Why you should care
Because sometimes the subtle approach is best.
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin was acting director and deputy director of the CIA from 2000–2004 and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Iran’s presidential election on May 19 will test whether negotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other powers has given the country’s reform-minded moderates a boost. The Obama administration hoped that reduction of economic sanctions under the agreement would strengthen the hand of Iranian politicians less committed to confrontation with the West.
Sure, the question of who is actually a moderate or reformist has always been hotly contested. In truth, very few Iranian politicians oppose the fundamentals of strict clerical rule. But some have wanted to engage more directly with the outside world while favoring fewer restrictions on speech, assembly and women’s rights.
American optimists hope that greater movement in that direction could be an opening wedge toward broader and more fundamental change in the revolutionary regime.
The closest Iran has come to fundamental reform was in 1997, following the surprise election of Mohammad Khatami, who favored more media freedom, looser social and cultural controls, and a dialogue among religious faiths. Despite being in office for eight years, Khatami was slowly beaten down by the hard-liners and is now seen as a failure.
Compared to such hard-line factions, current president Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the nuclear deal, is relatively moderate — though he learned from Khatami’s experience not to challenge regime rules too vigorously, or while politically weak.
Hope that Rouhani might gain greater traction was raised several months after the nuclear agreement, when his faction gained in parliamentary elections and got him close to a majority. But since then, public disappointment has set in. The public generally does not believe that the Islamic Republic has gained economically from the lifting of sanctions under the nuclear agreement. By the end of last year, support for the agreement had declined from 42 percent in mid-2015 to 21 percent — with 72 percent saying their living conditions had not improved. Nearly a third see unemployment as the most important issue.
This puts Rouhani in a steep uphill race against five other candidates. This appears to have narrowed to a three-person race among Rouhani and two hard-line candidates — Tehran mayor Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf and Islamic jurist Ebrahim Raisi. Both are seeking to capitalize on the disappointment with the nuclear deal’s benefits. Neither has proven an exciting campaigner or compelling speaker — Rouhani more than held his own in a chaotic three-hour debate last week.
Iranian elections are fair — up to a point. The six candidates are chosen by one of the regime’s power centers, the 12-man Council of Guardians, which usually excludes the most extreme candidates at both the hard-line and reform ends of the spectrum. After that, voting is generally unimpeded; larger turnouts — ranging historically from 50 percent to 80 percent — usually favor reformers. One of the candidates is expected to patch together a majority, but if no one does, a runoff will be held.
While the president has considerable impact on domestic policy and can influence the tone of foreign policy, other parts of the regime have more power. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has final say on all important matters. He commands the Armed Forces through instruments such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its overseas operational wing, the Quds Force (which handles Iran’s proxy arms, including the terrorist wing of Hezbollah). Still, the president can maneuver for influence and nudge things in his desired direction like Rouhani did with the nuclear agreement and economic policy.
The presidential race also can affect who takes over as Supreme Leader when the 77-year-old Khamenei is gone. Some see the race as a tryout for hard-liner Raisi, who is often touted for the role and seems to be the hard-line favorite. A win would give him pole position for the top job.
Although the nuclear agreement hasn’t yet helped the average person’s pocketbook, it has brought Tehran benefits that many in the Iranian public appreciate. As much as they may dislike the U.S. government, Iranians generally admire American culture and products, and they feel good about Iran being more engaged with Europe, Asia and the United States. A noteworthy business deal? Boeing has signed one worth close to $20 billion to replace scores of Iran’s aging jet aircraft.
This redounds to Rouhani’s favor, even as people grumble that their wallets are no fatter. But adding to the drag on his candidacy is the harsher line the Trump team has taken toward the nuclear deal and Iran generally. The U.S. has censored Iran over missile tests and support for terrorists, even though the state department said this month that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear accord.
Trump’s labeling of the accord as the “worst deal ever” and U.S. threats to rip it up are playing into the hands of Iran’s hard-liners, who accuse Rouhani of selling out Iranian interests to the hated U.S.
But the accord substantially reduces Iran’s enrichment capability and its stockpile of uranium for at least a decade. Selling it to a host of hard-line skeptics and to Supreme Leader Khamenei required a great deal of maneuvering and subtlety by Rouhani. A bit more subtlety on Washington’s part might be in order if the administration does not want to see Rouhani replaced by an Iranian politician just as skeptical and suspicious of the nuclear agreement as some of its American critics.
Holding fire until after the election would not cost us anything.