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Iran goes to the Polls

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Update from AIJAC


February 26, 2016
Number 02/16 #05

Today's Update features analysis and background on the Iranian parliamentary election occurring today.

We lead with Washington Institute expert Mehdi Khalaji, who makes a series of predictions about the election result and what will follow. Among the things he foresees is that not only will moderates remain marginalised, but they will increasingly be challenged by hardliners - with even President Rouhani likely to have his viability eroded, especially as Supreme Leader Khamenei no longer needs him to complete the nuclear deal. Khalaji also predicts future turmoil over the leadership of the Shi'ite world - with Khamenei likely to be replaced in the next decade and his main rival for Shi'ite religious leader, Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani, now 86 and leaving no clear heir. For more analysis of these complexities from Khalaji, himself a trained Shi'ite theologian, CLICK HERE.

Next up is columnist and Iran-watcher Sohrab Ahmari, who says the Iranian election is taking place against the background of an increased crackdown on dissidents or “other-thinkers”, as the regime calls them, and the regime even trying to discourage Iranian-born businesspeople abroad from returning to invest in Iran. He says while the dream of reforming the system from within remain alive for Iranians, the most that the reformers can achieve is to alter the tone of Iranian foreign policy and add some technocratic pretensions to domestic policy, without changing the major thrust. He notes the precedent of the term of "reformist" President Mohammed Khatami, who never achieved more than mild domestic reform, quickly undone by the hardline "deep state." For more on the limits of reform hopes in Iran, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israel's top academic expert on Iranian politcs, Prof. David Menashri, offers a bit more detailed political background on the election. He documents how hardline forces have followed up the nuclear deal - which Menashri terms the "deal of the century" - by bashing the US and Israel as a way to embarrass their reformist rivals. Menashri also says it is just not true, as some purveyors of conventional wisdom maintain, that Khamenei is a "a balancing force between the two camps" - he has demonstrated his sympathy lies overwhelmingly with the hardliners. For more insights from this top-notch scholar, CLICK HERE.

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Iran's Political Landscape -- and What Is Unlikely to Change with Friday's Elections

Mehdi Khalaji

Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016

As in past votes, the candidates have been closely screened, the outcome is expected to uphold the legislature's largely conservative makeup, and the victors will remain largely dependent on military institutions.

Some speculate that new leadership could change Iran's direction -- and the power equation in the Middle East -- by refashioning the country's foreign and regional policy. The influence of the Iranian elections Friday, for parliament and the Assembly of Experts -- the clerical body that appoints the supreme leader -- is likely to be narrower in the short term, with more far-reaching change coming with the next generation. Here are a few things that can be expected in the near term in the often-unpredictable Islamic Republic.

The upcoming vote will largely mirror past elections in Iran, being neither free nor fair. The candidates have been closely screened and the outcome is expected to uphold the largely conservative makeup in parliament and the Assembly of Experts. In addition, the victors will remain largely dependent on military institutions, namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Moderates will stay marginalized in this arrangement and face intensified pressure from hard-line colleagues.

President Hassan Rouhani can expect challenges to his political viability. The president's reelection campaign in 2017 is all but certain to be tested by tight curbs on political and media freedoms, as well as continued economic frustrations exacerbated by structural corruption and unregulated state-supported groups. Economic uncertainty is likely to persist despite sanctions relief tied to the international agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. Rouhani was elected in 2013 thanks to popular mobilization and support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, driven by the sense that Mr. Rouhani could navigate the nuclear talks and deliver financial relief for the Islamic Republic. Now that Mr. Rouhani has achieved implementation of the nuclear deal, the supreme leader has little reason to continue backing him in the face of tremendous pressure from hard-liners.

For their part, Iran's reformists may have fewer tools to back Mr. Rouhani than they did in 2013. Mr. Rouhani has focused most of his energy on the nuclear deal. He has not improved the dismal human rights situation in Iran nor gotten Green Movement leaders released from more than four years of house arrest. During his tenure, military and intelligence suppression of political activists has remained robust and effective. As Mohammad Reza Khatami, former deputy speaker of parliament and a prominent reformist, put it recently, Mr. Rouhani's government is "the loneliest government ever of the Islamic Republic."

