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Ending sanctions may boost Iran’s moderates in upcoming elections

Hardliners will take a financial hit too, as they control the black market.

Iran’s presidential elections will be held on June 18 2021. Many speculate that the number of voters will be drastically smaller than in the 2017 elections, when voting by 73 percent of the eligible voters gave President Hassan Rouhani a landslide victory over his main hardline opponent, the Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeisi.

The dismal economic performance of the Rouhani administration over the past 4 years, caused partly by the harsh U.S. economic sanctions, is a prime factor that contributes to the pessimism regarding the June elections. The state’s violent response to the widespread protests in January, 2018 and November, 2019 that killed hundreds of people is another factor. The essentially institutionalized economic corruption at all levels of the state, particularly in those entities that are run by hardliners and are outside the elected government’s control, is the third factor.

The hardliners and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seem to be determined to have an ultraconservative, or as Khamenei puts it “young revolutionary,” as the next president.  They may use their main weapon, the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets the candidates for most national elections and approves their “revolutionary” credentials, and is controlled by the hardliners, to reject the “undesirable” candidates.

This is precisely what happened in the last elections for the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, held in February 2020. All the moderate and reformist candidates were rejected by the GC, while all their top figures even refused to run, knowing that the GC would reject them. Coupled with the aforementioned discord, this was the main reason that only 42.57 percent of the eligible voters cast their votes, which had never fallen below 50 percent. In Tehran, only 25.4 percent of eligible voters voted. The conservatives and hardliners took 221 seats out of 290.

For the upcoming elections, however, the hardliners are in a quandary. A low turnout is their best chance for winning, because past elections indicate that when the turnout is high, typically 60 percent or higher, moderates and reformists win. But Khamenei has always interpreted a large turnout as a vote of confidence in his regime, and a low turnout would be a blow to him.

The IRGC has several candidates for the elections, including former defense minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan; former oil minister, Brigadier General Rostam Ghasemi; former IRGC commander, Major General Mohsen Rezaei; former deputy minister of interior for political affairs, Brigadier General Alireza Afshar, and Saeed Mohammad, a lieutenant brigadier general and former commander of Khatam al-Anbiya, the IRGC engineering arm. But there are deep fissures in the hardliners’ ranks for agreeing on a single candidate. For example, one faction of IRGC senior officers supports Mohammad, while another one has attacked him

The candidacy of the IRGC officers has generated great concern among those who oppose the hardliners. With the IRGC already controlling the judiciary and legislative branches, the fear is that if an IRGC candidate is elected president, the military will never give up power, and will turn Iran into something akin to the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who crushed the opposition, held sham “elections,” and is accused of having 60,000 political prisoners.  

Due to term limits, President Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist and deputy minister of interior for political affairs from 1997-2001 in the Mohammad Khatami administration, and who spent seven years in jail after the Green Movement of 2009, has announced his candidacy. He has outlined a platform for making deep reforms in the political system, including pushing the IRGC back to the barracks, abolishing mandatory Islamic Hijab, and introducing a term limit for the Supreme Leader. There is, however, little hope that the GC will allow him to run, but his platform and his online discussions through the Clubhouse app with huge numbers of people, both inside and outside the country, has created excitement.

Another reformist candidate is Stanford-educated Mohammad Reza Aref, former chancellor of the University of Tehran and first vice president (among 12) in the second Khatami administration. But after he received the highest number of votes in the elections for the Majlis in 2016, his performance disappointed many. Another possible candidate is Eshagh Jahangiri, the current first VP. Ali Larijani, former speaker of the Majlis and a relatively moderate conservative, is also another candidate.

The hardliners are also terrified by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the moderate foreign minister who is widely popular among ordinary Iranians for his efforts to sign the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, and who is now negotiating the terms of both Iran and the United States returning to it. Although he has repeatedly declared that he will not run, the hardliners still believe he will.

Two weeks ago, an interview of Zarif was leaked in which he had described his disagreements with Major General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top officer whom the United States assassinated in January 2020. One of Zarif’s main complaints was that “the state as a whole” preferred the primacy of military objectives, leading to disagreement between him and the general. “In the Islamic Republic the battlefield rules. I have sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield rather than the field servicing diplomacy,” Zarif said in his interview.

Given that General Soleimani is considered by many Iranians to be a national hero, the hardliners rushed to denounce Zarif and his explosive interview, demanding his impeachment, even putting him on trial, and hoping that the revelation would diminish his popularity. In a speech on May 2, Khamenei also criticized Zarif (without mentioning him directly).

But all indications are that Zarif’s popularity has increased for a simple reason: what he stated in his interview has been well known, except that up until now no official had the courage to explicitly express them. Most Iranians believe that the IRGC should stop its intervention in the nation’s economic and political affairs, and concentrate only on defending the country, and that an important reason for the vast corruption is the IRGC’s intervention in the economic affairs.

Change can occur rapidly in Iran’s volatile political environment. In particular, given Iran’s dire economic conditions, even last-minute good news about lifting of the sanctions by the Biden administration can change the dynamics of the elections. Iranians are known as the “90th minute people,” a reference to a soccer team that scores unexpectedly on the last moment and wins the game.

Reports indicate that the negotiations in Vienna to return to the JCPOA have made progress. The hardliners’ nightmare is an announcement over the next few weeks that the United States will lift sanctions, which can completely change the dynamics of the elections. Rouhani’s landslide victory in 2017 was driven by the fact that the people had begun seeing the fruits of diplomacy. Whereas Iran’s GDP had shrunk by 7.4 percent in 2012, the year before Rouhani was elected for the first time, it had grown by 13.4 percent in 2016, which most people attributed it to the lifting of some sanctions. 

The Biden administration should lift at least some major sanctions prior to Iran’s elections. This may motivate those who oppose the hardliners to turn out for the elections, and vote for a moderate or reformist candidate, which is precisely the nightmarish scenario that the hardliners imagine occurring.

Lifting of the sanctions will have another important consequence. It was recently revealed that since 2006, when the United Nations began imposing sanctions on Iran, $400 billion has been spent on “getting around the sanctions.” It is the hardliners who benefitted from this fiasco, as they control the black market, import whatever they want through 80 illegal jetties that are outside the control of the government, and make astronomical profit that gives them the financial resources to use in their propaganda against those who oppose them through a vast empire of mass media, including hundreds of websites, tens of “news agencies” acting as propaganda machines, and other means. Rouhani himself has referred to them as the “sanctions’ merchants,” and has accused them of not wanting the sanctions to be lifted. Lifting the sanctions will deny the hardliners such resources, which in turn will not only affect positively the plight of ordinary Iranians, but also, in the long run, will help the cause of democracy and respect for human rights in Iran.

Iranian people deserve to have a secular democratic republic. But, first, the economic plight of the middle and lower classes, the engine for positive change in Iran, should improve drastically. Lifting the U.S. sanctions and electing a reformist will be important steps in that direction.

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