What to expect from Iran after the presidential elections

No matter how events unfold in the Middle East, one thing is certain: Iran will remain at their centre. Source: AP

No matter how events unfold in the Middle East, one thing is certain: Iran will remain at their centre. Source: AP

The presidential campaign in Iran gets underway on April 21. No matter how events unfold in the Middle East, one thing is certain: Iran will remain at their centre.

In two months, Iran will go to the polls to elect a new president and the world will view the result with hope no matter who emerges triumphant. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, renowned for his harsh anti-Israel and anti-US sentiment, is leaving office, having served his maximum two terms.

However, all commentators recognise that it would be folly for the world community to expect any sudden changes in Tehran, including in respect of its nuclear programme and relationship with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, even if a more moderate candidate prevails.

This means that the “Iranian issue” will still lie edgewise, including a final decision on whether Israel, the US, and the Gulf monarchies should accept the de facto nuclear status of Iran or prevent such a scenario at all costs.

A beacon of Islamic democracy

Ironically, prior to the Arab Spring, Iran was probably the most advanced democratic state in the Middle East (excluding Turkey, Israel, and occupied Iraq).

Compared with the Arab states, Iran stood out for the lively pluralist nature of its politics. Elections were competitive, reasonably free, and not a foregone conclusion. Iran is in many ways a pioneer of the changes that have been sweeping the region since the early 2010s. Not for nothing did Tehran welcome the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, since all the dictatorial regimes were, if not overtly pro-Western, then clearly anti-Islamic.

But Iran's enthusiasm dried up in Syria. Although the spirit of the secular and once pro-Soviet Syrian regime was far removed from the ideas of the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of political structure, their joint rejection of Sunni dominance bound them closer than their ideological differences pulled them apart.

On the side of history

Although the historical framework is different, Iran 35 years ago and today's Arab Spring are linked by a single process: the awakening of the peoples of the Islamic East is leading to a fundamental geopolitical shift for which the major powers seem unprepared.

In the late 1970s, the tension inside Iran began to grow. For then-US President Jimmy Carter, human rights were high on the agenda. Under his influence, the Shah of Iran relaxed the country's internal restrictions, which only stirred up the protesters.

Carter ended up not only having to provide sanctuary for the monarch, but pay a huge political price himself. The seizure of the US Embassy with a request to hand over the Shah, the scandal surrounding the publication of diplomatic correspondence, the catastrophic failure of the attempted operation to liberate the hostages, and the humiliating bargaining with Tehran all cost Carter a second term. 

In 2011, Barack Obama, another Democratic president, found himself in a similar situation: loyal US ally Hosni Mubarak was faced with mass protests. This time, Washington refused to support its long-standing partner, siding instead with the people.

The lessons drawn from the Iranian revolution mean that the US is now fearful of being on the “wrong side of history.”

The burden of the past

The impasse in respect of Iran and the inability to find common ground are in many ways connected with the events of 1979-1980. America is secretly resentful that the insult has gone unavenged, so hardlining is considered the only possible approach.

Some believe that a chance to turn the ship around was allowed to slip in the late 1990s - early 2000s, when the relatively liberal President Khatami was in office.

On the eve of the new poll, no one is under any illusions: whoever the president, Iran will reject external pressure. The only hope fed by Ahmadinejad's departure is that the openly provocative and politically incorrect statements will become fewer.

Of course, Iran's peculiar democracy could well produce an equally colourful character — all the more so given the people's growing dissatisfaction with the state of the economy as a result of biting Western sanctions. 

The eye of the storm

No matter how events unfold in the Middle East, one thing is certain: Iran will remain at their centre.

As a pole of attraction for religious Shiites across the region dissatisfied with their lives. As a major power with regional (at the very least) ambitions. As a certain kind of political model. And, in the event of acquiring nuclear status, as a state capable not only of changing the balance of power, but of effectively erasing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which is teetering on the brink of survival.

The next president of Iran is already guaranteed a place in history: either he himself does something momentous, or, more likely, it happens against his will.

Fyodor Lukyanov is Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy.

First published in Russian in Ogonyok magazine.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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