Iran: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future

by Elbay Alibayov

In his recent article, Iran at a Crossroad in 2017, my former colleague Jose Luis Masegosa (who I had a privilege working with at the OSCE in Bosnia) analyses the internal political dynamics in Iran, viewed through the lenses of the forthcoming presidential elections scheduled for May, 2017. This is a timely attempt to look closely at one of the critical events to follow this year. The outcome of the election has a potential to influence not only the internal policies of Iran but to shape political and security processes much beyond its geographic boundaries–including geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East region and the global security arrangements, for many years to come.

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Mr Rouhani attends a congress on 2017 Presidential elections, 25 February 2017

The Complexity of Iranian Politics

To understand the intricacy of developments in Iran, one has to employ the notion of complex systems. The complexity here derives from “multiple actors pursuing a multiplicity of actions and initiatives at numerous levels of social relationships in an interdependent setting at the same time. Complexity emerges from multiplicity, interdependency and simultaneity.” Sounds as something overwhelming, does it not? But that is not all. What makes the analysis and political forecasts even more difficult is that, being a complex system in and by itself (it is enough to note that Iran is a theocratic state with quite a significant modern democratic element in its constitution), Iran is a key component of another, highly complex system that is Middle East and North Africa region. And all of this at the most volatile and uncertain time in decades when the old, post-Second World War global governance is no more effective, while a new world order has yet to take its final shape.

In such a setting, it is important to understand the drivers (ideas and motivations) and decisions taken in each component by its multiple agents; but, even more importantly, the interaction between those connected yet still independently varying components—such as internal political processes in Iran and its neighbouring countries (particularly its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also increasingly Turkey); proxies and proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen; and foreign policies and regional ambitions of such global players as the United States and Russia; along with non-state actors that seem to become regular players, such as Islamist militants and terrorist organisations (in first hand, al-Qaeda and ISIL).

Internal Rivalry and the Influence of Externalities

The article of Jose Luis Masegosa focuses on the internal politics of Iran, particularly on the rivalry between pro-reform forces led by the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and principlist conservative groups (frequently referred to in Western literature as “hardliners”) close to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamanei. The outcome, whatever seemingly favourable for the former forces, is vastly unclear at this point in time, and I dare to guess, will remain so up until the Election Day (which seems to be new normal, if to consider the recent Brexit and US Election 2016 surprises). As the author points out, it will largely depend on the Middle East policy of new US administration and its commitment to respecting the nuclear agreement (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed between Iran and six world powers back in 2015.

So far, the indication of the future policy of Trump administration point to rather hard line against Iran (but not necessarily dismantling the JCPOA; at least not so overtly) and more reliance on its rivals–Saudi Arabia led coalition of Arab Gulf States and Israel. This has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, where both reformists and conservatives are closely following each and every statement of the new US President and his defence and security aides. And in the meantime, both camps are getting prepared for an epic battle at the ballot box, in a couple of month period.

While President Rouhani puts maximum effort in getting as much as possible benefits from the opportunities opened up thanks to the nuclear deal and in demonstrating some tangible economic improvements, his opponents are consolidating their ranks: Last week,  the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces, a coalition of conservative groups,  has nominated ten “semi-finalists” for a single candidate (among them such prominent figures as Astan Quds Razavi Foundation Head and Assembly of Experts member Ebrahim Raisi; Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaee; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; senior former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; and former parliamentarian Ali Reza Zakani).

Generational Shift

One of interesting points made in the article of Jose Luis Masegosa is that this year’s election occurs in the broader environment of generational change in Iran. In terms of demographics, the fact that 60 percent of the country’s population are the young people under 30 years of age means that majority of polity, and thus significant part of the voter base, are people who were born in the Islamic Republic and do not have a point of reference to the Shah regime. Another observation of the author related to generational shift is that the leadership of Iran that has been comprised of politicians who ran the 1979 Revolution and established the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is shrinking—the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the latest loss among the old guard.

Whether present political elite (including theocratic leadership and the Supreme Leader himself) will be replaced in the coming years by more moderate politicians or by more aggressive actors (such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the younger cohort remains largely uncertain, and will depend on a host of internal and external factors and their combination and interplay at any given point in time. That is what complexity is about… so do not believe anyone who claims that they know what is going to happen in the next year—they are either manipulators or totally ignorant (or both).

How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

At a Junction Point

What is possible to say with certainty though, is that this year’s election in Iran come at the moment when both internal political processes underway and changes in regional and global political order have gained a magnitude which may turn it into make-or-break event for the Iranians. This reminds me of an interview given by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in 1961. Reflecting on the power of national unity at moments when the nation’s destiny is shaped, he has observed: “Twice in my reign I have seen Iranians rise up when all seemed lost… once during the Azerbaijan crisis [1946] and again in 1953 with the Mossadegh affair. … it was like telepathy—a kind of human antenna. The whole nation acted as one to save its past and its future.”

Ironically, in less than two decades the same very national unity challenged his power, effectively ending the longest lasting monarchic rule on the face of Earth. It seems that Iran is approaching yet another such junction point in its millennia long history of statehood. How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

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