Reza Marashi joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and The National Interest, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets. Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi
As Iranians head to the polls to vote in their presidential elections on Friday, much attention has rightly focused on the choice they will make. The incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and his hefty coalition of reformists and pragmatists, are trying to fend off a hardline conservative ticket headed by judiciary stalwart Ebrahim Raisi. Iranian elections matter: After all, the differences between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani’s presidencies clearly demonstrate the consequences for tens of millions of Iranians who have long sought the fulfillment of their political, economic, and social aspirations. Also important, however, is choice that Iran’s political establishment must make on Election Day.
From Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down to local officials in the provinces, Iranian officials across the board stress the importance of high voter turnout. The impetus is straightforward: political elites seek to utilize elections as a means of re-socializing society into the Islamic Republic every few years, with campaigns and debates providing a unique airing of grievances that paradoxically helps breathe new life into the system – so long as they stop short of protests à la 2009. On the other hand, an equally diverse electorate – with different political, economic, social, and cultural backgrounds – demands that their interests be addressed in return for electoral participation that legitimizes the system.
And therein lies the rub. It has long been clear what most Iranian voters want. The electoral results speak for themselves. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 with 79.9% and 66.8% voter turnout, respectively. Rouhani won four years ago with 72.9% turnout and 18.6 million votes. In contrast, no hardline presidential candidate has ever exceeded Ahmadinejad’s 17.2 million votes in 2005 – and his numbers were boosted by the lowest voter turnout percentage since 1993, and droves of disenchanted reform-minded voters staying home on Election Day. Thus, if voter turnout is anywhere near 2013 levels, a Raisi victory would require an electoral feat that hardliners have never before accomplished.
This is the political establishment’s dilemma: precisely because it seeks to cement the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through voter turnout, its top priority above all else is high turnout. A close second, however: ensuring that after it secures high turnout, voters perceive the electoral process as legitimate, thereby facilitating a peaceful post-election atmosphere within (and between) state and society. Rouhani knows this, and he has utilized it on the campaign trail to make arguably the most forward-leaning remarks of any Iranian president in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic.
While it’s true that election season in Iran traditionally allows for an expansion of otherwise taboo political discourse, Rouhani taken it to uncharted waters. First, he publicly committed to engaging in the process of lifting all non-nuclear sanctions if he wins a second term. Then he told a rally that he had not forgotten his 2013 campaign promises, openly stating: “Either they have been achieved, or I have been prevented from keeping them.” And remarkably, he directly told voters: “I’ll need votes higher than 51% in order to do certain things.”
These comments might seem innocuous because they are obviously true, but they openly challenge Iran’s long-standing political orthodoxy in ways that former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami – as well as Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – never dared to do. Rouhani is clearly emboldened: partly due to his candid personality, and partly due to the fact that significant electoral malfeasance remains extremely costly – but not impossible – for the entire system, as evidenced by chants for Mousavi and Karroubi at Rouhani’s campaign rallies across the country.
Nevertheless, the pushback against Rouhani’s recent remarks has been swift and equally direct: His campaign headquarters in Tehran have reportedly been hacked and physically attacked. The basij and its associated networks have been mobilized across the country – and at times, bused in from different cities – to attend Raisi’s campaign events. Top judiciary and IRGC officials have openly called for voters to choose Raisi. And perhaps most notably, Iran’s interior minister announced that election results might not be announced as they come in per traditional practice, but instead as a final result after the first round is complete. This latter point is noteworthy because while Iran’s Guardian Council technically certifies election results, it only does so after receiving Khamenei’s blessing.
All of this must be taken into account with one additional factor at play: The Islamic Republic after Khamenei. The framing of Iran’s election is Rouhani vs. Raisi. And indeed, both men want the same job – but it’s not the presidency. This election is important for the internal political balance of power leading up to the inevitable day when Iran must choose its next Supreme Leader. There is no way for anyone – inside Iran, or outside Iran – to predict how this process will play out. Instead, various Iranian stakeholders are trying to build as much leverage as possible for when the time comes. Controlling the presidency, various ministries, and budget planning is one of many ways to maximize such leverage.
Thus, the political establishment is now faced with a choice come Election Day: bend to the will of the people and maintain stability, or don’t – and risk the consequences. Increasingly, Iranian stakeholders go all out during presidential elections less because they can shape society, and more because society requires it of them. With that in mind, we already know what kind of future the majority of Iranians want. Friday’s election results will go a long way toward telling the world whether Iran’s political establishment shares and supports those aspirations.
As Iran’s presidential campaign heads into the homestretch before Election Day on May 19, most attention is focused on the candidates. Will the incumbent Hassan Rouhani win a second term? Or will his conservative challenger – Ebrahim Raisi – make him the Islamic Republic’s first one-term president? However, trying to predict Iranian politics can be a humbling experience. Many presidential elections in the past produced surprises and upsets: 1997 (Mohammad Khatami), 2005 (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), 2009 (pandemonium) and 2013 (Rouhani). Precisely because anything can happen, it’s more effective to focus on trends rather than candidates. Many factors influence voter behavior. Five will likely go a long way toward determining the outcome of this election.
1) Elections Can Impact Policy
While it’s no secret that candidate disqualifications deeply narrow the field of permitted presidential contenders and reduces reformist influence, the election results are far from a given. Competition amongst political elites – albeit within a more limited ideological range – continues to intensify, and this election is serving as a catalyst for evolving relations between key stakeholders and factions. Many Iranian officials and voters agree: Preventing a repeat of the colossal damage caused by Ahmadinejad’s presidency requires new ways of sharing political and economic power, as well as recalibrating the balance of power within the establishment.
To that end, voter intrigue in 2017 seems within the range of Iran’s 2009 and 2013 elections. This demonstrates a sophisticated self-awareness among Iranian voters – an attribute not often appreciated in Washington – of the obstacles and opportunities they face. I was in Iran during its 2005 election, and when I asked friends and family whom they planned on voting for, most responses were automatic: “Nobody” or “It doesn’t make any difference.” After Ahmadinejad quickly slashed many political, economic and social freedoms, it didn’t take long for them to admit that the elections do impact policies directly affecting their wellbeing.
The president is one of the most powerful men in Iran for a variety of important reasons, including but not limited to: his ability to make personnel changes in the cabinet as well as
leadership positions inside government ministries, which in turn helps facilitate his role as a catalyst for many of Iran’s economic and foreign policies. And precisely because these key policy decisions are made by consensus rather than decree, the election of a new president changes the range of views sitting at the decision-making table. When the presidencies of Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani are compared in this regard, it’s clear to see why Iranian presidential elections matter: not because they change the political system, but rather because they facilitate important changes in political coalitions and animosities – and thus critical changes in personnel and policy direction. Elections therefore reaffirm Lesson 1 in Iranian politics: Iran has politics.
2) State and Society, Evolution vs. Revolution
The core slogans of Iran’s 1979 revolution were independence, freedom, and social justice. Historically, no administration has managed to successfully implement all three. Thus, many voters continue to push the Islamic Republic to live up to its own promises via changes that reflect a more pragmatic and democratic political process. To that end, this election cycle suggests a significant segment of society is trying to force changes to its relationship with Iran’s government. Whereas some Iranian officials disregard elections, the 2017 campaign shows that most take them very seriously. Knowing the importance of the presidency, stakeholders across the political spectrum have shaped aspects of their campaign strategies around society’s core aspirations. Deliverance, of course, is another matter.
