Analysis

Iran’s Coming Election Is Leading Its Top Leaders to Escalate Rhetoric Against the U.S.

It seems Washington is scattering empty threats, while Iran’s overcrowded political minefield could still drag the economically crippled country on the warpath

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020, photo made available by U.S. Navy, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to U.S. military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait
In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020, photo made available by U.S. Navy, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to U.S. military ships in the Persian Gulf near KuwaitCredit: U.S. Navy via AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Five oil tankers set sail from Iran last month, bound for Venezuela. The U.S. administration seethed with fury, threatened to stop these shipments, but in practice, President Donald Trump made do with blustering tweets.

The amount of oil Iran exports has dropped from 2.5 million barrels a day to one quarter of a million, yet, by the end of its sixth development plan in 2022, Iran will produce 5.7 million barrels a day. It’s not clear who will buy these prodigious amounts, besides China, which continues to buy Iranian oil, despite officially cutting its purchases by 89 percent. Iran is trying to demonstrate steadfastness in the face of American sanctions.

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The new blow Washington has landed on Iran, cancelling exemptions given to Chinese, Russian and European companies working on civilian nuclear projects, was met with anger, but was also addressed dismissively when the Iranian government spokespeople clarified that they will soon be able to operate without external assistance. Iran will continue to receive heavy water for its nuclear reactors from Russia and maintain those facilities on its own.

Worshippers wearing protective face masks and gloves offer Eid al-Fitr prayers outside a shrine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, May 24, 2020.
Worshippers wearing protective face masks and gloves offer Eid al-Fitr prayers outside a shrine to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Such declarations cannot hide the extent of the damage wrought by sanctions on the Iranian economy, which has shrunk by 50 percent. Inflation surged to 34.8 percent and growth diminished by 7.6 percent in 2019. Millions of people were laid off, joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. Salaries are paid with months-long delays, brand-name imports have dwindled and for the first time in sixty years, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for a $5 billion loan. The coronavirus has added its onerous weight as well, with mounting concerns of a new wave after 3,000 new cases were recorded this week, after a dramatic drop in preceding weeks. Despite all of this, Iran is projecting a return to normalcy and hasn't imposed any restrictions hindering the economy, with government ministries operating as usual, except for a few districts.

So far, the streets have not seen mass protests like they did at the end of last year and earlier this year. There have been less strikes over the past three months, and Iran’s foreign policies appear to be unchanged. The withdrawal, [that was also dubbed redeployment] of its forces from Syria, attributed to Israel’s airstrikes, have not reduced Iran's influence on the Syrian regime. Iran continues to be involved in Iraqi politics, guiding the policies of the new prime minister, Mustafa Kazmi. The Houthis in Yemen have no intention of renouncing Iranian support, and Russia, despite its dispute with Tehran over Syria, still views the Islamic Republic as a vital partner in the Middle East.

European countries have not managed to find an effective alternative to evade American sanctions, and Germany has added Hezbollah to the list of terror groups, but other than the United States, no signatory country to the nuclear accord with Iran is considering pulling out. “Although Iran is violating the nuclear accord after its decision to increase the amount and quality of its enriched uranium, it’s too early to declare a resumption of international sanctions against Iran,” a European diplomatic source told Haaretz.

They were referring to an announcement by Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, that Washington would seek to discuss the re-imposition of some sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council this month, unless there was an extension of the current arms embargo. The embargo is supposed to end in October, and if it it’s not extended, Iran will be able to buy and sell conventional weapons as it sees fit. Iran responded to this threat with a scornful tweet by its foreign minister, Javad Zarif. “Those who talk of injecting disinfectants in order to get rid of the coronavirus also say that they are partner to the UN Security Council resolution that affirmed the nuclear accord, even though they’ve long ceased to be partners to it, ” the charismatic official wrote, referring to President Trump's much derided suggestion to inject disinfectants as a way of combating the virus.

The American threat seems empty for now, not only because the United States have withdrawn from the accord, but because the decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran would require overcoming an expected veto by Russia and China, even if European countries decide to support the move.

Iran, like other countries around the world, are apprehensively awaiting the U.S. presidential election in November, which will signal whether it has to markedly revamp its foreign policy, mainly in matters related to its nuclear program, or whether it will face a diplomatic, and possibly a dangerous military confrontation with the United States, in case Trump is reelected. If Joe Biden is elected, Iran may be able to reexamine its relations with the United States.

