The upcoming Iranian presidential elections on June 18 are arguably one of the key political milestones since the revolution of 1979. Having taken control of parliament and successfully weakened and dismantled the moderate camp, conservatives are making extra efforts to take control of the presidency in this round of competition, while moderates are trying to stay in power and preserve their control over the executive branch.
This election campaign is taking place at a time when Iran is at a critical juncture in terms of its relations with the international community. It comes amid efforts to revive the nuclear deal and in the wake of Iran’s signing of a strategic cooperation agreement with China.
In important ways, these global developments also affect Tehran’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Whatever the outcome of the elections, the nuclear negotiations, and Iran-China talks: Iran’s immediate neighborhood is going to be affected the most. The Gulf states, therefore, face the challenge of devising their own initiatives towards Iran with a view to resolving tensions at the regional level.
Against this backdrop, it is important to bear in mind that the elections also come at a time when every political faction is intensely preparing for the possibly imminent passing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Whichever faction secures the presidency in June will have the opportunity to shape Iran’s future in a four-year period that could determine Iran’s relations with the outside world and define the post-Khamenei era.
The added importance of these elections explains the unprecedented move by the institutions of the Iranian deep state to directly interfere in the voting and secure the presidency. It also explains Khamenei’s overt interference: sources say he has barred potential candidates from running, including the grandson of the founder of the revolution, Hassan Khomeini.
It seems that Khamenei and the deep state institutions realize that whichever faction wins the presidency will improve its chances in the competition to succeed the supreme leader. Khamenei and the deep state do not want any one individual, like Hassan Khomeini, to enter the race and make the June elections into a more exciting affair that would be harder for the regime to control. Therefore, they are doing whatever they can to prevent anyone from mobilizing the reformist and moderate bloc and to ensure a conservative candidate replaces Hassan Rouhani.
The upcoming presidential elections are being held under difficult economic conditions, the result of about 3 years of sanctions that have hit the most important sectors of Iran’s economy. The economic crisis is likely to have a major impact on Iran’s political landscape and determine which slogans the candidates use to win citizens’ votes.
According to Iranian sources, the most important question in the upcoming elections is voter turnout. Voter turnout was below 45% in the recent parliamentary elections (February 2020), but high voter turnout could significantly benefit one faction at the expense of the other. The reformist camp depends on a high voter turnout and declares that this would lead to their victory. Conservatives, especially recently, have preferred that voter turnout remain less than 50% to improve their chances of victory.
Over recent decades Iranian elections have shown that both conservatives and reformists enjoy a majority in certain geographic areas. While conservatives enjoy a majority in small cities and the countryside, reformists and moderates enjoy popularity in larger industrial cities inhabited by the middle class, who naturally favor reformists. This has been evident in the Iranian elections over the past two decades and should be taken into consideration in any analysis of the upcoming elections.
Reformist sources affirm that they expect an unfair race due to conservatives’ policies. The reformist camp is also concerned that they might lose the elections because of voters’ reluctance to embrace their candidates, who are held partially responsible for the failure of Rouhani’s government.
The victory of President Joe Biden in the American elections has changed calculations within the reformist camp with regard to whether it is worth taking part in elections. The Trump administration’s policies had deepened the reformists’ reluctance to run in elections and tipped the balance – until the end of autumn 2020 – in favor of those who are against participation. But the arrival of Biden provided strong momentum to the forces within the reformist camp that support participation in elections.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are looking forward to winning the upcoming presidential elections now that they have taken control of the Iranian parliament. However, this camp needs to overcome divisions within its ranks to achieve this goal. During the preparations for Iran Presidential elections over the last two years there have been calls for a “military man” to become president and lead the way out of the current crisis. This seems to reflect a desire by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence to the political domain and add control over the executive branch to its dominance of parliament. This is a crucial period in the conservative camp’s efforts to close its ranks. Major domestic political trends in Iran indicate that the country is moving towards more isolation and extremism, and it is likely that the IRGC and associated factions will take either direct or indirect control over all organs of the state.
At the foreign policy level, major political, economic, and social trends in Iran indicate that more severe consequences will follow – i.e. the regime would adopt even more extremist attitudes and get more involved in regional conflicts – if the international community does not find a way to solve this problem and bring Iran back into its orbit. This perspective is based on the growing aspirations of political forces inside Iran, which is set to add new levels of complexity to the situation.
With these concerns in mind, the international community and the GCC countries must devise innovative initiatives to resolve the impasse before it reaches the point of no return. Even if it is still impossible to comprehensively resolve all outstanding issues, a regional initiative could address some of the issues that concern the international community and the Arab region alike, namely Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional expansionist agenda. Such an initiative, however, should take into consideration the strategic determinants that have so far prevented stakeholders from reaching a practical resolution of the issue.
Regional approaches to solving the Iranian impasse have so far considered neither the duplicity of the ruling regime in Tehran nor the nature of relations between the government and the deep state, rendering them hollow and superficial and only based on pacification proposals and goodwill gestures. As for the global approaches to address Iran’s question, these have also been superficial and have so far failed to understand the deep ideological, psychological, and historical factors surrounding the Iranian issue.
If the international community is sincere about overcoming all the obstacles preventing the resolution of this issue, it must concede a pivotal role to the GCC countries, those most affected by Iran’s missile program and expansionist agenda. The international community should support the launch of a regional dialogue on outstanding issues that is convened under the umbrella of the United Nations and benefits from strong international oversight and support.
Unless the impasse with Iran is resolved, the coming years are likely to see more costly instability and violence as a consequence of the Islamic Republic’s expansionist projects. Moreover, failing to capitalize on the favorable opportunities on offer to resolve the impasse could push the crisis past the point of no return.
It is therefore urgent that those most affected by this crisis – the Gulf states – help devise a solution to the stalemate. To this end, a strategic perspective is required; the Iranian regime must be engaged with great care, finesse, and realism. GCC decision-makers must demonstrate strong will and coordinate their efforts with global partners. The ultimate goal of these efforts should be an agreement that represents a step toward Iran becoming a normal member of the international community once more; this would represent the best outcome for the Gulf region, the international community, and sanctions-battered Iran.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi is the president of the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), which she founded in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates in September 2013. In recognition of her role as a leader of one of the most important think tanks in the Arab world, Dr. al-Ketbi was appointed in 2015 as member of the Consultative Commission of the Cooperation Council of the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). She was also chosen by Arabian Business magazine in July 2018 in its list of 50 Most Influential Women in the Arab World as she was the first woman to lead one of the most important think tanks in the Arab world.
On Twitter: @ekitbi
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.