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Iranians’ Choice for President Won’t Affect the Nuclear Accord

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Presidential candidates for June 18, elections Alireza Zakani, left, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, second left, Saeed Jalili, center, Abdolnasser Hemmati, second right, and Ebrahim Raisi leave at the conclusion of a part of the final debate of the candidates at a state-run TV studio in Tehran
Presidential candidates for June 18, elections Alireza Zakani, left, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, second left, Saeed Jalili, center, Abdolnasser Hemmati, second right, and Ebrahim Raisi leave at the conclusioCredit: Morteza Fakhri Nezhad / AP

Though Iran’s presidential election is taking place on Friday, there’s still plenty of room for speculation about the outcome.

Opinion polls show that conservative Ebrahim Raisi is expected to win, but he’s only polling at about 50 percent. He’ll have to cross that threshold to avoid a runoff, which could be dangerous for him. If he doesn’t end up well ahead of his opponent, economist Abdolnaser Hemmati, many more voters might go to the polls in the runoff in hopes of giving Hemmati the victory.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is well aware of this. On Wednesday, he urged Iranians to vote en masse, “to show the enemy that the public supports the regime.”

Khamenei made that plea for a reason. Polls predict that many voters won’t bother voting, and turnout is expected to be around 40 percent, down from 73 percent in the 2017 election. If the polls are right, this will be the lowest turnout since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Herein lies Khamenei’s dilemma. Low turnout would be a clear vote of no-confidence in the regime and its leaders. It would badly undermine the elected president’s legitimacy and his ability to handle opposition down the road.

On the other hand, high turnout could benefit Hemmati, since young Iranians – who account for about half of Iran’s 85 million people – have so far been the most apathetic. If they actually vote, they are likely to support Hemmati.

To avert this “threat,” two conservative candidates bowed out of the race and backed Raisi. A reformist candidate also quit, to help Hemmati. But the economist will need more than his vaunted black belt in karate to win.

The former central bank governor – he quit that job to run for president – isn’t a great rhetorician, but in televised debates he didn’t hesitate to attack the Revolutionary Guards for their control over Iran’s economy. He promised to appoint five women to his cabinet and set up an inquiry commission into the killing of demonstrators in 2019. Moreover, he not only backs the nuclear agreement, he said Iran’s economic woes stem from its isolation from the world – that is, the West.

He didn’t promise a dialogue with the United States, aside from the ongoing negotiations over the nuclear deal. But the direction is clear.

Raisi, in contrast, lacks any economic experience. His title of ayatollah is controversial, as is his law degree, which, according to Iranian media reports, he obtained by pressuring professors at his university.

A supporter of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a sign during a rally in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 16, 2021Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Still, the man who until recently headed the justice system as Khamenei’s direct appointee is also considered the most likely candidate to succeed Khamenei after his death. A term as president would give him the political qualifications that a candidate for supreme leader must have, and that may be exactly what Khamenei intends.

This isn’t the first time the success of the conservative leaders’ efforts to get one of their own elected president has been in doubt until the last minute. To Iran’s credit – and in contrast to autocracies such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where either the election results are known in advance or there are no elections at all – the public’s opinions and votes actually matter in its presidential races, despite the supreme leader’s control of the candidate selection process.

In the last election, the leadership pushed Raisi to run, but Hassan Rohani beat him 57 to 38 percent. Mohammad Khatami, the reformist elected president in 1997 and 2005, won in an upset. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needed fraud and violent clashes between the security forces and protesters to get himself declared president – an incident etched deeply in Iran’s political memory, which resulted in him being barred from running this time.

Former Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi recently disclosed on television that back in 2013, he ordered the Guardian Council, which has the power to bar candidates, to prevent Hashem Rafsanjani from running because the regime’s polls showed he would win 60 to 70 percent of the vote. In the leadership’s view, a powerful, wealthy president who had been very close to the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, and didn’t hesitate to clash with Khamenei would be too great a threat.

The candidate deemed threatening this time was Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament from an important family who enjoys broad political support. He’s a conservative with a doctorate who wrote his thesis on Kant’s philosophy and could have won backing from reformists. But the Guardian Council disqualified him, without giving any reason. Khamenei, feigning innocence, said it had been a mistake to nix some of the disqualified candidates, but the disqualifications remained in force.

Western countries, especially the United States, are currently concerned about the fate of the nuclear agreement now being negotiated in Vienna. It clearly won’t be signed before the election, so the question is whether Khamenei will decide to “give” it to Raisi, who has already said he’ll support it “if it serves the nation’s interests,” or whether he’ll use the lame-duck period before the inauguration on August 3 to have Rohani sign it – not as a reward, but so that Raisi can have clean hands and maintain his image as a radical conservative who opposes any negotiations with Washington.

It’s therefore surprising that Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Italian daily La Repubblica this week that the agreement will have to wait until a new Iranian government is formed. The IAEA isn’t a party to the negotiations, and his argument that the deal needs political buy-in from all sides wrongly assumes that Iran’s decision on the deal depends on some democratic process. If Khamenei decides the deal should be signed before the new government takes office, U.S. President Joe Biden won’t insist on waiting.

Incidentally, should the deal be signed after Raisi is inaugurated, Biden would find himself inking an agreement with an Iranian president who is under American sanctions for his role in killing demonstrators and arresting thousands of regime opponents. These sanctions aren’t related to the old nuclear deal and therefore aren’t slated to be removed when a new deal is signed.

Rather, these and roughly 1,500 other sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump are based on America’s counterterrorism laws, for the express purpose of preventing a new president from canceling them as part of a return to the nuclear deal. To remove them, Biden would need congressional legislation.

That might actually serve Biden’s goal of using the nuclear agreement as a launchpad for other deals with Iran, should the new Iranian government be willing to discuss ending its support for groups like Hezbollah, Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, curbing its ballistic missile program, or improving its atrocious human rights record. But this aspiration seems hopeless because Iran has consistently refused to discuss these issues with Washington.

In any case, that decision wouldn’t be within the Iranian president’s purview. It rests solely with Khamenei.

Iran made its decision on the question of the nuclear deal when Khamenei allowed negotiations to resume in order to get U.S. sanctions lifted. But how the Iranian economy will function after their removal will depend largely on the elected president and his cabinet.

With Rohani’s term nearing its end, Iran is already preparing to revive its economy. The pace of oil production has recently increased and bids have been invited for new infrastructure projects; these are expected to be won either by Chinese companies or firms owned by the Revolutionary Guards. Growth is expected to reach 4.5 percent this year and 8 percent in the coming years, assuming Iran indeed manages to attract foreign investors and bring back the multinational corporations that began operating there after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015 but left after Washington withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Still, without major reforms – including increased transparency, eliminating corruption, changing the banking system, real cooperation with the private sector and solid guarantees of the security of foreign investments, Iran’s current corrupt economy is likely to continue. The elites’ wealth will keep growing, and the public will keep wallowing in poverty.

Raisi’s election would ensure that the latter scenario comes true. He isn’t someone who can or even wants to confront the Revolutionary Guards over their control of the economy. He’ll seek to provide benefits to the religious institutions that influence the election of the supreme leader. He’s unlikely to want to cut the subsidies that steal billions from the state budget; he’d rather compensate the poor, who constitute 80 percent of the population, with generous direct aid.

But all these are the problem of ordinary Iranians, whose fate doesn’t really interest either Washington or the corporations that are waiting for the nuclear deal to be signed.

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