Neither the Iranian electorate nor the Iranian government is monolithic, and for that reason, there is a give-and-take – or perhaps more accurately, a push-and-pull – dynamic between the two. On the one hand, a diverse set of political elites seek to utilize elections as a means of re-socializing society into the Islamic Republic every few years, with campaigns and debates providing a unique airing of grievances that paradoxically helps breathe new life into the system – so long as they stop short of protests à la 2009. On the other hand, an equally diverse electorate – with different political, economic, social, and cultural backgrounds – demands that their interests be addressed in return for electoral participation that legitimizes the system.
Increasingly, the establishment goes all out during presidential elections less because they can shape society, and more because society requires it of them. With voter turnout above 60% in each Iranian presidential election since 1997 – a higher percentage than each of the past 13 U.S. presidential elections – this begs the question: why do Iranians continue to participate in elections that they know are imperfect? Perhaps the biggest reason is a deep-seated aversion to unrest. A diverse socioeconomic swath of Iranian society wants reform, but they equally want to avoid the instability and insecurity that they’ve experienced through revolution, its aftermath, an eight-year war with Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and the most draconian sanctions regime in the history of the world.
One preference should now be clear for all to see: Iranians do not consider U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to be attractive models for change. Instead, their common denominator when seeking change is doing so indigenously – without bloodshed. For that reason, the crisis resulting from Iran’s 2009 presidential election still festers, as evidenced by chants for former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi at Rouhani’s campaign rallies in 2013 and 2017. A growing number of voters and political elites continue pushing for reforms through gradual evolution within the existing system, while a powerful hardline minority condemns such changes – sometimes violently. No one, however, is calling for regime change or revolution. Iranians know they deserve better, but understandably fear the evident consequences of instability surrounding them across the Middle East.
3) Voter Turnout
The commonly understood trend in Iranian presidential elections is that higher voter turnout increases the most reform-minded candidate’s chances of winning. The numbers speak for themselves: Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 with 79.9% and 66.8% voter turnout, respectively. Rouhani won four years ago with 72.9% turnout. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, won in 2005 with 62.8% turnout – the lowest percentage since Hashemi Rafsanjani’s re-election in 1993. Low turnout seemingly benefits hardliners, who have a reliable base of “true believer” voters – often believed to be approximately 20% of the electorate. This is particularly true with no apparent divisions amongst reformists and pragmatists to capitalize on, and stealing the election outright remaining extremely costly (but not impossible).
This election cycle, both sides appear concerned by the prospect of voter apathy: Rouhani’s campaign because it knows high turnout is the best defense against electoral malfeasance, and Raisi’s campaign as evidenced by his use of populist rhetoric and policy proposals. With three presidential debates in the books and campaign rallies wrapping up, attention now turns to the unpredictable: How voters will respond on Election Day. If past is prologue, there are key trends worth noting. For starters, Raisi has taken a page from Ahmadinejad’s 2005 playbook, promising to increase cash handouts in an effort to attract voters to the polls. Several voters may simultaneously perceive a lie and an opportunity – maybe it won’t happen, but maybe it will, and given the poor economic conditions some face, they could see little to lose by voting accordingly.
Presidential candidates are not the only ones pushing for high turnout. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also repeatedly pleaded with the public to vote in large numbers. The calculus is straightforward. His top priority is to cement the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through voter turnout. Thus, the systemic priority above all else is high turnout. A close second: ensuring that after high turnout, voters perceive the electoral process as legitimate, thereby facilitating a peaceful post-election atmosphere within (and between) state and society.
Demographic factors also traditionally play a role in voter turnout. Iran has a fairly large youth population – 29% of the electorate is between the age of 18 and 29 – that tends to be more enthusiastic about voting. Combined with 1.35 million new voters during this election cycle, mobilized young Iranians could help tip the scales on Election Day. To that end, some young Iranians (as well as older demographics) are compelled to vote due to concerns that not having their ID papers stamped showing participation in national elections could adversely affect their ability to secure jobs, loans, and other significant services controlled by the state.
With over 56 million Iranians eligible to vote on May 19, a quick bit of math shows the importance of voter turnout. While it’s impossible to predict the level of mobilization on Election Day, it’s reasonable to assume that turnout will reach 65-75% – beating the 62.8% in 2005, and remaining under the 79.9% in 1997. Rouhani’s 18.6 million votes in 2013 came with 76.2% voter turnout, likely requiring this year’s winner at the polls to garner 17-19 million votes for a first round victory. To put these numbers in perspective, Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election with 5.6 million votes in the first round, 17.2 million votes in the second round run-off, a divided reformist faction, and low voter turnout. With that in mind, unless the “true believers” come out in droves for Raisi and other voters stay home, it remains to be seen if hardliners can surpass 18.6 million votes – an electoral feat they’ve yet to accomplish.
4) The Economy
Perhaps the number one issue for voters of all ages is economic dignity. Iranian society is not happy with the state of the economy – but there are differences of opinion regarding where to place the blame. To hear hardliners tell it, Rouhani has failed to deliver on his economic promises, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll do so in a second term. Conversely, Rouhani and his supporters argue that some promises have been achieved, he’s been prevented from achieving others, and he’s still working to dig Iran out of the hole created by Ahmadinejad.
To that end, there’s a clear division in discourse. Rouhani’s team wants investment, job creation, and managerial development to boost the middle class and promote equality – all of which requires improved foreign relations. This was a popular economic platform in 2013, and it remains so today. It’s therefore not surprising that Rouhani said he’d work to lift all non-nuclear sanctions in a second term. Raisi, on the other hand, is offering wealth transfers via increased monthly cash handouts, and a heavy dose of populist rhetoric. Raisi has promised to triple the payments if elected.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is unabashed Ahmadinejad rehash. Thus, a make-or-break question is: Will voters double down on Rouhani’s four-year economic track record, or will Ahmadinejad’s 2005 campaign strategy succeed in 2017? A variety of outcomes are possible – enlarging the Raisi voting bloc; destroying his support among “true believer” voters; mobilizing voters to cast anti-Raisi ballots for Rouhani; or a combination of the latter two scenarios. Notably, prominent political elites have spoken out against the proposed cash handouts, saying it’s not possible because the government can’t afford it.
However, downplaying the appeal of Ahmadinejad’s populist platform would be a mistake: It worked once before, and parts of it retain allure during tough economic times. Like Raisi today, Ahmadinejad’s 2005 campaign criticized political elites for corruption that monopolized wealth and power; emphasized his modest background; promised greater economic opportunities for the average Iranian; and focused on economic justice to alleviate poverty. His message resonated with many who have long grappled with financial struggles – and hardliners are banking on a similar phenomenon when voters go the polls this year.
Given Iran’s long-standing economic underperformance, it’s not unreasonable that a growing number of voters might prioritize subsidies, jobs, affordable housing, and financial stability over other policy issues, both foreign and domestic. As renowned economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani notes: “Voters are maturing and are likely to pay more attention to economic programs of the presidential candidates than how they would deal with social freedoms.” Rouhani knows this, and that’s why he has pushed back against Raisi’s populist onslaught by being direct about his own economic achievements – as well as the scope and source of remaining challenges.
