The US regretted that a large number of voters were not allowed to vote, and the Iranians were denied the right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat,
Presidential elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran were held on June 18 for which the outcome was nearly a given. As expected Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iranian Judiciary and a hard core conservative – close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was elected handsomely (62% vote) even if the voter turnout was possibly the lowest in decades. Hence the questions of credibility of the polls are often raised by the critics both from within and outside. The US regretted that a large number of voters were not allowed to vote, and the Iranians were denied the right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process. That may be true but the voter apathy and frustration with successive regimes has been quite evident for some time now which was splashed out during 2019 riots and demonstrations.
Under the US and international sanctions the country has suffered immensely even if overtly it has tried to display a hard-line posturing. Unemployment at 11% is at its highest and so are the 80% devaluation of the currency and high inflation of more than 39% which have made life difficult for ordinary Iranians which has become far worse under the Covid impact and prevailing corruption. They see no end out of it. Raisi will take over from his moderate predecessor President Rouhani in mid August. His plate is full and he may have to take the issues head on since economy, economy and economy will be the only litmus test for him. Mere ideological connect or disconnect or harping on enriching and acquiring a nuclear weapon as a negotiating tool will not take him far especially as he might have a legitimate shot at the highest office eventually, if he steers the country out of the current crisis.
Iran is probably the oldest democracy in the Middle East. Ironically, its initial demise has been attributed to the greatest democracy. The 1953 coup d’etat was orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence agencies to prevent PM Mohammad Mossadegh to protect their oil interests and to promote the monarchical rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi (Operation Ajax). Shah ruled over a quarter century until his overthrow in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution. Thus, also began a hatred for Satan and the regime of sanctions that continues to afflict the Iranian economy and in turn its polity.
Westminster style of democracy is not a right fit for comparison since Iran has modified its election process where screening of candidates is done by the 12 persons Guardian Council, whose 6 members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. It was clearly seen in the elections to Majlis that ensured a highly conservative set of representatives. Similar modus operandi prevailed in the Presidential elections when from among the 100s of candidates only seven were cleared. Former excluded moderate Speaker Ali Larijani could have given a run to Raisi or an option to the electorate. But 2017 could not be allowed to be repeated when Raisi lost to Rouhani. This also shows that sometimes the Iranian system is capable of springing surprises. But not this time as much hangs in balance including the top leadership slot where Raisi could have a shot as did Khamenei after two presidential terms.
Since the failing economy is the major headache for the governments the only way out is the JCPOA (Nuclear Deal from which Trump had jumped out) to function again -post return of the US to the deal. Raisi during the debates clearly confirmed that he supports the JCPOA since it was approved by the Supreme Leader. The US has begun to give some financial respite to the Iranians by allowing certain payments and not renewing various sanctions on its oil exports or rather not policing it to the ‘G’. The US , despite its reservations about the process and outcome of Presidential elections, has supported the talks to continue. If Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif is to be believed the deal will be sealed and signed before they move out of power. Whoever takes the credit or posture about it will depend on the spin each side gives to appease its domestic discontent. Raisi has been under personal US sanctions too for his role in being part of the Death Commission of the 1980s. Strong charges of human rights violations continue to dog him. But then the US knows how to do business with all kinds of Heads of States. Both sides will take requisite steps to diffuse further tensions on which resolution of several regional hotspots like Yemen and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan depends.
Raisi is well disposed to China so the relations with both Russia and China may further be enriched. In fact, at the Biden-Putin summit, Iran figured as a key point for cooperation. As for Saudi Arabia there have been discussions to ease the tensions and restore diplomatic ties. Zarif has proposed to send his Ambassador to Riyadh soon. Israel and Iran have become existential threats to one another over time and there is hardly going to be any change if one were to go by the statements of PM Naftali Bennet and FM Yair Lapid. Lapid reacted “Iran’s new president, known as the Butcher of Tehran, is an extremist responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians. He is committed to the regime’s nuclear ambitions and to its campaign of global terror.” Netanyahu and Bennet have also tried to undermine the return of the US to JCPOA and believe that Iran will surely follow its nuclear ambitions even after the US re-joins the nuclear deal. They have threatened to use any means to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. Israeli Foreign Ministry urged “Iran’s ballistic missile program must be dismantled, and its global terror campaign vigorously countered by a broad international coalition.” Hence the Iran-Israel conflict will remain incendiary for some time to come. JCPOA + (plus) is a bog redline for the conservative establishment of Iran. If a confident (howsoever erroneously) Tehran is pushed we could witness abdication of Rouhani’s strategic patience and revert to hawkish and effective deterrence cum kinetic response, against Israeli provocations ,which may engineer greater instability in the region.
India will also have to recalibrate its policies since the Majlis, and the conservatives feel that New Delhi is not an all-weather friend. Moreover, Sino-Iranian nexus could be a challenge. Recently, after the Iran-Afghanistan railway (Chabahar-Zahedan Railway line as per Trilateral Agreement) project the Iranians have cancelled the Farzad B gas field exploration rights to OVL led consortium. On Chabahar they are not averse to the idea of Chinese or Pakistanis coming on board. The Iranian Ambassador in Delhi recently invited China and India to participate in the development of Jask port facility providing access as base for strategic oil reserves and a new “land-and-sea” gas pipeline. He also invited investments in Special Economic Zones in Chabahar.
Although PM Modi has quickly congratulated President elect Raisi ,timing is of essence because once the JCPOA is sorted out the small window of opportunity might get even smaller since despite India’s claims to strategic autonomy the relationship has depended on the SRE waivers from the US. Strategic dimensions may turn back into transactional since India is a key oil consumer but Tehran especially the new dispensation ought to be mindful of strategic balance and leeway a friendship with India provides them. Therefore, an actionable review and SWOT analysis of Tehran and New Delhi Declarations as well as practicality of ‘Towards Prosperity through greater connectivity” needs to be conducted so that prompt action is taken, wherever possible, to salvage our mutual strategic goals with a changing Iran. An early outreach is called for.
(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta. Currently he is President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)