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Iranian Presidential Elections Potential to Upend the Middle East Political Landscape

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The outcome of the forthcoming Iranian presidential elections will have significant effects on the country’s internal affairs, as well as its relations with major regional and global powers.

By Shehab Al Makahleh •

Iranian 12th presidential elections on May 19th will determine the next president of the largest Persian Gulf state. Although over 1600 candidates initially registered, including the former president Ahmadinejad whose application for rejected, only 6 candidates were approved by the Electoral Commission. Of these 6 candidates, as most analysts and connoisseurs of Iranian political landscape concur, the battle will essentially be between the sitting President Hassan Rouhani and the conservative Seyed Ebrahim Raisi.

Although the West would clearly prefer the incumbent President Rouhani, who helped ink the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) his key opponent, Raisi may be the best option to bring more beneficial socio-economic and political change to the country itself along with its Arab neighbors’ interests. Due to current rabid anti-Iran rhetoric in Western and some Arab media and political circles, the conservative candidate’s win is presented as a doomsday scenario, while in reality it may actually bring more long-term good to the region than expected. However, it would also upend the already altered power balance in the Middle East, albeit to the Western detriment.

Besides the current President Rouhani, and the most likely new president, Raisi ― there are two other strong candidates: Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, current mayor of Tehran and former commander of the Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ Air Force, and Es’haq Jahangiri, current first Vice President to Hassan Rouhani, who according to some is simply a distraction, and would eventually withdraw in favor of Rouhani.

Of all 6 candidates, Ebrahim Raisi is the strongly preferred candidate for a coalition of over 20 parties, and as such represents a strong voice of many, and a hope for different era in Iranian internal politics. Moreover, there are similar speculations regarding Ahmadinejad’s candidacy, which has only served to increase Raisi’s chances, as he was unlikely to be approved following the Supreme Leader’s advice ―for the record, the first of its kind ― not to run, which he defied, registered, and was rejected, thus clearing the field for the fellow conservative Raisi.

Despite the Western preferences the sitting President is unlikely to win the new term. The reasons for this can be attributed to several internal and external factors. Internally, Rouhani has been blamed for failure to implement economic policies to improve the living conditions of the poor segments of Iranian society. Raisi has played strong on this card and promised to triple the financial support for the socially most disadvantaged population.

Externally, the current situation in the wider Middle East, global tensions, as well as the threats coming from the new US administration regarding the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, as well as bellicose rhetoric of its Arab neighbors, may propel conservative Raisi to presidency. This anti-Iranian rhetoric can in no small degree be attributed to the constant fear mongering coming from the neoconservative circles in the US, and the recent ‘return’ of the UK to the Gulf geopolitical playground, where ‘Iran threat’ is used a tool to control the Arab states’ policies and force them to stockpile on weapons they will never use against the imaginary archenemy across the Gulf.

Although many in Arab states’ power circles are loath to admit it, the truth is that the US and British interests in the region have little to nothing to do with the interests of these nations and states, but chiefly with their own economic and political interests.

Many contradictory moves especially in the US are evidence to this seemingly ambiguous policy; one example of this is Obama’s pushing for Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) which current president Trump seeks to annul. Another is giving verbal guarantees to Saudi Arabia that its security is of paramount interest to the US, whereby at the same time passing the infamous JASTA law that allows individuals to sue the Saudi state for 9/11 terrorist attack. The back and forth and power struggles within US former and current administration only show that both Iran, and Saudi, as well as other Gulf countries are only interesting while they dance to the Western tune.

Iran is a preferred target of this vicious blame-game, because its adherence to Shi’a Islam puts it ‘naturally’ against the rest of the Sunni Gulf states. This creates a perfect playfield for eternal tug of war between the Gulf states―in particular Saudi Arabia as main Western ally in the region―and Iran on one, and the Western powers with their own interests on the other side. In this scenario, the common interests of the Gulf States are put on the backburner, while the Western interests are secured.

Although the other two candidates have good chances to win significant number of votes neither is likely to secure enough for victory. Should the reformists win, either by Rouhani’s reelection or Jahangiri’s win, Iranian internal problems may actually multiply while the West would benefit from the dire economic situation that would push the country to seek and accept the offer from the highest bidder to maintain stability. Deteriorating economic situation in both Iran and Saudi Arabia may in shorter term lead to undesirable clashes between the two regional powers, which both are advised to avoid at all costs, as such conflict would have huge negative effects not only on regional, but the global peace and security as well.

The Raisi’s conservatives would ensure that the ties with the West remain diplomatic, but preference in the development of economic and other ties would be given to Russia-China duo. This is the reason why the West prefers to keep the Gulf States at loggerheads, in order to preserve its own supremacy in the region, rather than giving these states the chance to independently determine their own relations. However, the only way to create lasting stability would be for the Gulf States to have their own interests as priority, and this includes bridging the schisms between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as key regional players whose relationship determines the conditions of war and peace in the greater Middle East, among the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

The proof to above claim is that the conservative president would bring more positive change to the Gulf and Middle East stability, comes in the article published by Iranian FM, Javad Zarif on Sunday, on the occasion of the National Day, where he stated that

The regional countries are able to fulfill their interests in cooperation with each other, and protect themselves in the face of threats”.

The diplomat called on the Persian Gulf states to cooperate to counter common threats, and damaging interference by outsiders, stating that the Gulf could turn into ‘sea of friendship’ despite current differences. He called the neighbors to focus on peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for territorial integrity, and highlighted the need for developing mechanisms of dialogue to seize opportunities, and focus on promoting regional human and economic development issues.

Similarly, the Islamic Revolution Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in his June 2016 remarks stated that,

“The Gulf security relates to the countries of the region which have common interests, and not to the US. So, security of the Gulf region should be provided by the countries of this region itself”.

These statements rebuff all the Western claims that Iran is a threat to the regional stability or any particular Arab Sunni state. Despite existing ideological disputes both between Iran and the West, and Iran and its Persian Gulf Arab neighbors – Iran is giving out all signs of readiness to build bridges and willingness to cooperate with other Gulf States. As Iran seeks to further develop its economy, the Gulf Arab states may as well be wise to consider the offer to create a ‘sea of friendship’ out of the Gulf – for a change.

Even though Iranian democracy does not fit into the Western definition of it, it seems to be working very well for the Iranians themselves. Strictly speaking, that itself is what democracy is – giving people a chance to choose their own leadership through elections, whether their choices are approved by the outside powers or not. Iran’s presidential elections have 6 approved candidates from a score of political parties. In the US there are really only two political parties ruling the country since its independence. Iranian pundits may take this to question the quality of American democracy!