However, such strategic decisions also depend heavily on the wielders of political power in Iran. The country is already in the midst of preparation for its own presidential election, in the summer of 2021. Conservatives won a large majority in February's parliamentary election, with over 76 percent of the vote, leaving reformists with less than 7 percent. The veteran speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, who had served for 12 years, withdrew his candidacy and was appointed as an adviser to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. He was replaced by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran who unsuccessfully ran in three previous presidential elections.

Iranian Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf (C) stands among members of the parliament after being elected as parliament speaker at the Iranian parliament in Tehran, May 28, 2020.
Iranian Mohamad Bagher Ghalibaf (C) stands among members of the parliament after being elected as parliament speaker at the Iranian parliament in Tehran, May 28, 2020.Credit: AFP

For President Hassan Rohani, whose power and stature are in decline, 2020 will be remembered as a particularly bad year, with all the ills of the coronavirus and Iran's economic failures laid at his doorstep. He will also face scathing criticism by reformists, who gave him their votes in the previous election, only to be disappointed after finding out he could not manage to fulfill even a small part of his promises regarding human rights and the advancement of the economy. Iranian commentators note that one needs a magnifying glass in order to find differences between him and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ghalibaf, who is 58 and a pilot by training, commanded the Revolutionary Guards’ air force and stood behind the brutal repression of protests in 2000. He’s been involved in several corruption affairs, including the payment of tens of millions of dollars to a charity organization run by his wife. He is part of the radical conservative wing which criticized the nuclear accord, and often attacks Rohani’s policies. Rohani has said that he would be stretching his hand out to the parliament in friendship; but it is unlikely he will get the same degree of cooperation as he enjoyed during Larijani’s term as speaker.

In his opening speech in parliament, Ghalibaf took pains to emphasize that any negotiations with the United States would be futile. “Our strategy in our confrontation with the terrorist U.S. is to complete our revenge for the blood of the martyr Qassem Soleimani,” he said. Such declarations, which are in line with the thinking of Khamenei, are not directed as much at the Americans, as at Iran's internal political scene. Ghalibaf wants to present himself as the quintessential representative of the Revolutionary Guards in parliament, which is replete with former officers from that organization.

A MP holds up a portrait of slain Iranian General Qassem Soleimani during the inaugural session of the new parliament in Tehran, May 27, 2020.
A MP holds up a portrait of slain Iranian General Qassem Soleimani during the inaugural session of the new parliament in Tehran, May 27, 2020.Credit: AFP

For Ghalibaf, the speaker’s post is just a springboard for the presidency. It will allow him to demonstrate his loyalty to a tough stance, in order to win the support of Khamenei. In this race he will encounter his predecessor Larijani, who did say that he has no plans to be involved with the presidential election, but whose ambition is no secret. Another candidate is an Ahmedinejad supporter.

The coming year may see the political and religious leadership having to choose a new supreme leader, given Khamenei’s frail condition. Talks of a replacement are being held so far behind closed doors, but reports of relative credibility suggest that Khamenei was presented a few months ago with a list of three candidates, from which he can choose his successor.

Ceremony to markthe Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps receiving 110 high-speed vessels, in the port city of Bandar Abbas overlooking the Gulf, May 28, 2020.
Ceremony to markthe Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps receiving 110 high-speed vessels, in the port city of Bandar Abbas overlooking the Gulf, May 28, 2020.Credit: AFP

Formally, choosing a successor is done by a council of 87 experts, but most of them are Khamenei loyalists. Iranian media reports mention possible contenders like Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the judiciary, a Khamenei appointee, as well as Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, whose main disadvantage is that he’s not a prominent cleric. Someone who saw himself as a worthy candidate until recently was Sadeq Larijani, the brother of the outgoing speaker. He was until recently the head of the judiciary and a son of one of Iran's notable religious families. However, although Larijani was nominated to the electing council, his status was weakened at the end of 2019 when some corruption affairs involving his deputy came to light. He was harshly and publicly criticized by one of Iran’s senior ayatollahs, Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor.

An overcrowded political minefield and the power struggles it engenders cast doubt on the possibility of changing the rhetoric, as long as the competition is over who appears to be the most extreme. The practical test will lie in what Iran does on the ground. The assumption is that Iran is not seeking a military confrontation with the United States, but isolated attacks by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq against American targets, or attacks on vessels in the Persian Gulf could lead Iran onto a lethal path in which the presidential race could dictate the extent of escalation.

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