Iranian voters are about to head to the polls to elect a new president. Once again, the debate in the Arab world is about whether the elections will bring any meaningful change in the Islamic Republic’s policies towards the region.
There is almost unanimous agreement that in a system in which the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has absolute power over the government, Iran’s elected officials have negligible political weight when it comes to changing the status quo.
But while democracy’s fate remains Iran’s problem when seen from home, there are key reasons to believe that the upcoming elections, which come at a pivotal time for Iran and the region, should also be closely watched abroad.
For Arabs who are weary of Iran’s belligerent policies in the region, there is much to hope for to help establish some boundaries in the tense relationship with Iran, though they are not holding their breath for a breakthrough.
Iranians will go to the polls on 18 June to choose a new president from a list of just seven men who have been carefully selected by a constitutional watchdog and include five ultraconservatives and two reformists.
At the top of the list is Ebrahim Raisi, a 60-year-old ultraconservative cleric who has headed Iran’s judiciary since 2019 after a three-decade career in the legal system and having held the key post of guardian of Iran’s most holy shrine in Mashhad.
Raisi won 38 per cent of the vote in the last presidential elections in 2017. In the current elections, with no powerful candidates in the running after all the leading reformists and centrists were disqualified, he has emerged as the only front-rank candidate.
Iran’s 13th set of presidential elections since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 comes amid mounting calls for a boycott, however. Many Iranians seem inclined simply to stay away from the polling booths, and several surveys have found that more than 30 per cent of them will not vote.
However, if elected, Raisi is expected to strengthen the extremists’ grip on power, amid increasing political uncertainty, social unrest and economic problems in Iran caused by crippling US sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic.
While Friday’s presidential elections may not be a tool for positive change in Iran, they could still be one of the most important votes for the country in many years. The timing is ostensibly important, and some say the elections could mark a transition for Iran if Raisi is elected after conservatives garnered 230 seats in the country’s parliament last year.
The results of the two elections would mean that hardline elements would increase their power as the country comes out of crippling economic sanctions after an expected deal to bring the US and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
The changeover would also come amidst increasingly chaotic politics in Iran as the country prepares for the succession to Khamenei. Rumours about the supreme leader’s health have raised speculation about who might be his successor. Khamenei is 82 years old and is believed to be in failing health.
Raisi, who like the supreme leader was born in Mashhad, is believed to be the most likely candidate to succeed Khamenei. His possible ascent to the highest posts has suggested that he has been groomed for the role to ensure that a hardliner wins.
But Raisi’s path to the top job of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic will not be easy. Though he studied at the Shia seminary in Qom for his religious education, he is not known as a marji taqlid, a title only given to the highest level of Shia clergy.
In theory, there are many religious figures who meet the requirements for the job, and Raisi’s succession may be met with discontent by many in Iran who have concerns about his accreditation.
Though he has connections with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), this powerful force in Iran has yet to decide how to respond to Raisi amid increasing signs that the paramilitary force wants to hold a strong hand in Iran’s politics.
Many in Iran have predicted that the IRGC, which has always touted its role as the country’s saviour, will use the next elections to secure its legacy and will take over the Iranian presidency as it has the parliament.
Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf is a former brigadier-general of the IRGC, and two-thirds of the assembly’s presiding board are either former members or are still affiliated with the Corps and its auxiliary organisations.
Hardliners also now control the judiciary, the mainly appointed and powerful Guardianship Council, key financial and economic institutions, the state media networks and most of Iran’s security apparatus.
An audio tape leaked in April in which Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif bemoaned the fact that the IRGC dominates the country’s foreign policy has caused a political firestorm across Iran and underscored the schism between reformists and hardliners.
The exclusion of moderates from the elections, many of whom would have been expected to push for political reform and make changes in Iran’s foreign policies, could exacerbate the country’s crisis, paving the way for the IRGC to keep pursuing its agenda.
While Iran’s main power blocs and political factions have a deep interest in shaping the succession, the question of who will succeed Khamenei remains a matter of great concern to the region and the rest of the world.
Most of the world probably sees little at stake in the results of Friday’s elections, and as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear last week, the US priority is to get a deal with Iran and see it “back in the box.”
Yet, the upcoming vote remains consequential to many in the region who want to address Iran’s interference and fear significant impacts if the Islamic Republic moves further towards extremes.
For Iraqis who have been forced to live under governments built in the shadow of Iran in their country since the 2003 US-led invasion, the signs of hardliners getting further control do not look good, and they should be a flashing warning beacon for what the future holds.
Most of Iran’s malignant activities in Iraq are run by the secretive Al-Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC and the agency in charge of Iran’s influence overseas that goes beyond political and security efforts to commercial, business and cultural ties.
The rise of the extremists in Tehran could also shape the fate of Iran’s relationships with the Sunni powerhouses in the Gulf, which have a range of disagreements with Iran and are directly affected by the direction of Iranian politics.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Arab nation in the Gulf, have escalated precipitously in recent years over Iran’s growing influence and because of the two countries’ support for opposing sides in several regional conflicts.
The two powerful neighbours are locked in a strategic rivalry for regional dominance, and more assertive policies pursued by a new Iranian leadership in the region could be a watershed moment in their relations.
Saudi Arabia is trying to contain rising Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, where Iran’s proxies are engaged in extending the influence of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary theocracy beyond its borders.
Despite their deep suspicions of Iran, however, the country’s Arab rivals are grudgingly recognising the need to have a working relationship with Tehran to avert a showdown. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been in secret talks with Iran in an effort to reduce the tensions and revive strained relations with the neighbouring regional power.
But so far there has been no evidence of a major breakthrough in the Saudi-Iran talks, which are sponsored by Iraq, or the UAE de-escalation efforts with Tehran, which many have hoped would usher in a new start in relations between the Arabs and Iran.
The failure to push Iran to negotiate wider regional concerns such as Iran’s arsenal of missiles, drones and proxies at the nuclear talks and the chance of a diplomatic opening between the US and Iran following an expected deal will certainly embolden Iran.
With a new government in Tehran led by ultraconservatives bent on further expanding in the region, the strategic rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbours is expected to sharpen. Iran in many ways could yet win the regional struggle.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly