Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the upcoming Presidential election in Iran domestic issues are being overshadowed by the Donald argues Sean Ledwith

Iranians go to the polls in the middle of this month to elect their President. The current incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, is the strong favourite to retain the position he won four years ago.  At that time, the country was in the grip of a harsh sanctions regime orchestrated by the US.  This year, those sanctions have being downsized thanks to the nuclear deal reached between Iran, the US and five other powers in 2015.  Many in the country might have hoped the deal would be the harbinger of a lessening of the tension between Iran and the West that has characterised the decades since the 1979 revolution.

Similarly, it might have been hoped there would be a consequent relaxation of the straitjacket of social policies that keeps 77 million people cowed by the reign of the ayatollahs. The arrival of Trump in the White House, however, has set back the possibility of both of these scenarios. The new President and his neocon acolytes have ramped back up the rhetorical onslaught on Iran to the levels of hyperbolic threat that led George Bush Jr to include the country in his ridiculous ‘Axis of Evil’ just prior to the Iraq war.

Voters will cast their ballots on May 19th with many domestic issues on their minds but overshadowing them all will be the real – if currently remote – prospect of another militarised attempt by Washington to bully the country out of its independent foreign policy stance in the region.

Hybrid system

The position of President in Iran’s complex constitutional set-up is a significant one but not the most powerful. The political system is a contradictory hybrid of authoritarian and democratic elements that evolved in the aftermath of the emancipatory surge of the revolution that was hijacked by the intervention of the ayatollahs.

The apex of the system is currently held by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in collaboration with the clergy-dominated Guardian Council. This tightly-knit group is the ultimate arbiter of the country’s destiny and has the power to over-rule or even remove the President if required.  Khamenei is in his late seventies now and so this election will also be important for what it reveals about the possible thinking of the ruling elite when a new Supreme Leader is required in the near future.

Rouhani’s candidacy in 2013 was a surprise as it indicated that the upper echelons of the system had reluctantly accepted the need for a modestly reformist government in the wake of the ‘Green movement’ uprising of 2009. Rouhani won thanks to an electoral alliance of the middle class, university-educated youth and urban liberals, all looking for some degree of liberalisation of the draconian social and political restrictions implemented by his predecessor, Mohamed Ahmadinejad.

The fact that Rouhani has been tolerated for four years by the Guardian Council indicates a return to overt repression is not their preferred option at the moment. Last month, Ahmadinejad was excluded from running in this election by the Council; another sign that his form of populism is regarded as potentially de-stabilising by the elite.

Reformists v. Principalists

Rouhani personifies the political outlook of an unofficial faction within the Iranian establishment labelled as reformists in the West. This group expresses the interests of the partially privatised sectors of the economy which are incrementally seeking to loosen the grip of the clergy and Revolutionary Guards on the still largely state-controlled oil industry. Rouhani’s support also partly comes from non-oil based private companies hoping to benefit from greater economic interaction with the West.

The President’s two main rivals in the upcoming election, Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Qalibaf, are running with the backing of the Principalists, the alternative faction within the ruling class. This is the group that dominated Iranian politics in the post-revolutionary era; prioritising the construction of a resilient form of state capitalism capable of resisting Western encroachment.

Elections to the national parliament, the Majlis, in February of last year suggest Rouhani should be confident of winning a second term. The legislative elections saw significant gains for the President’s ‘List of Hope’ candidates in both the parliament and in the Guardian Council. Rouhani’s political mentor, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, topped the poll in the Tehran district. The latter, however, died earlier this year of a heart attack, robbing the President of one of his key allies among the elite.

Supreme Leader Khamenei expressed his approval at the high turnout in the 2016 elections, indicating that, for now, Rouhani’s strategy of courting investment and diplomatic rapprochement with the West has the tentative backing of the Iranian deep state.


Rouhani’s opening to the West has seen the economy grow by almost 7%, largely due to the lifting of sanctions on oil exports. Chronic youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, however, at nearly 13%. This is an ongoing concern for the elite of a country in which a staggering 60% of the population is under 30. Disaffection among this group played a major role in triggering the revolt of 2009. Rouhani’s rivals have not been slow to identify unemployment as an Achilles heel in his electoral appeal. Mayor of Tehran Qalibaf is promising to create five million jobs, while Raisi, who controls a major Shia shrine in the north, is offering to triple stipends for the poorest 30% of the population.