Presidential candidates in 2017 will need to establish strong relations with the supreme leader and his apparatus, especially the Revolutionary Guards, and are likely to succeed by reassuring these entities that their political and economic interests will not be undermined.

Ayatollah Khamenei is 77 and has hinted repeatedly that he expects the next Assembly of Experts to appoint his successor. Iran holds elections for president, parliament, municipal positions, and the Assembly of Experts. It is the institution of the supreme leader -- with its precepts of divine legitimacy and exclusive authority over the judiciary, armed forces, intelligence, media, and political and economic entities -- that prevents a true democratic system from emerging in Iran. The Guardian Council, another entity under the supreme leader's control and the body that oversees elections, has tightened the qualification process and blocked many non-conservative candidates.

The Iranian government sees itself as not only the region's preeminent political actor but also the protector of Shiite Muslims across the world. In this arrangement, the supreme leader serves as both the top religious and political authority. One Shiite figure has checked Ayatollah Khamenei's religious dominance: Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian cleric who has resided for decades in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani's followers include millions of Shiites worldwide, and his presence in Iraq contains, to an extent, Iran's interference in its neighbor's affairs.

But Ayatollah Sistani is 86 and has no heir to transfer his religious authority and financial assets to. His death will mark the passing of a generation of transnational ayatollahs who held political sway but were unbound by allegiance to any ordinary political entity, institution, or government. Eventually, after the passing of both Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Khamenei, we will see a new era in Shiite clerical politics whereby religious authorities will multiply but be largely constrained to their local communities. (Notably, Ayatollah Sistani's exit could well lead to increased Iranian military intervention in Iraq and the region more broadly.)

In assessing Iran's future leadership, U.S. analysts -- and the next U.S. administration -- are better off not focusing on personality or political inclination. A future Iranian leader is likely to govern from a comparatively collective and corporate mind-set -- and the process of becoming leader is likely to reset his interests and orientations. One possibility is that the next Iranian leader will further entrench its policy of defying Western interests regionally and globally, intensifying its ideological ambitions. Then again, new leadership could deviate from the revolutionary road, jettisoning anti-Western aspirations and seeking the comforts of inclusion as a normal international player. At this juncture, with Ayatollah Khamenei and hard-liners in the Assembly of Experts firmly in control, fundamental change looks to be a ways off.

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute. This article originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal blog "Think Tank."

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Iran’'s War on ‘Other-Thinkers’

 

Half of the 12,000 or so candidates for Parliament were disqualified ahead of Friday’s vote.

For much of Iranian history the Persian word for “politics” had two meanings. Siyasat referred to the emperor’s art of preserving his dynasty against rivals and invaders. Or it referred to the cruel and unusual punishments the emperor meted out to officials who displeased him, ranging from flogging and blinding to beheading.

Keep this in mind as the current emperor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stages an election on Friday, the first since last summer’s nuclear deal with the great powers. At stake are the Majlis, or Parliament, as well as the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will select and nominally oversee the ailing Mr. Khamenei’s successor.

There will be ballot boxes and voter lines, and Western journalists will be granted rare access to cover an event the regime is keen to portray as a legitimate democratic exercise. Yet every candidate has been screened by layers of security men and hand-selected by Islamic jurists.

Half of the original 12,000 or so candidates for the 290-seat Majlis were disqualified ahead of the election. As were 75% of the 801 candidates for the 88-member Assembly of Experts—including Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That leaves a ratio of candidates to seats in the Assembly of Experts of less than two.

Most of the disqualified belonged to the so-called reformist and moderate factions of the regime. Even if every single disqualification were reversed, however, it wouldn’t matter a wit, since the regime’s popular branches are subservient to its unelected institutions. Above them all sits the supreme leader, and the pre-election purge means whoever succeeds Mr. Khamenei is likely to share his views on all important matters.

Herein lies the perverse genius of the Islamic Republic. It encourages outsiders to treat the regime as something other than a theocratic dictatorship. Western officials, and many Iranians themselves, hope that the regime’s periodic elections and plebiscites might finally empower men who will moderate Tehran’s behavior. It’s been 37 years since the regime’s founding, and liberal Khomeinists remain elusive.

The hard-liners—the men who run the armed forces, the repressive apparatus, the nuclear program, the judiciary and the state-run media—are tightening their grip and flaunting their enduring primacy.

On the domestic front, the regime has launched a fresh crackdown against degar-andishan, dissidents or “other-thinkers”—poets, film makers, journalists and novelists who question its rule. Tehran is also warning off Iranian-Americans eager to cash in on their commercial connections now that international sanctions have been lifted. Security forces in October arrested Siamak Namazi, an American energy consultant who had long advocated for the removal of sanctions and a Washington-Tehran opening. On Monday, Mr. Namazi’s U.S. citizen father, Baquer, was arrested after apparently being lured back by the regime.

Restrictions on women’s rights remain as tight as ever. “Day by day the women’s conditions get worse, contrary to Western expectations,” says Darya Safai, a Belgium-based activist who campaigns against the ban on Iranian women entering sports stadiums.

Two ballistic-missile tests since the nuclear deal, plus the seizure and humiliation of 10 U.S. sailors in January, suggest the ayatollahs are stepping up their regional bullying. A group of regime-linked media outlets this week announced they had donated $600,000 to the bounty for Salman Rushdie, raising to $4 million the total prize pool on the British novelist’s head for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Still, the dream of reforming the system from within remains alive. Regime elites wrangle over the tone of Iranian foreign policy. And some have technocratic pretensions when it comes to domestic administration.

But they agree on the most fundamental questions—the sanctity of the nuclear program, an anti-Western foreign policy and the theocratic character of the regime. As an exiled reformist recently told me: “The reformists won’t ever drill a hole in the hull of the Islamic Republic boat because they are passengers on that boat and would drown without it.”

If past is precedent, the reformists inside the system may be thrown overboard even if the vessel doesn’t draw water. Indeed, that may already be what’s under way with the current purge. Many of the same figures, after all, presided over the period of supposed moderation and reform that stretched from Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 until 2005, when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami lost power.

Then, too, the reformists darned Iran’s tattered relations with the outside world in ways the hard-line core found useful. But all the while, the hard-liners maintained a deep state—built on secret detention sites, extrajudicial serial killings and the like—that targeted Mr. Khatami’s middle-class, urban base. Eventually the deep state undid most of his mild domestic reforms, and many reformists found themselves in jail.

Iranians hungry for change nevertheless think their only chance is to channel their aspirations into these factional disputes. The reformists are a little less stern. They afford the people more personal freedom at the margins.

Can you blame them? The bloody crackdown against the 2009 postelection uprising, followed by the cataclysms in Syria, led them to conclude that mass protest is hopeless. One reason the mullahs sponsored Bashar Assad’s slaughter was to teach their own people how far they would go before relinquishing power.

Other Iranians have become apathetic—or worse, they’ve embraced Persian chauvinism as a substitute for the pro-democracy spirit of that summer. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the regime would shut off even the release spigot offered by its own sham electoral system. Having secured a nuclear deal on favorable terms, they don’t even need the veneer of respectability offered by the reformist project.

Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer based in London.

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Iranian Elections: The Radicals Strike Back

By David Menashri

February 25, 2016, Flashpoint 17

Tomorrow the Iranian people will simultaneously elect a new Parliament (Majlis) and Council of Experts— assigned to monitor the functioning of the Supreme Leader and to choose a new Supreme Leader when the position becomes vacant. The timing, following the nuclear deal, amidst domestic rifts and growing domestic and external challenges make the elections of unique significance in shaping the future policy of Rouhani’s government and that of the regime in the longer term.

The power balance in Parliament is crucial for the government’s conduct in foreign relations and domestic politics in an era of growing regional challenges, rising popular expectations for economic betterment and greater freedoms and in anticipation of the 2017 presidential elections. Factors such as the wide authoritative berth of the Supreme Leader, his age (77), reports about his failing health and the long tenure of the council (8 years) may even compel this Council of Experts to choose a new Supreme Leader during its present term.