Looking ahead, fleshing out Raisi’s use of Ahmadinejad’s economic playbook requires noting two distinct differences between 12 years ago and today. First, in addition to hardline and economically disillusioned voters, Ahmadinejad also benefited from anti-Rafsanjani votes. Before his spirited defense of Green Movement protesters in 2009, reformists spent years attacking Rafsanjani as the source of their ills – and thus could not justify in a single week between rounds one and two of the 2005 election why their supporters should suddenly support him. This time around, there’s no Rafsanjani scapegoat (or division among reformists and pragmatists) for hardliners to capitalize on.
No less important is the fact that Raisi is running the same Ahmadinejad-style anti-corruption, anti-establishment campaign that rails against the political elite – despite being widely known as a bonded practitioner of the corrupt establishment. Ahmadinejad’s only prominent government post before the presidency was a two-year stint as mayor of Tehran. By contrast, Raisi is the chairman of Astan Qods Razavi and an Assembly of Experts member. He was also Attorney General of Iran, Deputy Chief Justice, and Tehran prosecutor. Raisi may sound like a populist, but it’s not clear if he can overcome this basic contradiction in the eyes of most voters.
5) Is the Alternative to Rouhani Viable?
As Raisi tries to unseat Rouhani, there is a potential downside to plagiarizing Ahmadinejad: being seen as too closely associated with him. The former president and his cohort – some of whom are now advising Raisi’s campaigns – have made a lot of enemies inside and outside government. A sizable portion of state and society share Rouhani’s view that it was impossible to fix in four years the economic and foreign policy damage caused by Ahmadinejad – and a relapse could dig the hole deeper. While the erstwhile president still has supporters among lower income voters for all the aforementioned reasons, most middle and upper class voters abhor his extremist political, economic, and social policies.
With that in mind, Rouhani has repeatedly reminded Iranians of how bad things got during the Ahmadinejad years, and it has turned into one of his most cogent campaign tactics. To that end, he rarely misses an opportunity to send a clear message to voters: If you don’t like me, go vote for the other guys. We’ve seen how far that gets you. It’s a compelling message, and it highlights the hardliners unsophisticated formula: 1) Blunder into quagmires; 2) Lose the presidency; 3) Blame quagmires on your successor; 4) Try to regain presidency; 5) Repeat.
If I can spot out this formula from Washington DC, it’s safe to say tens of millions of Iranian voters inside Iran have also caught on since they live through it. Hardliners had four years to develop a strategy for taking the presidency from Rouhani’s coalition, and what they’ve come up with is more of the same: Cash handouts and “Death to America.” Time will tell if the former is enough to make voters ignore the well-known foreign (and domestic) policy consequences of the latter.
The resiliency and dignity of Iranian society cannot be denied. Voters have been under tough conditions for so long that they’ve learned to improvise, adapt, and move forward as best they can. Past elections have proven that anything can happen when ballots are casted, which makes focusing on trends that affect voter behavior – such as how elections impact policy; the relationship between state, society, evolution and revolution; voter turnout; the economy; and whether there’s a viable alternative to Rouhani – more effective than predicting winners. One thing is certain: Iranian elections absolutely matter. At this point, even Iran’s hardliners admit that reformists and pragmatists influence policy – thereby demonstrating the importance of elections.
Former government officials don’t often produce reports that call for revolutionizing failed foreign policies. But that’s exactly what’s happened in Britain. The Lords International Relations Select Committee – consisting of former cabinet ministers, senior foreign policy advisers, and diplomats – concluded that the UK government should not rely too heavily on the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump administration, and should completely redraw its approach to the Middle East. They were most explicit on Iran: “It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran, and we recommend that this should be a key priority.” This is striking for three reasons.
First, the report hints at a disconnect between rhetoric and reality regarding Britain’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal. It states in no uncertain terms: “The interests of the UK Government are clear. The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the U.S. It will have to work closely with its European partners, and Russia and China, to ensure the sustainability of the deal. The UK must also be more transparent and vocal in its support, especially within the UNSC.”
While Theresa May has paid lip service to preserving the JCPOA, her government’s actions are chipping away at the durability of the deal. For example, Iran utilized mechanisms in the JCPOA to request approval for purchasing 950 tonnes of uranium ore. All parties to the nuclear deal approved the request – except Britain. According to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization: “Five of the members of the committee overseeing the (nuclear deal) have given their written approval, but Britain changed its mind at the last moment,” likely to curry favor with the Trump administration and Persian Gulf nations.
The Lords committee report says America under Trump “has taken positions [on Iran] that are unconstructive and could even escalate the conflict,” and “there is a dangerous escalatory logic to the U.S. approach.” As it stands, the same can be said about tangible actions being taken by the British government. To that end, there are other aspects of UK government policy that put the durability of the nuclear deal in danger. On the issue of banking sanctions, this is clear cut.
The committee suggests that Britain and Europe ease banking regulations to open up new sources of finance for Iran, even if America will not follow suit. The report notes this “would make it more attractive for Iran to persevere with the JCPOA, however unhelpful U.S. actions may be,” and highlights why such measures are critical: “[The U.S.] is also unlikely to take any steps to facilitate more effective sanctions relief to Iran. This will be a grave impediment to the sustainability of the [JCPOA] and it will mean that Iran’s ongoing frustration with opening Western markets will continue.”
To hear senior Iranian officials tell it, Britain is doing the opposite, refusing to process Iran-related payments through its central bank – despite Germany already setting a precedent for doing so. It’s no secret why big banks continue to refuse processing of Iran-related transactions: The ban on dollar U-turn transactions; Relations with American banks having a chilling effect on the willingness of British banks to handle Iranian payments; and the prospect of new sanctions legislation from Congress. Thus, verbal support for trade with Iran is not matched by firm action and solid policy that is pushed through by the UK government.
Precisely because Trump is “mercurial and unpredictable,” the committee is not unreasonable to note that he has the potential to further destabilize the Middle East. For that reason, its report calls for “a new mindset in policy circles” that questions long-standing UK policy of external, rather than internal, actors dominating the region. To that end, it asserts that while addressing policy differences between London and Tehran, Britain “will also have to recognize that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognized as having a role as a regional power.”
In practice, however, British policy in the region has largely strayed in the opposite direction. In an effort to beef up its “security reassurances” to Persian Gulf countries, there has been no discernible push by the UK government for Saudi-Iran dialogue to reduce regional tensions, never mind incorporate Iran into the region’s security framework. Instead, Britain is mostly silent – except for Yemen, where it unequivocally backs an indiscriminate Saudi bombardment of Yemen that has produced famine and strengthened Al-Qaeda, while highlighting Iran’s support for the Houthis that is neither at the same level nor game-changing in nature.
Since the JCPOA’s inception, Congress has repeatedly tried to kill it through a series of provocations with Iran. Today, there does not appear to be a President in the White House willing to exert the political will and capital necessary to protect it. Thus far, the Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to abandon it. Britain must make it clear to America that it cannot get away with abandoning the JCPOA and blaming Iran for its collapse. To that end, a group of respected British voices have charted a sound path forward. Her Majesty’s Government would be wise to take heed.
As Iran’s presidential campaigns kick off, some headlines in Tehran and abroad have increasingly zeroed in on a recurring theme: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has a preferred candidate. However, while Khamenei’s conservative political proclivities are well-known, they do not always mean him tipping the electoral scales in favor of hard-line contenders. In fact, a different trend is emerging during this election cycle, much like it did in 2013: Underdogs trying to use the idea of being Khamenei’s preferred candidate to their benefit while vying for victory at the ballot box.
