Emirates Policy Center held on March 6, 2016 a roundtable entitled Shifts on Iran’s Political Landscape in Light of the Nuclear Agreement and Legislative Elections. A number of renowned Gulf and Arab experts and politicians took part in the event to shed light on the internal political landscape in Iran in the wake of two recent key events in that country. First, the signing of the nuclear deal between Tehran and P5+1 group of world powers in July 2015 and the subsequent lifting of international sanctions against Tehran that started in Jan. 2016. Second, the election of the 5th Assembly of Experts and the 10th Consultative Assembly (parliament) on Feb. 26, 2016.
This paper highlights the key conclusions and scenarios taken from the workshop’s sessions and discussions.
- The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran established the revolution/state duality and produced institutions for each element. The constitution, however, granted the revolution’s institutions the veto power over state’s institutions.
- Iran’s constitution stipulates that that the country is a republic; nevertheless, it has deprived the parliament and the president the right to draft policies, and only implement the policies of the (vali-ye faqih) Guardian Jurist/the Supreme Leader.
- The Iranian revolution can be described as regressive because it has taken the country back to the Imamate idea, which is part of Islamic history. Furthermore, the idea of exporting revolution is a fantasy or a myth because Iran does not have an appealing model to export. Instead, Tehran exports and spreads sectarianism.
- Since Ali Khamenei assumed the Guardian Jurist position in 1989, he has established a coalition with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which rules the country now.
- In Arabic literature, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is depicted as if he rules Iran alone in a centralized way. However, this is inaccurate because he rules through an institution called the House of the Leader (Beit Rahbari), which is a huge institution with experts and politicians who take part in decision-making.
- After the ruling coalition of the House of the Leader/IRGC uprooted the cultural and political elements of the reform project and excluded the leadership and parties of the reformist movement, it created the Ahmadinejad movement. However, when the Ahmadinejad movement started to challenge the political and religious authority of the Guardian Jurist, the ruling coalition undermined this movement. In addition, the ruling coalition adopted a new strategy based on preventing the rise of any powerful movement, whether it is a reformist, fundamentalist or moderate one.
- The Iranian political system faces an internal crisis because the ruling coalition of the House of the Leader/IRGC is monopolizing power, as well as, an external crisis due to the system’s failure to achieve regional leadership as a result of its sectarian and interventionist policies.
- Before 2013, the Iranian political landscape suffered from a political stalemate, as well as, a social and economic deterioration. Therefore, the ruling coalition promoted Hasan Rouhani to presidency because he represents the minimum level of political ambitions domestically and abides by the rules of the game.
- The ruling coalition set the following priorities for Rouhani’s: settle the nuclear issue, take Iran out of its international isolation, and lift sanctions that exhausted the country’s economy. Rouhani led the diplomacy of moderation that has succeeded on the nuclear issue. Other than that, however, there has been no real change in Tehran’s internal and foreign policies since he took office.
- During Rouhani’s presidency, the regime has unified the state and the revolution to stop internal attrition resulting from the struggle between the two. In addition, the regime has re-engineered the domestic political landscape by controlling the behavior of all political institutions and religious movements to avoid disruption of the track of nuclear negotiations.
- The process of re-engineering the domestic political landscape had side effects, which were evident in the recent legislative elections. These effects will continue on the domestic landscape, notably:
- A state of stalemate and weakness of the dynamics that used to produce ideas, solutions and alternatives,
- Disappearance of the political boundaries between political movements,
- An increase of the “revolutionary pragmatism” gains for Rafsanjani-Rouhani,
- A decline of the “revolutionary realism” for Khamenei,
- A decay of the “revolutionary idealism” for Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmadinejad.
- Before the recent elections, the domestic political environment included three main actors:
- The Guardian Jurist faction, which includes four components: The House of the Leader, IRGC, the hardliners, and Rafsanjani-Rouhani’s faction,
- The reformist movement and Ahmadinejad’s faction,
- Civil society organizations that include labor and student unions; some of these organizations support the Guardian Jurist, while others oppose him.
- The West saw the results of the legislative elections as a victory for the reformist-moderation movement because it has won 81 seats compared to 62 for the hardliners. This claim, however, is not correct for the following reasons:
- First, the final results of the Consultative Assembly election have not been finalized yet because 67 seats were referred to recount,
- Second, the inclinations of independents, who have won 75 seats, are not known for sure.
- Third, there were no clear distinctions between electoral lists. The elimination by the Guardian Council of some reformist and moderate candidates for the Consultative Council and reformist candidates for the Assembly of Experts led those candidates to form a coalition with the supporters of the Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and other moderate-fundamentalist figures supporting the government, such as representatives Ali Motahari and Kazem Jalali. This, in turn, led to the duplication of candidates in more than one electoral list, some of which were competing against each other.
- While the 6th Consultative Council carried a reformist character, and the 9th Council was with a fundamentalist character, it is likely that the 10th Council will carry a moderate-conservative character, especially after the elimination of all hardliners in the fundamentalist and reformist movements.
- The real competition in the Feb. 26, 2016 election was between the supporters of the nuclear deal and rapprochement with the West, on one side, and opponents of the deal, who advocate preservation of the revolution and control over this rapprochement, on the other. This competition was evident in Tehran, which was decided in the first round in favor of the moderate “List of Hope” led by Mohammad Reza Aref and won all 30 seats of the capital.
