The Future of Iran
In a year that has contained several pivotal elections across the world from South Korea to France, yet another major national election has captured the attention of much of the world. Today, Iran will hold a presidential election that will pit the current incumbent Hassan Rouhani against his main challenger, the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, and the equally conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
However, as many observers of Iranian politics know, Iran has a very interesting governmental structure that combines an unelected theocracy, called the Guardian Council, and an elected president. In addition, there are other unelected bodies, such as the elite Revolutionary Guard, with an extraordinary amount of influence on the elected portion of the Iranian government.
This complicated relationship has led many, including Max Fischer, to question if “Iran was a democracy or a dictatorship?” Such a question is growing ever more crucial as domestic problems in Iran, such as the youth bulge, threaten domestic instability an already volatile region. Whoever the candidate is, they will have to address these issues before they grow out of hand.
Unfortunately, Professor Sanam Vakil of Chatham House has argued that both of the leading candidates, rather than attempting to address their domestic problems, have returned to the frequent Iranian rhetorical strategy of “outsiders,” referring to the West and to Israel, that are continuing to interfere in Iran’s economy.
Such an attack is namely targeted at Rouhani, as he signed the recent nuclear deal with the United States and Europe in exchange for some relief on the sanctions that were hurting the domestic economy. Since the deal was signed, Iran’s economic fortunes have improved but not nearly enough to ameliorate the domestic situation. This has made Rouhani’s political situation extremely vulnerable.
In addition, no matter who wins there is still the recurring political issue of the appropriate relationship between the religious guardian council and the secular elected government. Although these two entities seem to be in a perpetual conflict that aims to direct Iran’s destiny, this has not always been the case.
Rather, the two institutions and their relationship, have been consistently evolving ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
Part of the issue was that the 1979 revolutionary movement was not as uniform ideologically as many Westerners believe. While they were all united by their dislike of Shah Pahlavi, they were disunited by internal disputes and splintered into factions such as the nationalists, the communists, and the Islamists headed by Khomeini.
At the time of the fall of the Shah, the communists were the most powerful faction in Iran, impelling the religious and theocratic Khomeini to ally with the secular and Western oriented nationalists. However, their visions of what the Islamic Republic of Iran would look like were very different and even contradictory.
By taking hostages in the US embassy in Tehran, Khomeini hoped that his plan, one which involved a secular governmental system alongside a religious governmental system, would carry the day. It did.
As to the question of why Khomeini wanted it this way, Fischer writes that Khomeini hoped that over time, the secular part of the state would fade away and Iran would stand as a theocracy. For the time being, his office, located in the religious city of Qom, was intended to be separate from the state and only consulted on religious matters. However, not long afterwards, Iran and Iraq went to war and this proved to be Khomeini’s moment to be Iran’s leader.
He saw the opportunity to keep a still divided government, riveted by factions, together and he took it. However, his successor as Ayatollah, Khamenei, is only able to manage, rather than control these factions, especially his allies, the hardliners, who aim to direct Iran in a more theocratic manner. Compounding this problem is the fact that the hardliners dominate much of the unelected positions in the Iranian government and have done much to stifle domestic dissent.
In the end, Professor Vakil points out that the victor will be able to significantly alter Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. For instance, Rouhani wins the election, Iran will take on a different course than if either of the two conservative hard-liners win.
This is a very significant divergence as this means that not only will the future of the Iran nuclear deal be up in the air, but also the question of Iran’s involvement in Syria, and its level of conflict with Israel and the United States, will all end up being affected by the victor’s ideology.