Iran's June elections: a decisive moment for the mullahs

Not only Israel and the PA have elections soon, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has 6 months left in office and can't run again.Op-ed.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi  ,

Putin and Rouhani
Putin and Rouhani

The future of the Iranian nuclear agreement could be shaped by the presidential election in Iran on June 18, 2021. This does not necessarily mean that we have to wait for it to find out what will happen to the current agreement. On the contrary, speeding up the resolution could be a scenario that would allow the new US administration to avoid what might come out of these elections, a decisive moment for the mullahs’ regime.

Realistically, the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has only six months left in office. He is not eligible for a new term. Iran is therefore expecting a new president in June. This is a date to remember for many reasons.

The first is the extremely difficult situation of the mullahs’ regime.

At once, the maximum pressure exerted by the US since Donald Trump’s presidency. Increasing possibility of a sudden military strike due to the growing threats to regional security posed by Iran’s expansionist policies. Trouble in which the regime put itself by interfering in several Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Extremely tense relations with neighboring countries in the Gulf. Of course, the decline in the regime’s popularity.

The last point was reflected in the February parliamentary elections. At about 42 percent, the engagement rate is the lowest since Khomeini’s 1979 revolution due to unrest, economic hardship, the collapse of the local currency, and an all-time high inflation. Analysts say the Biden administration will closely watch Iran’s election as one of the factors influencing its position on the nuclear deal.

In such case, it should make a careful assessment of its position. It is either to encourage President Rouhani’s line by accelerating the return to the agreement and giving a new perspective to those who follow this direction, maintain maximum pressure while waiting for the next Iranian president, or send out some signs of resolution while continuing to exert pressure without a clearly defined position.

In this context, we must bear in mind that Iranian foreign policy is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not the President. The Supreme Leader often leans in favor of the candidate he thinks is the man of the hour. It does not matter whether he is an hardline conservative or a flexible negotiator with those Tehran considers enemies.

It does not matter, then, which candidate is in the best position to win. What is more interesting is to gauge the Supreme Leader’s intention toward the new US administration’s desire to expand the existing nuclear accord to include Iran’s missile program and regional role.

As for potential candidates in the upcoming Iranian presidential election, a survey conducted by Stasis Consulting for IranWire last October showed that 37% of Iranian voters would vote for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, it is difficult to rely on such numbers.

Procedures for candidacy and permission to run for election remain very much in the hands of the Guardian Council, which means the Supreme Leader.

It is conceivable that Ahmadinejad, for example, may not be allowed to stand as a candidate. The poll failed to include IRGC leaders close to the Supreme Leader, including Hossein Dehghan, former defense minister in the first Rouhani government and current military adviser to the Iranian leader.

The poll only looked at well-known figures such as Speaker of the Iranian Assembly Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, Saeed Jalili, former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and former Speaker of the Assembly Ali Larijani. All received no more than 10 per cent of the respondents’ endorsements.

Even more revealing, the survey suggests that only 44 per cent of those polled expressed their intention to vote in the next presidential election in June. The plunge in voter turnout is the worst omen threatening the regime.

The regime relies heavily on high voter turnout as a message that reinforces its external position as a system that is accepted by the people, if viewed in isolation from the serious flaws in the electoral mechanisms in terms of screening candidates to strengthen control and only allowing those who get the Supreme leader’s green light to run.

President Biden’s administration has so far failed to signal that its position on the agreement depends on any internal Iranian variable, such as presidential elections. Perhaps it knows for sure that everything is in the ayatollah’s hands.
The leader wants a “young and revolutionary” government to lead the country next June. These qualifications apply only to Dehghan, who has already declared himself ready to run in the next elections, describing himself as a national and revolutionary element with all the intellectual and operational potential to serve the objectives and interests of the regime and the revolution.

However, President Biden’s administration has so far failed to signal that its position on the agreement depends on any internal Iranian variable, such as presidential elections. Perhaps it knows for sure that everything is in the ayatollah’s hands.

But signs could emerge in March or April when the identity of potential candidates for the Iranian presidency will certainly be revealed. The administration will then decide where it stands in the short time remaining for President Rouhani.

Perhaps wait until the end of the term, as Rouhani himself did during President Trump’s last term while waiting for the next US president. Or maybe rush to ink the deal with Rouhani to avoid a new president and try to influence the outcome of this election and give the more flexible candidate for the US a voting advantage that prevents a IRG candidate or a hardliner current inside Iran from winning the presidency.

A low level of engagement increases the chances of victory for any IRGC candidate. Conversely, deteriorating living conditions may prevent the leader and his cohorts from tightening their grip on the electoral process. This may even mean letting the victory go to a candidate more acceptable to voters in order to brighten the face of the regime and seek to bridge the widening gap between it and the Iranian people.

The bottom line is that, despite the circumstances and the complexity of the political situation tied to the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, the upcoming presidential elections could influence how things progress. The victory of a hardline candidate will complicate the process of saving the nuclear deal.

Given that President Rouhani will not be willing to make negotiated concessions for the rest of his presidency, the expected evolution of the Iranian nuclear deal may not be completely clear before June’s elections.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.