Iran is a complex society and the rifts between the rival camps are deep. For the convenience of discussion, one can speak of two major competing trends: one pragmatic, reformist or moderate; another conservative, traditionalist doctrinaire—with significant subdivisions in each of them.

The pragmatists viewed the concluding of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (July 14, 2015) and the Implementation Day (January 16, 2016) as a starting point for comprehensive reform, with Rouhani at the helm. Their rivals, who viewed the nuclear deal with disdain and accepted it as an inevitable evil, sought to strengthen their hold on power and stick to the revolutionary policy. Control of the two institutions was, therefore, essential in their struggle for shaping the future of the Islamic Revolution and, more immediately, for the remaining term of Rouhani (until summer 2017).

The radicals, with the backing of Khamene’i and the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other revolutionary institutions, appeared confident and uncompromising in their efforts to gain full control. They have portrayed the nuclear deal as an historic victory, signaling Iran’s centrality and power as equaling that of the US. They had good reason to be satisfied.

Just two years earlier, entering the final round of nuclear negotiations Iranians were on their knees, desperate for a deal to get them out of the impasse. At home, the transatlantic alliance led to crippling sanctions that exerted tremendous pressure. The currency devaluated sharply, unemployment skyrocketed and popular disenchantment reached close to boiling point. In the region, the Regime’s Syrian ally was engaged in a bloody civil war and even resorted to the use of chemical weapons. Their proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah, faced difficulties due to their support of President Assad. Their position in Iraq was also weakening.

With the Agreement, they achieved the deal of the century. Sanctions are relieved, assets unfrozen, there is growing support among youth. In short, Iranians are smiling again. The Islamic Regime has been welcomed back into the family of nations and recognized by the big powers. Their nuclear program (even if delayed) has been given the seal of international approval. Once considered “part of the problem,” Iran is today recognized as “part of the solution” in the region. The rise of ISIS made them appear more moderate. In line with its interests, the nuclear deal did not address other areas of western concern, such as Iran’s support for radical Islamist movements and the restriction of freedoms at home. No less important, what Iran has achieved is almost irreversible. What Iran pledged depends on Iran honoring the agreement (which so far it generally has).

The tone was set by Ayatollah Khamene’i. On August 24, 2015, his website published a poster entitled “The Iron Fist,” symbolizing Iran’s strength following the agreement. It features a fist comprised of military equipment adorned with Iranian flags breaking through clouds, with the following text: “Those who levelled sanctions against us yesterday are dying today, because Iran has become the region’s foremost military power.”[i] Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan (August 30) boasted that Iran has attained status to the degree that “the superpowers have surrendered to it.” He continued that despite typical Western pride, “the regime of the arrogant [the West] sat humbly behind the negotiating table and obeyed the rights of the Iranian nation.”[ii]

At the same time, the radicals seized every opportunity to bash the US and embarrass their domestic rivals. On his part, Khamene’i missed no opportunity to convey his disdain for the US and western civilization at large, taking aim at the “western onslaught” and its domestic agents to influence Iranian politics. America is the Great Satan and the call “Death to America,” he reiterated, is an integral pillar of the Islamic revolutionary essence. The American sailors who entered territorial waters in December were released only after the Regime disseminated embarrassing photos depicting them squatting on their knees surrendering to Iranian forces. Later, during the parade marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Republic (February 12, 2016) they aired footage of the sailors on their knees and a soldier seen weeping. The shadowy Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to meet with senior Russian leaders, despite the UN Security Council resolutions barring him from such travels. Iran also launched a long-range missile violating the UN ban. This week, Tehran declared a $600,000 bounty for the death of British Indian author Salman Rushdie, in line with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa (religious decree) in 1989.