- Iranian voters gave unusual importance to the election of the Assembly of Experts this time compared with four previous elections because this council might decide the issue of Khamenei’s succession. Taking into account that figures of the hardline movement have failed to win a seat in the Council, this means that the majority of Iranian voters want a successor for Khamenei from outside the hardline movement.
- Iran’s foreign policy has no role in elections and is not designed by the elected councils, rather, by the Supreme Leader, the Supreme National Security Council and IRGC. Still, the elections are an important indicator to monitor shifts in Iranian society. Gulf and Arab countries cannot ignore the domestic political landscape in Iran, especially if they want to confront Tehran’s regional project.
- In the wake of the nuclear deal, Iran presented itself to the West as a key actor in shaping regional arrangements. Tehran’s offer did not meet any opposition from Washington, which has started to see Iran as a regional power that should be involved in such arrangements. The US withdrawal from the Middle East has contributed in making regional shifts because Washington used to draw the lines of struggle between Arab Gulf States and Iran. The impact of this role, however, has declined lately, which has facilitated Iran’s expansion in the region.
- Iran is set to benefit from rapprochement with the West after implementing the nuclear deal. The track of this rapprochement, however, will not last long because Tehran will take the debate with the West over the nuclear issue back to square one. The deal did not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and all what President Obama has done was buying some time by delaying Tehran’s acquiring nuclear capabilities required to make the bomb.
- Many observers do not expect the nuclear deal and recent elections to produce strategic change in Iran’s interventionist and expansionist policies. They think that the ebb and flow of confrontation with Iran will depend on the result of the struggles in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, as well as, trends of oil prices, which affect the economic situation in Iran.
- The US Administration suggests that rapprochement with Iran and its integration in international economic and political systems will push Tehran towards moderation. Others, however, do not agree with this approach and believe that even if this prediction proves to be correct, it will take a long time because the regime in Tehran is based on linking religion with politics. In addition, the success of this approach depends on the ability of Gulf and Arab countries to impose political pressure on the Iranian regime to force it to change its attitude.
Expectations and Future Scenarios for Iran’s Political Landscape
- In the short term
- The reformist movement in Iran has to choose one of two options: either to relinquish most of its ideas and join Rafsanjani-Rouhani coalition of moderation-reform, or be subject to more exclusion and disintegration.
- The Iranian regime’s ability to provide alternatives is likely to decline in the next four years because of the political deadlock, and weak competitiveness and performance of political elites in the country. That was clearly reflected by the profile of the candidates who have recently run for the Consultative Assembly elections as most of them were not well-known national figures, nor had long political experience.
- The reformist movement and President Rouhani may get more freedom to deal with certain issues that are traditionally managed by the ruling coalition. The successful experience of Salehi-Zarif model to end Iran’s controversial nuclear issue may be repeated by a Shamkhani- Zarif model to negotiate Iran’s future regional roles with Western powers.
- It is likely that the gap between the ruling coalition and the overwhelming majority inhabitants of Tehran will remain wide. This would prompt the regime to support the emergence of a new middle class and enhance its alliances with the inhabitants of provinces outside the capital.
- The ruling coalition may succeed in reducing the impact of the pressing economic crisis on the country in the next four years. However, in light of the current situation, the regime is unlikely to build an attractive economic model in the country. Moreover, it seems improbable for Tehran to achieve its targeted economic growth rate of 8%, as suggested by Rouhani, due to the current modest rates of economic growth, structural economic problems, declining oil prices and rising costs of Iran’s military interventions abroad. On the other hand, Iran’s ruling coalition may seek to promote its strategic alliance with the East (Russia and China) at the expense of its presumed partnership with the West.
- In the medium term
- The Iranian regime may choose to adopt the Chinese model with a continuation of the House of the Leader/IRGC monopoly of power in the country and a gradual economic openness towards the world when the international sanctions are completely lifted. One of the elements that support the likelihood of this scenario is the fact that all Iran’s revolutionary institutions have achieved their goals in the nuclear issue. However, this scenario would fail if the regime wished to clandestinely revive its military ambitions of the nuclear program. Once Iran’s plans are exposed, this would necessarily lead to a high tension in relations between Tehran and the international community, and foreign corporations withdrawing their investments from the country.
- The regime may also adopt the North Korean model. This scenario suggests that Iran secretly resumes its military nuclear program, and if Iran’s plans are exposed, the country will be subject to international sanctions and an embargo similar to the one imposed on North Korea. That imagined sequence of developments or even the eruption of social or ethnic unrest in the country might threaten the survival of the regime, even though this scenario seems less likely in the medium term.
- The third scenario suggests that the ruling coalition will remain unable to determine its strategic options. In other words, it will keep adopting fluid strategic options and is not likely to decide on a model to follow in governance, economy and foreign policy. Among the indicators that supports this scenario is the fact that Iran’s internal political landscape has not witnessed any strategic dialogue on national options. On the contrary, many key political movements were excluded from the national decision-making process even when the country was about to take a decision regarding extremely sensitive and national issues like the nuclear deal, which was based on a strategic assessment made by the ruling coalition institutions. Other indicators supporting this scenario would include the continued crisis of governance and national identity in Iran, and the regime’s failure to come out of the predicament of enmity towards the United States.