The Principalists are counting on the support of the working class in the South of Tehran and in the countryside who have yet to see the benefits of Rouhani’s reformism trickle down beyond the ranks of the middle class. The contest between the candidates over the economy will undoubtedly sway many voters but in the back of everyone’s mind will be how Iran adapts to the new administration in Washington.

Bad deal?

On the campaign trail last year, Trump repeatedly referred to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 states as a bad deal (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). It is unlikely he spent much time reading the actual deal; if he had he would realise it practically put the lid on any possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The country was forced to give up 97% of its stockpile of enriched uranium; only permitted to develop enrichment up to 4% (90% is required for weapons grade uranium);only allowed 5,000 centrifuges, compared to the 20,000 it had pre-deal; and required to permit 24/7 access to international  inspections. An arms control expert commented that Iran’s chances of subverting the deal are virtually zero:  ”The likelihood of getting caught is near 100 percent“.

Despite Trump’s campaign bluster about ripping up the deal the moment he entered the White House, its status as a UN brokered treaty means it is guaranteed by the other five states, regardless of the attitude of the US.  The more perceptive members of Washington’s foreign policy elite recognised the deal as a significant diplomatic victory over its principal adversary in the region. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright commented:

In a turbulent Middle East, there is no way to predict what the next decade will bring. But the United States will be in a far better position to shape events in the region with this nuclear agreement in place than without it. This accord is a bold stroke of diplomacy, and an opportunity we must not waste.

Albright is no peacenik; she notoriously described one million Iraqi fatalities of sanctions as worth it.

Real men go to Tehran

Albright, Obama and key elements of the US establishment came to the view that courting Rouhani, Rafsanjani and the Iranian reformists was the best way to subtly erode the Shia Crescent of anti-American forces that was emerging in the region in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Foreign policy analysts with long memories would recall that Rafsanjani was the key Iranian contact who coordinated the Reagan administration’s illegal supply of weapons to Tehran in the 1980s.

Trump’s accession to power returns the strategic initiative on Iran to the neocons who felt Obama’s courting of the Rouhani regime was inadequate. The new President’s perspective is a throwback to the war-mongering expression that circulated among Bush’s cabal prior to the toppling of Saddam: “Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.

Team Trump are looking further back in time for inspiration on how to take on Iran; actions such as the CIA-led coup that overthrew nationalist Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953 or the uncritical  sponsorship of the Shah’s dictatorship in the 1970s that turned the country into a bloodbath.

Iran on notice

Since his inauguration earlier this year, senior members of Trump’s cabinet have been sabre-rattling at an alarming rate with regard to Iran. The now disgraced National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, stated in January that he was officially putting Iran on notice after it conducted a ballistic missile test. Flynn inaccurately accused Tehran of breaking the terms of the 2015 deal. The test was actually nothing to do with the deal which only covers nuclear capabilities. Last month Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed:

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel.

Bizarrely, Tillerson issued this statement at the same time as confirming that Iran is currently adhering to the terms of the Vienna deal!

The other irony, of course, is that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism is a moniker that should be more accurately attached to the US itself. The first three countries that Tillerson refers to have been torn apart by disastrous interventions either directly by the US or by its proxy forces. Iran itself was the victim of the Stuxnet malware virus a few years ago, probably originating in the US.

As for Iran attacking Israel, the reverse is the case. The Zionist state has conducted a covert policy of assassination of Iranian scientists suspected of being involved in the country’s nuclear programme. Needless to say, the US is not pressurising Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, which is the most substantial in the whole region. 

The China factor

Beyond its hypocritical stance on Iran’s nuclear programme, the wider US concern is the unravelling of Washington’s influence in the region. The cataclysmic war in Iraq left Iran strengthened as the US reluctantly required Tehran’s support to prop up the Shia regime in Bagdad. The tacit US-Iranian alliance in this conflict zone has been consolidated thanks to their joint operations against Isis in the current battle for Mosul. The inconsistencies of US regional strategy, however, are highlighted by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen respectively, in which the two countries find themselves on opposing sides.

On an even wider scale, Washington is terrified of China’s growing ambitions in the Middle East, especially of the strengthening of diplomatic ties between its superpower rival and Iran. Beijing’s One Belt One Road policy is designed to create a so-called New Silk Road, uniting energy supplies across a huge territory of Eurasia from Tehran to the East.

This lethal cocktail of regional and geopolitical tensions means the outcome of Iran’s election will be monitored closely far beyond its borders.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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