In the run-up to Iran’s 2013 election, there was much talk in Western media regarding the supreme leader’s supposed preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili. Some pundits called him “the anointed one.” Numerous US government officials asked me about Jalili’s “frontrunner status” as a result of “Khamenei’s support.” This year, a similar dynamic is emerging around the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi. This begs the question: How do relatively unknown bureaucrats with no national profile and no executive experience inside Iran manage to cultivate this reputation outside the country during the short campaign season?
Rather than Khamenei or the political establishment selecting a favorite among the 2013 contenders, it was Jalili who used Western media to portray himself as the supreme leader’s preferred candidate. Indeed, Jalili announced his candidacy during a CNN interview in Istanbul. Moreover, on the same day that he was approved to run, Jalili gave an interview to the Christian Science Monitor in which he was declared the frontrunner. Western media and pundits ran with Jalili’s self-serving depiction as Khamenei’s man, which was reported back into Iran via hard-line media as fact — citing Western news coverage as evidence.
But seeking to avoid a repeat of Iran’s 2009 presidential election and the ensuing instability, Khamenei seemingly stayed above the fray in 2013. Perhaps pushing back against Jalili’s efforts to appropriate his image and sell it to voters, Khamenei bluntly stated in a speech, “I do not favor anybody. From this moment onward, foreign media will say with ulterior motives that I favor a particular candidate. This is a lie. I do not favor anybody.”
Contrary to Jalili’s depiction, Khamenei emphasized the correlation between voter turnout and legitimacy of the political establishment by saying, “My first and foremost recommendation is participation through the ballot box. This is more important than everything else. It is possible that some people do not want to support the Islamic Republic for any reason, but in any way they would like to support their country. Therefore, these people should go to ballot boxes as well.” In the end, Jalili lost — receiving only 11.8% of the vote.
Fast-forward one week into the 2017 campaign, and Raisi is in the initial stages of utilizing Jalili’s 2013 playbook. The primary drivers of his campaign thus far are Western and hard-line media outlets, as well as Western pundits who call him “Khamenei’s pick to safeguard the Republic of Virtue.” All of this begs a second question: Why is Raisi following the same failed strategy that Jalili pursued four years ago?
Like Jalili before him, Raisi does not have an independent base of support. With Khamenei once again pushing for high turnout and claiming he doesn’t favor any candidate, this makes it even more challenging for Raisi to cobble together enough votes to win. Thus, portraying himself as Khamenei’s preferred candidate is his most probable path toward securing a viable support base from which to grow his candidacy. But will that alone be enough to win? If past is prologue, the answer is likely no.
It’s nearly impossible to predict whether voters will mobilize on election day, but it’s reasonable to assume that turnout will reach 65-75% — beating the 62.8% in 2005, and remaining under the 79.9% in 1997. Rouhani’s 18.6 million votes in 2013 came with a 76.2% voter turnout, likely requiring this year’s winner at the polls to garner 17-19 million votes for a first round victory.
It is an uphill climb for conservative presidential candidates when turnout approaches 70% — and according to a recent poll, approximately 45% of Iranians don’t know who Raisi is. He is almost certainly aware of all this, which may explain what appears to be the second part of his strategy.
Knowing that Khamenei-centric voters alone are unlikely to secure victory, Raisi has started to build off that group by also utilizing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s base: ultraconservative, economically disillusioned and anti-establishment voters. To that end, many similarities are emerging between Raisi’s campaign and Ahmadinejad’s presidency — from advisers and supporters, to populist policies and rhetoric.
It’s too early to know if this gamble will work, and it could produce a variety of outcomes — enlarge Raisi’s voting bloc, destroy his support among Khamenei-centric voters, mobilize voters to cast anti-Raisi ballots for Rouhani, or a combination of the latter two scenarios. If Raisi is the only hard-liner left in the race on election day, it is less likely that his association with Ahmadinejad’s cohort will damage his depiction as the supreme leader’s preferred candidate.
Between now and May 19, Raisi will likely bank on his self-serving portrayal as Khamenei’s man, receiving a boost from American “hard-liners” by virtue of their disposition: Only the supreme leader’s ballot counts, and the other 55 million eligible voters in Iran do not matter. That’s why Iranian hard-liners intentionally target their American counterparts — their only bet is to have the “true believers” come out in droves for “Khamenei’s preferred candidate” — and for others to stay home. Short of that, it will be difficult for hard-liners to produce a candidate who can surpass Rouhani’s 18.6 million votes in 2013.
Trying to predict Iranian politics can be a humbling experience. Many presidential elections in the past produced surprises and upsets: 1997 (Mohammad Khatami), 2005 (Ahmadinejad), 2009 (pandemonium) and 2013 (Rouhani). Anything can happen, and Khamenei may very well prefer Raisi to be president — even though there is no definitive evidence so far to prove that assertion. Unless that changes, it is more instructive to focus on how and why Raisi is posturing to fit that description.
After three months in office, Donald Trump’s Iran policy is slowly taking shape and no U.S. ally is paying more attention than Europe. Since Inauguration Day, I have spent a total of one month across the pond meeting with political and military officials, corporate executives, and civil society. Assessments of what Trump might do were wide-ranging, but it was also clear that the current trajectory does not bode well for congruence between Europe’s well-known position and America’s emerging policy. Three such takeaways stood out during my travels.
First, Europe and America do not appear aligned on key details of what constitutes an Iran policy. In each of my conversations with EU stakeholders, they emphasized their desire for increased trade and investment with Tehran; more diplomacy with Iran to peacefully resolve conflicts; and preserving the JCPOA in its current form.
While it is still too early to definitively state the Trump administration’s position on these issues, the early returns do not look promising. It has no discernable plans to pursue American trade and investment with Iran, or make it easier for other countries to do so. Rather than attempt to resolve conflicts with Iran, it has put it “on notice,” called it the “greatest long term threat to stability” in the Middle East, and ramped up military intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with the expressed purpose of countering Iran. The JCPOA remains “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and one of Trump’s top counter-proliferation aides said America will adhere to it “until otherwise decided.” Perhaps tellingly, there is no apparent desire on the part of the White House to utilize bilateral U.S.-Iran communication channels establish by their predecessors.
Second, while U.S. policy congeals, most European stakeholders remain in wait-and-see mode before making policy decisions – rather than taking steps to shape American policy. To be fair, Europe has not been completely idle over the past three months. After her first trip to Trump’s White House, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she secured verbal assurances that Washington will fully implement the JCPOA. Top European officials and embassies have also conducted sustained outreach to key offices on Capitol Hill outlining their views on what constitutes both adherence to the JCPOA, and an Iran policy that maximizes opportunities for peaceful solutions to conflict.
But as we learned during the George W. Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq, strongly worded statements and pleading for restraint behind closed doors is not enough. Washington must see the costs of its potential divergence up front. I saw no discernible evidence that Europe is taking steps to craft an independent Iran policy if Trump shuns diplomacy – despite requiring little political will or space to do so. For example, the EU could easily queue up a new formal process on its blocking regulations that pushed back against U.S. extraterritorial sanctions in the 1990s. Europe could also take the lead in assembling a coalition of likeminded nations both within its continent and abroad who have a strategic interest in maintaining the JCPOA and boosting legal trade with Iran – with or without Washington’s blessing.