 Seeking to provoke its arch-enemies, Iran also took every opportunity to attack Israel. Just as the global community marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, an English-subtitled video was uploaded on Khamene’i’s website questioning whether the Holocaust ever happened. Europeans do not dare question the Holocaust, he alleged, even if “it is not clear whether the core of the matter is reality or not.”[iii] This was in line with his previous references to the Holocaust as a myth (afsaneh). In addition, a new “Holocaust Cartoon and Caricature” competition will be held in Iran in June, 2016.

Unlike what is often claimed, namely that the Supreme Leader is a balancing force between the two camps, current developments demonstrate that in fact Khamene’i’s sympathy lies entirely with the radicals. He could tolerate the election of Rouhani who was assigned to negotiate a deal which Iran desperately needed. Yet, Khamene’i and the radicals are determined to prevent Rouhani from using the nuclear deal to continue far-reaching reforms. His mission was accomplished. It appears that while allowing the Rouhani-Zarif team to negotiate the nuclear deal, Khamene’i also promised the radicals that when the nuclear file is a done deal, he will make sure that their interests (doctrinaire, political or economic) would be secured.

Elections in Iran are not free elections. The Council of Guardians, tasked with vetting contenders’ supposed loyalty, disqualified a record high (60% of the 12,000 people) who came forward as parliamentary candidates—double candidates that of previous elections. Although some of those disqualified later won appeals, still half of those who had wanted to run for office were prevented from doing so. Reformists were hit hardest. In the first cut, only 30 of about 3,000 were approved (i.e. 1%). “They want an Islamic Re- without the public,” quipped one observer.[iv] President Rouhani said he was disheartened: “The Parliament is the house of the people, not a particular faction.” And “what about a faction that has up to 10 million supporters?” he asked, referring to the reformists.[v]

Out of more than 800 Islamic theologian-men who stood for the 88-member assembly of experts, only 161 were approved. Among those disqualified was the grandson of the first Supreme Leader (In fact, 7 out of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 15 grandchildren expressed criticism of the regime’s functioning). In many ways, the results of the elections were pre-determined, by what the Iranian cynics would call “election engineering.”

Consequently, not many leading reformists were allowed to run for office. Former vice president Mohammad Reza Aref, who stepped down in the presidential campaign to allow Rouhani’s victory, is considered the head of the moderate camp, supported by President Rouhani and former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. Under the circumstances, their strategy has less to do with boosting reformist candidates and more to do with diluting the powerbase of the hardliners. There is a large social movement to try to prevent the election of leading radicals and to promote the election of milder radicals. Five of the arch-hardliners, Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati (secretary-general of the Guardian Council), Mohammad Yazdi (Head of the Assembly of Experts), Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi (the “theoretician” of using violence against dissidents), Ahmad Khatami and Ahmad Alamalhoda were marked as candidates who must be denied election in the Council of Experts. Another major aim is to make sure their own leading candidates for the Council (mainly President Rouhani and former President Rafsanjani) will be elected with the highest support. Thus, the peculiarity of these elections: the campaign is not about whom to vote for, but rather whom not to vote for. It is difficult to win elections this way but it is possible—if there is no external intervention in the election process—to minimize losses while securing the election of milder conservatives and thus sending a strong signal to the Supreme Leader and the radical camp. On their part, the radicals are focusing in the last days before the election on discrediting their rivals by presenting them as agents of foreign influence.

In any case, the struggle between the camps has already entered a new phase, with the results of the simultaneous election likely to influence short and longer-term politics of revolutionary Iran.

David Menashri is Professor Emeritus and the Founding Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies of Tel Aviv University. He is currently the Israel Institute Visiting Professor at the Y & S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

[i] Farsi.khamenei.ir, 24 August 2015, in http://www.memri.org/report/en/print8733.htm

[ii] Tasnimnews.com (Iran), August 30, 2015.

[iii] Times of Israel, 28 January 2016

[iv] http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21693277-choose-any-candidate-you-likeafter-mullahs-have-excluded-reformers-great

[v] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-16/iran-election-preview/7174488

 


David Menashri is Professor Emeritus and the Founding Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies of Tel Aviv University. He is currently the Israel Institute Visiting Professor at the Y & S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

 

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