For most experts, the Iranian Presidential elections are not so much about what will change. Since it is not the President who takes the critical decisions, but the Supreme Leader of the Islamic regime—who has not changed since 1989. Instead, the elections’ monitoring is about the internal trends in the Iranian polity and society and their impact on regional geopolitics.
However, the June 18, 2021, Presidential elections are crucial in their own respect—from the standpoint of the regime's future. It could very well be the elections that will determine the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini’s successor and the Islamic regime's long-term course. For now, the powers to be seem to have thrown their weight behind a hardline future. A future that is being increasingly challenged by popular unrest against the regime, Iran's need to integrate into the larger region and the tussle between reformism and conservatism. This push and pull inherent in the upcoming elections will create risks for stakeholders in the region.
First, let’s contextualise these elections—Ayatollah Khameini, 82 years of age and purportedly suffering from ill-health (it is difficult to get credible news on this subject), is looking for a successor. This search comes in the context of massive popular unrest against the regime in the last two to three years. The protests have centered around the economic deterioration worsened by the US sanctions, for more cultural and religious freedoms and against Iranian 'adventurism' in the region. Most importantly, protestors are now questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic regime—something which till now has been a 'no go' area.
In this background of a regime losing out on popularity but tightening control on the repressive/coercive measures and institutions to govern, these elections must be viewed. Even by the minor standards of difference between the moderates and hardliners in Iran, the recently approved seven presidential candidates by the Guardian Council are very hardline. The race seems skewed towards Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric close to Khameini who was defeated by the incumbent President Rouhani in 2017.
The Guardian Council has rejected all the serious challengers and anyone from the moderate/reformist camp. State-backed media has run surveys giving a resounding victory to Raisi. It seems like the Supreme leader wants to make sure that another defeat does not dent the popularity of his chosen candidate.
So what does this mean for domestic politics? In 1988 Raisi authorised the mass execution of political prisoners and dissidents in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, he has taken a hardline view on dissent, most recently as the Chief Justice of the highest court. His backing by the supreme institution is a clear message to dissenters and protestors—to toe the line or else.
As a result, the Iranian civil unrest landscape is likely to get more complicated. Elimination of alternative views means that the people have been denied even the limited constitutional mechanism to affect their choices. Low political turnout is expected to erode the legitimacy of the regime further. But this has been inbuilt into the risk calculus of the regime stability. What can be more worrisome is the political mobilisation as seen in the past—the 2009 Green movement to protest against a disputed election, for instance. This cycle of protests—repression—and more protests can substantially dent the regional/global reputation of the Iranian regime, complicating the nuclear talks and the backchannel negotiations with other regional powers.
In the short term, nothing much will change in the regional dynamics, nuclear deal negotiations (in Vienna), or proxy conflicts. Vienna talks will continue since the Iranian regime realizes that high unemployment and high inflation can further fuel widespread unrest in Iran if not checked. Israel will probably try and disrupt the talks and Iran will continue using its proxies (strategic allies) to force the US to give more concessions.
UAE and KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) will vacillate between trying to prevent an escalation to an outright conflict and efforts to contain Iran. Some factors could result in accidental regional escalations likely to be contained—a Houthi (Iran’s allies in Yemen) attack on strategic KSA or UAE assets causing significant disruptions. Other triggers include—red lines tested between Israel and Hamas/Hezbollah and Israel's attempts to sabotage and delay Iran's nuclear program.
In the long term, it is worth watching whether the institutional strength of the Islamic revolution will be able to overcome the triggers for change. The hardliners already control the judiciary and the parliament—these elections will give them control over the Presidentship for at least the next few years. This collision of tradition with demands for modernization and institutional rigidity with millennial aspirations will create disruptive risks in Iran and the region. The need to open up for economic growth and isolate for cultural preservation will be a significant stress point to analyse, understand and manage.
—Shraddha Bhandari is co-founder and CEO of Intelligentsia Risk Advisors, a strategy consulting firm. The views expressed in the article are her own
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)