Iranians are going to the polls to elect a new president on Friday, June 14th. Many wonder whether and how Iran’s upcoming presidential election will affect its foreign policy, mainly the future course of its nuclear issue, as well as its domestic politics,. The following interview with Abolghasem Bayyenat, an independent political analyst covering Iran’s foreign policy developments ,conducted for El Mercurio newspaper, sheds lights on these questions.
Jean Palou; Why is the upcoming Iranian presidential election so important? If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the authority who takes the key decisions in the country, what is the significance of the President?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; Iran is a major actor in a volatile region of the world, that is capable of influencing regional developments. Any change in the top leadership of Iran thus draws interest and attention from regional countries and beyond. The special domestic economic and political circumstances as well as the precarious regional political conditions facing the Iranian leadership today all add to the importance of Iran’s upcoming presidential election for both Iranian citizens and interested foreign observes.
Who controls the executive in Iran has an important bearing on the balance of power between various political forces in the country. The president controls substantial resources and is in charge of managing the national economy and implementing foreign policy, among others. While the supreme leader has the final say on key foreign policy issues, the president may also influence those foreign policy decisions, due to his role as the elected representative of the national electorate. Generally speaking, a pragmatic or moderate president can to a certain degree moderate Iran’s foreign policy while an ultraconservative or revolutionary president can radicalize Iran’s foreign policy behavior.
Jean Palou; Does it matter that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not represented in this election? What will happen to Ahmadinejad after the election, given that his candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been disqualified, and he has challenged in some way the authority of Khamenei?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; Ahmadinejad has lost much of his popularity over the last two years because of the economic crisis plaguing the country, including rampant inflation and sharp currency depreciation, caused in part by his economic mismanagement and Western economic sanctions. Due to his dismal economic legacy and his falling out of favor with Khamenei and his supporters over other issues, it has become too costly for presidential candidates to associate themselves with Ahmadinejad. Most of presidential candidates have, to varying degrees, distanced themselves from much of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and his confrontational rhetoric in foreign policy. Although Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s close aide, has been barred from running in the upcoming presidential election, there is at least one main figure among the existing presidential candidates who largely embraces Ahmadinejad’s main foreign policy posture, built largely on fierce resistance against imperial powers. Ahmadinejad is expected to retire from politics for now and gradually fall into oblivion along with much of his economic legacy when his current tenure comes to an end in the next few months. However, it is possible, though not very probable, that he will try to make a comeback to politics by running in the next parliamentary or presidential elections after he has met the constitutional term limits by staying out of presidential race for one term.
Jean Palou; What happened to the Green movement? Is a similar movement thinkable this time?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; The Green Movement has lost much of its relevance and has become detached from its popular base in light of new political realities in Iran. It no longer represents a potent social or political force as it once used to do in its heyday and can best be viewed as being associated with some Iranian expatriate intellectual circles. The setup of the current presidential race is not expected to reproduce the conditions leading to the rise of the Green Movement in 2009. Great care has been taken to prevent the polarization of the political atmosphere along reformist and conservative lines in this election season. The presidential race is fought as much among conservative politicians themselves as it is fought between the reformist and conservative presidential candidates. The most immediate priority of the public is rescuing the economy and restoring stability and predictability to the economic environment rather than indulging on ideological rhetoric. As such, there is little room for mobilizing the masses on the scale of the 2009 presidential elections as most of the presidential candidates concur on the more efficient management of the economy and a wiser interaction with the outside world with a view to avoiding unwarranted costs for Iran’s national interests . What divide the presidential candidates are largely their different views of the constituent elements of a sound economic strategy and appropriate tactics regarding Iran’s nuclear issue, rather than diametrically opposed conceptions of public goals and national interests capable of polarizing the Iranian society.
Jean Palou; Considering the eight candidates in the race, could we expect a change in Iran’s politics? Or will be the same?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; In light of the above, and given the fragmented nature of Iran’s political system and various checks and balances therein, including direct and indirect oversight by the supreme leader over the entire political system, which all work to limit the power of the president and other elected political institutions, no radical change is expected to be brought about, by a change of president, in Iran’s domestic politics as well as in its foreign policy. Even under the simultaneous control of the executive and the legislature by the reformists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy were not radically transformed, even though some meaningful change was noticeable in some areas of foreign policy and domestic politics. However, given the economic and political realities in Iran today as well as the beliefs of the presidential candidates, the victory of nearly any presidential candidate, whether reformist or conservative, in the upcoming election is expected to result in some level of moderation, even if only in tone, in Iran’s foreign policy and a more rational and conventional management of Iran’s economy, thus representing a shift from Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary-style foreign policy and unconventional and populist economic policies. While there is a general consensus among Iranian political elites on Iran’s core position on its nuclear issue, whether a reformist or a conservative candidate is elected as Iran’s next president may also have a significant bearing on how Iran’s current standoff with the West over its nuclear issue will evolve over the next four years and beyond.
Jean Palou; What is your opinion of Saeed Jalili, who seems to be the leading candidate in the elections? Is he a hard liner politician?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; Saeed Jalili was little known in Iran before being thrown into the spotlight following his appointment as secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council by president Ahmadinejad and as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, virtually by default . He has not been involved in any partisan politics and has held no ministerial-level executive position in the past, a fact which works both as an advantage and a disadvantage for him in this election. Largely due to his unyielding stance on Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West, Jalili has gained, among some religious and political circles in Iran, the reputation of an authentic revolutionary official, and as such as more in harmony with Khamenei. He is viewed to best represent the ideals of the Islamic revolution in foreign policy, founded mainly on resistance against Western colonial powers and defending the Islamic ummah and oppressed nations. If elected as president, Jalili is expected to continue Iran’s existing foreign policy, albeit perhaps with a less controversial style, while enhancing domestic capacities for a self-reliant economy, capable of sustaining his favored foreign policy. Among the existing presidential candidates, Jalili can thus be regarded as closest to Ahamdinejad’s ideological line, and if elected as president, his presidency can be viewed, by and large, as the second iteration of Ahamadinejad’s term, at least on foreign policy grounds.
Jean Palou; What could the next Iranian President do to calm down the foreign pressure against Teheran?
Abolghasem Bayyenat; In order to reduce Western economic pressures, the next Iranian President can intensify the ongoing diplomatic engagement with Western powers to find a mutually-satisfactory solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. Iran could take a variety of confidence-building measures to build further trust in the exclusively-peaceful nature of its nuclear issue. This could work if Western powers were ready to recognize Iran’s rights under the NPT to the peaceful use of nuclear technology and accept its core uranium enrichment activities while taking reciprocal measures to relieve their economic sanctions against Iran. In parallel, Iran could also build mutual trust with major Arab countries in the region by expanding its economic and political ties with them and mitigating their security concerns about its nuclear capabilities and regional intentions.
But no amount of cooperation and flexibility by Iran is guaranteed to secure a diplomatic agreement with a party already bent on pursuing a confrontational path through intensifying economic sanctions and issuing military threats against Iran. This is why the next Iranian president would have to adopt various measures to further immunize his country to Western economic pressures. Undertaking ambitious economic reforms to foster economic growth and stability, reduce dependence on oil revenues, curtail unnecessary imports, and encourage domestic production are necessary steps to minimize vulnerabilities to Western economic pressures and to protect Iran’s much-valued national honor and political independence.
* Jean Palou is a journalist for El Mercurio newspaper in Santiago, Chile.