All of this leads to the third and final takeaway: As U.S. policy seemingly diverges, EU leverage remains on the shelf. It was clear to me that Europe sincerely does want to save the JCPOA, increase trade and investment with Tehran, and advance diplomatic processes that include Iran. What remains unclear to me is whether the EU foreign policy apparatus is bold enough to pull this off while maximizing leverage with regard to its competing interests, including but not limited to: Relations with America, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Europe has thus far kept its cards close to its chest regarding relations with Iran in the Trump era.
However, this balancing act has seemingly paralyzed Europe for the time being, leaving other countries to fill the policy formulation vacuum. The status quo is not sustainable. Washington, Moscow, and Riyadh will try to force the EU to choose between them – as well as Iran – which in turn requires fleshing out and utilizing its relative leverage. Successful policy execution is predicated on walking and chewing gum at the same time, and Europe must be firm in communicating to all parties what specific actions are against its interests – and the leverage it is willing to use to protect them.
Europe should be applauded for its verbal support for peace, diplomacy, and trade with Iran. However, this has yet to be matched by tangible action and firm policy conducive to those ends. Looking ahead, we may rapidly approach a point in which the EU will need to serve as a bridge-builder that can help defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran in order to protect its own interests. It cannot do so while sitting on the sidelines or reflexively choosing sides. Europe is wise to work with America in an effort to prevent diverging policies. Given the current trajectory, it would be wiser to simultaneously chart a course that utilizes the full range of European power to minimize the possibility of Iran-related confrontation.
All this Republican party fighting over the Iran nuclear deal, it’s almost enough to forget that it’s America’s greatest foreign policy achievement in years. At least that’s what the Trump administration has seemingly acknowledged. In a statement released late Tuesday evening, they certified that Tehran continues to comply with its end of the bargain. The statement also says Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Iran deal that will evaluate whether America’s sanctions relief obligations outlined in the JCPOA are vital to U.S. national security interests. Now that Trump publicly acknowledges “the worst deal ever negotiated” is actually working, does he no longer want to “tear it up”? Looking ahead, we see three key takeaways.
First, it is ostensibly standard practice for new administrations to review existing policies during their first few months in office. The Obama administration conducted an Iran policy review in early 2009. The key difference here is that Trump’s specific review of the Iran deal makes zero sense from a practical policy and security perspective. The vast majority of American officials who negotiated and constructed the JCPOA are career government officials who transcend political parties, not Obama administration political appointees. Every aspect of the deal has repeatedly gone through a rigorous interagency review conducted by those same career government officials before, during, and after its approval.
The only difference today: A group of political appointees with long track records of opposing the JCPOA – and diplomacy with Iran, more generally – now sit in the White House surrounding the president. Thus, despite yesterday’s good news, the Trump administration still runs a severe risk of politicizing and damaging the most rigorous nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated without a viable Plan B.
Second, yesterday’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance might not prove the best indicator of where the Trump administration will land in its aforementioned review. In some respects, certification of Iran’s compliance was preordained. The reason has to do with the underlying legislation: Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president is required to provide certification of Iran’s compliance to Congress every 90 days. Failure to do so triggers certain legislative procedures and the potential re-imposition of the sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord.
In other words, if the Trump administration failed to make the required certification, it would have triggered the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran and its review of the JCPOA would have been effectively preempted. While many are understandably interpreting Tuesday night’s move as evidence that the Trump administration will respect the JCPOA, that might be reading too much into it: the State Department was clear that the administration is in the process of reviewing the nuclear accord, including whether it lies within U.S. interests to continue the JCPOA’s lifting of sanctions. Undoubtedly, certification of Iran’s compliance complicates the picture for an administration keen on unsettling the deal – as it will frustrate efforts to build an international consensus in support of the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions – but JCPOA proponents would be wise not to over-interpret Tuesday night’s certification and assume that the Trump administration has come to its sense regarding the merits of the accord.
Third, Trump’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance is not inconsistent with the approach being advocated by Iran hawks to kill the deal. Indeed, if the administration intends on successfully undermining the JCPOA, its most likely approach is to take action that aggravates Iran, nullifies Iran’s economic benefit, and causes Iran’s defection from the nuclear accord. In the weeks and months ahead, the Trump administration will have several opportunities to render the deal defunct.
For instance, Congress is likely to present a new sanctions bill for the president’s signature that will contradict U.S. commitments under the JCPOA – dissolving the modicum of trust that was built between the two countries – and provide the political cover necessary for the White House to aggressively ramp up sanctions against Iran. The Trump administration will regard these sanctions as consistent with the JCPOA, insofar as they will be imposed for reasons separate and apart from Iran’s nuclear program, and will thus seek to nullify the benefit to Iran of its nuclear bargain. In doing so, the Trump administration can kill the nuclear accord without launching a frontal attack on it: Iran’s compliance will be certified and the lifting of sanctions will continue, but the JCPOA will be undone regardless.
To his credit, Trump has now officially acknowledged that the Iran deal is working and Tehran is fully living up to its end of the bargain. Thus, following through on promises to tear up the accord or renegotiate it make no sense from the perspective of American national interests or global security. Looking ahead, the current crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is a sobering reality that shows Trump what will likely happen if Washington doesn’t uphold its JCPOA commitments. He’s now learning that it’s easy to snipe at the deal from the sidelines, but the burden of governing reveals what some of us have long argued: Diplomacy or war – choose one. Yesterday’s affirmation has not fully quelled concerns that he may still stumble into the latter.
Twenty-four hours after launching missiles at Syria, Donald Trump’s decision to increase America’s bombing campaign in the Middle East has received much fanfare and little public debate. Regardless of whether these strikes are a one-off, the beginning of a more robust regime change effort, or something in between, over 25 years of uninterrupted U.S. bombing in the region highlights an inconvenient truth: For every action, there is a reaction. One key area where the reverberations will likely be felt is Trump’s emerging Iran policy. Three specific issues stand out.
First, Trump’s repeatedly stated goal of defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is not possible without some form of sustained U.S.-Iran cooperation. Durable solutions to conflict require the buy-in of each country with the capacity to wreck the solution, and Iran is one of few Middle Eastern countries to display a stable commitment to defeating these terrorist organizations. U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should be illustrative for Syria. The more aggressive and uncoordinated U.S. military efforts become, the less likely Iran is willing to cooperate and de-conflict—and the more damage American interests absorb. Trump and Iran need each other, but none of his actions to date reflects this reality.
Second, U.S. escalation in Syria increases the risks of a direct military confrontation with Iran. Most egregiously, former CIA head James Woolsey appeared on CNN to argue that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has “give[n] [the U.S.] an opportunity…to use force against the Iranian nuclear program.” For some Iran hawks, every outrage in the Middle East is an excuse to carpet-bomb Tehran. But even if Trump does not intend direct confrontation with Iran, America’s targeting of Syrian government forces risks Iranian casualties as a result of their proximity on the battlefield. Although some in Washington would welcome such a development, it needs to be weighed against its likely consequence: Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces through its allies in Syria and Iraq, setting off a chain reaction with the highly probable outcome of a growing conflict that expands the humanitarian tragedy and leads to a broader regional war.
