  say that Rouhani`s politics has led to a breakthrough. The population expects and demands something  more, especially in the economy. Today, about 40-50% of Iranians live below the poverty line. People want everything and at once. But does it ever happen? The country was in a dire economic situation. Crippling sanctions were lifted recently and limitations in the financial sphere are actual today. The Iranian young people are open to the dialogue with the West, they want  change and development. Iran needs high technology and investment. All that can be given, in the first place, by the West.

Presidential elections in Iran is an unpredictable event. Much depends on the feelings of one man – Khamenei. It`s hard to say who will win. It seems that Rouhani`s chances are more preferable. Moreover, it is in the Iranian tradition to re-elect the President for a second term – as if to give him a second chance. Iran`s deep involvement in the events in Syria and Yemen strengthened the position of the security forces, particularly of the IRGC. The conservative wing is going to take revenge, «to stop» Rouhani and to batter the final nail in the coffin of «corrupting» influence of the West. And paradoxically, the Iranian «conservatives» have received a powerful and yet not very thoughtful ally – the US President Donald Trump.

Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., orientalist. 

This article was published in Forbes

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