Third, the civil war’s prolongation and intensification also poses substantial risks for the sustainability of the Iran nuclear accord. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the strongest nuclear accord ever negotiated, but it is unlikely to survive a direct military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
There are also less obvious ways in which Syria’s war can negatively impact the durability of the deal. Congress is currently considering a broad sanctions bill targeting the Syrian government, which would mandate the imposition of sanctions on parties providing it support. As demonstrated by the White House talking points released following its strike on Syria, in which Iran and its “allied Shia militant foot soldiers were held responsible for “the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” Iran would be an obvious target for such sanctions. If the president re-imposed sanctions on Iranian parties removed from U.S. sanctions lists under the JCPOA or otherwise negatively affected Iran’s re-integration into the global economy, Trump would risk violating America’s treaty obligations and undermining the deal altogether.
A Middle East without an Iran nuclear deal would throw us back to 2013, when the United States was on the precipice of a major war with Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq.
Trump’s team could be telling the truth when it says that the bombing of Syria was a single strike and it has no current plans for escalation. But Barack Obama (Libya), George W. Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Bill Clinton (Iraq), George H.W. Bush (Iraq), and Ronald Reagan (Lebanon) might tell Trump that war in the Middle East doesn’t always go as planned. The White House may not be looking to start another war, but yesterday’s bombing of the Syrian government certainly risks opening a broader conflict than Trump intends.
Trump’s revised Muslim ban is set to go into effect this Thursday, March 16th. Since it’s announcement last week, we at NIAC have received an avalanche of questions from across the United States. In an effort to keep you informed, we posed the five most common questions that we’ve received to NIAC’s Reza Marashi and Adam Weinstein. Their answers are as follows.
Question 1: Iran is on America’s List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Why shouldn’t it be on Trump’s Muslim ban list?
Reza Marashi: The Muslim ban list does nothing to punish the Iranian government for its inclusion on America’s state sponsors of terrorism list, and it is wrong to conflate the two separate lists. The punishment is almost exclusively felt by innocent Iranian nationals who seek entry into the United States for educational purposes, family visits, tourism, and medical care. It is these people seeking a positive connection with America — not Iranian government officials — that are wrongfully being targeted, and thus no tangible security or anti-terrorism benefits are derived from including Iran on the Muslim ban list. If the Trump administration truly believed the Iranian government’s inclusion on America’s state sponsors of terror list warranted Iran’s inclusion as part of a Muslim ban, it would have gone to much greater lengths to create carve-outs to ensure innocent Iranians were in no way, shape, or form affected. Its inability or unwillingness to do so further shows that this is a discriminatory Muslim ban rather than a necessary or well thought out national security measure.
Question 2: The new Executive Order respects the due process rights of visa holders. As a result, isn’t it now reasonable? Shouldn’t these countries – state sponsors of terrorism and hotbeds of terrorism – received extra scrutiny?
Reza Marashi: No, the new Executive Order is neither reasonable nor logical because it does not address the actual problem of terrorist threats facing the United States. Zero Iranian nationals have committed acts of terror in the United States that have killed American citizens. Meanwhile, Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati nationals account for 94% of terror deaths on U.S. soil committed by the foreign-born, and yet they are not included in Trump’s Muslim ban. Thus, the extra scrutiny being placed on Iranian nationals does nothing to address the Trump administration’s stated goal of preventing terrorists from entering the United States, and makes Americans less safe by focusing on what’s not an actual threat and taking our attention away from the extra scrutiny needed on what is actually a threat. Most importantly, no countries should be on a Muslim ban list because the very concept of blindly banning nationalities or religions is wrong and ineffective.
Question 3: Isn’t it reasonable for the U.S. to request additional information from Iran and the five other countries on Trump’s Muslim ban list? If these countries don’t comply, isn’t it their fault that visas cannot be issued?
Adam Weinstein: U.S. vetting procedures have always stood on their own and served as an example for the world to emulate. The suggestion that the U.S. should or would rely on dual vetting is simply inaccurate and an insult to the agencies that have successfully protected us.
More dubious is the notion that Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya were banned due to their status as failed states with armed conflict. If the U.S. were to ban visas for all countries with ungoverned regions controlled by armed groups the list would have to include: Afghanistan, Colombia, Honduras, India, Israel, Egypt, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine to name a few.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly has on numerous occasions suggested that vetting cannot occur in countries without a U.S. consulate. This assertion is very misleading because nobody from the banned countries receives a visa without visiting an embassy or consulate. For example, Iranians must travel to Dubai, Ankara, Yerevan, or elsewhere to attend visa interviews.
Thus, Trump’s list of banned countries is not based on a rational counter-terrorism policy response to events on the ground or actual threats.
Question 4: Iraq was removed from Trump’s Muslim ban list by strengthening its intelligence sharing with the U.S. Why can’t the other countries do the same?
Reza Marashi: Iraq was not removed from Trump’s Muslim ban list because of strengthened intelligence sharing with the U.S. Rather, it was removed at the request of Secretary of Defense Mattis, who feared it would hamper coordination to defeat ISIS, according to Trump administration officials. It is therefore accurate to say that including Iran as part of Trump’s Muslim ban will hurt America’s fight against ISIS, as U.S. officials noted last year that Iran is already helpful in fighting ISIS and we have a shared interest towards that goal.
Question 5: Acts of terrorism in the U.S. have not been committed by nationals from these six countries, but since their governments sponsor terrorism, isn’t it reasonable to expect that nationals from these countries might take such actions in the future and America should therefore take precautions NOW against that potential threat?
Adam Weinstein: The overwhelming majority of “radical Islamic” terrorism attacks in the U.S. have been committed by lone wolf attackers with no sponsorship. Such lone wolves include the Boston bombers, San Bernardino shooters, Orlando nightclub shooter, OSU shooter, and Fort Hood shooter. The only recent example of terrorism on U.S. soil that may have included some state sponsorship was 9/11 and the alleged sponsors are certain Saudi officials. It is also notable that all of these particular terrorists adhered to an extreme Salafi ideology that also views most Iranians as apostates.
With the prospect of confrontation, headlines in Iran are once again focusing on relations with the United States. Ali Khorram, a former Iranian ambassador to China, recently argued that more could have been done to reduce Tehran’s vulnerability by improving ties during US President Barack Obama’s presidency. This is a compelling point, but not everyone in Iran agrees. Indeed, there are multiple schools of thought on this matter. When fleshed out, three predominant positions among Iranian stakeholders demonstrate why problems in Washington caused division in Tehran on whether to solidify ties under Obama.
At face value, it is hard to refute Khorram’s logic, which, most likely, many Iranians are thinking privately. A successful nuclear deal created unprecedented diplomatic momentum, so why didn’t they strike while the iron was hot and use that success as a foundation from which negotiations on other points of contention could commence?
Khorram correctly highlights that Obama’s policies toward Iran could have been more confrontational, but instead the former US president pushed for a nuclear deal, blocked any increase in sanctions and refrained from invading Syria. “It is certainly not fair to say that Mr. Obama’s policies were similar to the policies of George [W.] Bush and Donald Trump, which are full of hostility against Iran,” the former ambassador wrote. And he is right: Iranian officials would be hard pressed to find a US president over the past four decades who worked harder than Obama to diffuse tensions and improve relations.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the nuclear deal, but he is not pleased with its results so far. Thus, his current position portrays Washington as a brutal, immoral government out to “get” Iran and that its core interest is to keep Iran underdeveloped and dependent. In an April 2016 speech, he explained his skepticism post-nuclear deal, “I have said a hundred times … that America cannot be trusted. Now, this is becoming completely clear. They write on paper that banks can go and do business with Iran … but in practice, they instill such a fear in the hearts of banks that they do not dare get close to us. This is Iranophobia.”
As explained in previous articles, every foreign government and blue-chip multinational corporation I have spoken to since 2015 acknowledges Iran’s economic policies as an obstacle, but at the same time they say US sanctions are the primary obstacle to Iran deriving the full benefit of sanctions relief as outlined in the nuclear deal. Khamenei emphasized this in a speech in August 2016. He said, “Last year … I said in a public speech that the [deal] and nuclear negotiations will serve as an example for us to see what the Americans do. … Now, it has become clear. … On the face of it, they give promises … but in practice, they hatch plots, damage us and prevent the progress of our affairs.”
Khamenei utilizes this point as proof that Iran did not miss an opportunity to expand diplomatic progress under Obama, but it was rather the American side that lost out by stalling on sanctions relief. In the same speech, he said, “The Americans are asking us to go and speak to them about regional matters. Well, [the issues to do with sanctions relief] tell us that this is a deadly poison for us. … The reason why I have been repeating for many years that we will not negotiate with America is this. This shows that our problems with America … on regional matters and on various other matters are not solved through negotiations.”
While Khamenei’s position is important, so is the difference between rhetoric and reality. The Iranian leader used to say that the nuclear dispute could not be solved through negotiations with the United States, but his rhetoric changed when Obama presented a viable opportunity to do precisely that. The same premise holds true today: Individuals and power structures in Iran could challenge Khamenei’s narrative about further negotiations with Washington, but they need some degree of justification to do so. This highlights the third school of thought in Tehran: stakeholders who agree with Khorram’s logic, but are unwilling or unable to argue in favor of it since they cannot disprove Khamenei’s point on sanctions relief.
The nuclear deal demonstrates an important dynamic in Iranian politics: To provide some degree of flexibility, Khamenei allows experiments but does not commit to them until he gets a sense of security about such initiatives. To that end, stakeholders such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently reiterated their preference for resolving points of tension through negotiations and viewed the nuclear talks as such. Thus, no one person is the “responsible” and “accountable” decision-maker in Iran — even Khamenei can hide behind an array of institutions when he needs to justify a decision. The supreme leader’s attempts to wield power without accountability therefore impact how key stakeholders position themselves on policy issues.
For Rouhani, Zarif and many of their top associates, they clearly wanted to advance diplomacy with the Obama administration — but not at any cost. Despite numerous bilateral and multilateral consultations prior to Obama’s departure, the sanctions relief problems caused by remaining US sanctions were not resolved, thereby making it difficult to disprove Khamenei’s position. Pushing to improve US-Iran ties when Washington was widely perceived in Tehran to be stalling on sanctions relief would have been too politically costly.
Knowing that political opponents will blame them for sanctions relief failures — despite receiving Khamenei’s blessing for each step in the negotiations — these stakeholders are likely hesitant to risk their political cache after having been burned by America in the past. In my conversations with Iranian officials since Rouhani took office in 2013, they have consistently reiterated one point regarding US-Iran diplomacy: Tehran will not cooperate with Washington without naming its price up front. “We cooperated with America after the 9/11 attacks, and our goodwill was rewarded with being labeled part of an ‘Axis of Evil,’” a senior Iranian official told me in 2015. “We made a mistake not linking our support to reciprocal American measures. We will not make that mistake again.”
Khorram’s argument is logically sound: Obama was likely the best American interlocutor that Iran is going to get, and it should have proceeded accordingly. However, as is often the case in US-Iran relations, sanctions-related complications trumped logic. Looking ahead, an important step toward changing Khamenei’s calculus will be providing the necessary sanctions relief as outlined in the nuclear deal. This, in turn, will create space for the emergence of a competing narrative in Iran that paves the way for a policy shift. Stakeholders such as Rouhani, Zarif and Khorram have influence, but Iran is unlikely to continue engaging in the kind of serious, sustained diplomacy that produced the nuclear deal until the United States demonstrates it is willing and able to do the same.
“Some people talk about national reconciliation; however, that does not make sense to me,” he said. “The people are already united. So why do you talk about reconciliation? Are the people against each other?” This has been a recurring theme in Iran since the contested 2009 presidential election and subsequent protests. Regardless of whether Khamenei opposes national reconciliation, recent history illustrates why he cannot resist some form of it — if he wants Iran to prosper — and the key obstacles that remain to its implementation.
Khamenei did indeed make his skepticism clear. “Are people not on talking terms with one another to need reconciliation? There is no estrangement,” he said during his speech. Probe a bit further, however, and a more comprehensive picture of what he is grappling with starts to emerge. Khamenei is the most powerful man in Iran, and while he does help shape the political process, he is also forced to respond to it. Politics do not remain stagnant and policy options are finite, thereby forcing Khamenei to reassess his positions and make choices in accordance with reality rather than rigidity.
To that end, Hassan Rouhani’s presidency shows why Khamenei has been forced to repeatedly wrestle with reconciliation. Since his election four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the history of the Islamic Republic. In turn, Rouhani’s consensus-building skills and team of technocratic managers have helped stabilize the economy, end Iran’s international isolation, competently manage the affairs of the state and take initial steps toward healing the lingering divide between state and society — all important prerequisites to any hope of durable national reconciliation.
In this regard, Iran’s 2009 election and its aftermath is the linchpin. Not since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War had the political elite grappled with upheaval that profoundly impacted their personal and systemic assessments of political survival. Recognizing this, Khamenei gave a sermon at the Friday prayers the week after the 2009 elections in an effort to have the last word, stop the protests and unify key stakeholders around him. Instead, the opposite occurred. To this day, he is still forced to address the events of eight years ago.
Only the most radical conservatives were willing to provide Khamenei with the unconditional backing he sought, but it came at a steep price. Their efforts caused unprecedented political and economic damage to Iran, leaving Khamenei with a dangerous mix of combustible challenges that he could not fix alone, because the only alternative to Rouhani’s coalition is the same cast of characters who created the mess in the first place. Thus, Rouhani’s election freed Khamenei from over-reliance on radical conservatives and proved that he needs Rouhani’s coalition just as much as the latter needs Khamenei, thereby forcing the supreme leader to accept the steps toward reconciliation thus far to facilitate greater stability at home and abroad.
The goal Khamenei likely sought to achieve in his Feb. 15 speech was not a repudiation of national reconciliation but rather a reiteration of the scope and terms he finds acceptable. Since 2009, Khamenei has sought to distinguish between political differences and his red lines in the Iranian political system. He directly referenced this point last week when he said, “When it comes to Islam, Iran, independence and resistance in the face of the enemy, the Iranian people … are united and act hand in hand. Of course, any two persons may have different opinions with regard to a given political issue, but this is not something important and effective and is considered as a normal and ordinary issue.”
More specifically, Khamenei’s red line on the issue of national reconciliation is also the most significant unresolved consequence of the 2009 elections: how to end the house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — which directly correlates to the political unity that facilitated Rouhani’s victory at the 2013 polls and the push for reconciliation today. The president and his team have quietly worked behind the scenes over the past four years to secure Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s release. Khamenei has been willing to engage in the issue, but he has not budged from his bottom line.
In the first four months of Rouhani’s presidency, his justice minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani all reiterated the same message: Ending Mousavi and Karroubi’s house arrests is on the agenda, actions are being taken, but patience and quietly working behind the scenes is more likely to produce results than making noise. Today, Rouhani administration officials say they have done all they can to resolve the issue, but they do not have the power to unilaterally end the house arrests. To hear Iranian officials speak off the record, they say efforts to move the process forward have remained consistent, but personal animosity between Khamenei, Mousavi and Karroubi has stalled progress.
In a July 2016 speech, Khamenei gave perhaps the most clear and concise description of his position, “I am sensitive toward [the riots of 2009], and my judgment is grounded on not providing support to those who were leading the riots or [politically] exploiting the situation and have not to this date repented for doing so.” In short, he wants an admission of wrongdoing. But so do Mousavi and Karroubi, who know they hold their greatest amount of leverage while still under house arrest, precisely because their release is the only way for Khamenei to resolve this lingering, destabilizing problem.
Looking ahead, it is hard to see how Khamenei and Rouhani can turn the process of national reconciliation into tangible progress without ending the house arrests. Not only was it a Rouhani campaign promise in 2013, it is also a constant reminder of the major, directly related obstacles that remain: releasing political prisoners associated with the 2009 unrest, granting political reforms and implementing civil rights. This is akin to a fire smoldering beneath the ashes: Many Rouhani voters continue to raise these issues, and with the nuclear deal in the books, the pressure they exert on domestic policies could increase. Combined with the fact that Mousavi and Karroubi are aging and increasingly require medical attention, this issue has the potential to rock the country if either of them unfortunately dies while still detained.
Iran’s political atmosphere has changed since 2009, and fluid events on the ground have the potential to force a resolution. But ultimate responsibility for the house arrests lies with Khamenei. He continues to drive a hard bargain on the terms of national reconciliation, but a glimmer of hope remains. Because sociopolitical forces in Iran both affect and are affected by him, it is possible for the impact of political pressure to lead to progress. As such, Khamenei cannot refuse some form of national reconciliation if he wants Iran to prosper, because recent experience and a growing number of stakeholders point out that failure to resolve the issue can put the stability of the country at risk. The only question that remains is how far Khamenei is willing to go.
It’s no secret that many of President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers favor killing the Iran nuclear deal. But to hear Europe tell it, they will not blindly follow suit. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini recently said Europe might line up with Russia against any efforts by the Trump administration to scuttle the deal; there’s no way it can be re-opened bilaterally; it’s impossible to demand fresh concessions from Iran; and the bloc won’t feel obliged to re-impose sanctions on Tehran if Washington walks away from the agreement. For these comments, Europe should be praised. But should it be believed? The past 20 years demonstrate that some skepticism is warranted.
There are many reasons to doubt Europe’s willingness to craft an Iran policy independent of Washington’s preferences, but three stand out above all else. First, what recourse does the EU actually have at its disposal? What tangible costs is it willing and able to impose on the U.S. if steps are taken that damage EU interests? It’s not at all clear, and I’ve pressed numerous current and former European diplomats on this point during private conversations over the past two months. Without fail, each of them has shrugged and conceded that if push comes to shove, the alliance with Washington is more important than their relations with Tehran. Europe knows it, Iran knows it, and the incoming Trump administration knows it.
Frankly, this knowledge was the linchpin of U.S. policy toward Iran under George W. Bush and first-term Barack Obama: You can do business with Washington or Tehran, but not both. The EU relented. If Trump pursues identical measures, why should we believe that Europe’s response would be any different? Thus far, he has openly dismissed EU interests when they don’t align with Washington’s, and the backbone of his campaign was putting “America First.” Why should we believe that his position would change?
Moreover, Europe’s track record on diverging from America’s Iran policy doesn’t bode well. Not since 1996 – when the EU was preparing to take the U.S. to the WTO over Iran sanctions, but ultimately settled via direct negotiations – has Brussels threatened to impose costs on Washington over diverging policy interests. Since then, you’d be hard pressed to find any geopolitical issue of importance in which Europe has openly deviated from the U.S. Even when Washington makes painfully and obviously bad decisions like invading Iraq, most of Europe did not actively oppose the war after America pressured them and warned of worsened relations. Britain and Poland were foolish enough to join the U.S. coalition that kicked off the Iraq disaster.
Europe’s deference to American preferences also highlights another inconvenient truth: the Iran deal was only possible once Washington and Tehran started substantively engaging in 2013. From 2003 through 2005, the EU led nuclear negotiations with Iran that America refused to join – and hammered out a deal that Washington refused to accept, forcing Europe to back down. Reality is that on Iran-related issues, Europe long ago outsourced its sovereignty to the United States, and there’s no discernable reason to believe that will change in the foreseeable future.
Finally, it’s important to remember that all politics is local: Upcoming elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Portugal breed uncertainty and caution in key European countries. Moreover, the United Kingdom is still in turmoil with no end in sight after its vote to leave the European Union. This reduces the likelihood that all 27 EU member states will form a cohesive bloc to take on Washington if it tries to kill the Iran deal. Moreover, politicians in most countries are generally more risk averse in the run up to elections. As Barack Obama inadvertently whispered into a hot mic four years ago: “After my election I have more flexibility.” By the time the dust settles after nine elections in Europe, it will be mid-2017 at the earliest and Trump’s Iran policy will almost certainly be locked in. The window to potentially influence that policy is now, and it’s unclear if Europe is in a position to speak and act with a cohesive voice.
This begs the question: What can the EU do to save the Iran deal, avoid another war in the Middle East, and help prevent an already tragic refugee crisis in Europe from spiraling out of control? If Trump chooses to pursue a policy that damages European interests, the bloc could make clear to Washington the costs of doing so – first privately in an effort to provide Trump with an opportunity to save face, and then going to the megaphones publicly if private outreach doesn’t bear fruit. There are a variety of options at Europe’s disposal. Two in particular could send a strong message.
First, the EU could announce the establishment an office in Brussels and the capitals of all 27 EU capitals tasked with long-term planning of alternative international banking and financial options outside the existing U.S.-controlled infrastructure. Europe might consider telling the U.S.: Overusing secondary sanctions that extend to non-U.S. persons will not be tolerated when Iran is fulfilling its end of the nuclear bargain, and American actions to that end could threaten its central role in the global financial system. Outgoing Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew recently warned of this in his exit memo, and Trump’s Washington may think twice before damaging European interests if there’s an even greater cost to its own.
To that end, Europe could also consider announcing the formation of a joint EU bank with no ties to the U.S. financial system in which all 27 member states have an equal stake. Run out of Brussels, such a bank might serve as the clearinghouse for transactions with countries that Washington seeks to isolate in ways that damage core European interests. Because it’s unrealistic to expect an alternative global financial system to be quickly cobbled together, the EU should clarify that the foundation and takeoff operations for both of these initiatives would be established during Trump’s four years in office – thereby giving him space to take European interests into account, while making clear the long-term ramifications if he does not.
Mogherini’s recent remarks were an important first step in letting Trump’s team know that Europe’s expectation is for the Iran deal to be honored and respected. The problem is that few in Washington understand what Brussels might do if Trump abandons the accord. Unless the EU clearly communicates to America how it will push back, it will likely get pushed around. Europe is wise to prioritize continued collaboration with the U.S. on Iran policy, but given the rhetoric of Trump and the track records of his top Iran advisors, it shouldn’t bank on it. There are courageous voices calling for the EU to go its own way if Washington takes actions that undermine global security. It remains to be seen whether or not Brussels will listen.