Strategic Continuity – the Paradox of Political Change in Iran

The way is paved for a hardliner victory, and the Iranian elections seem like a done deal. Nevertheless, Brussels and the EU member states should prepare for an Iran that, rhetoric aside, continues to have an interest in constructive relations with Europe.

Image: Duclos

Michel Duclos



The key moment of this year’s presidential elections in Iran will not be the day of voting on June 18th. In fact, it already lies in the past, on May 25th, when the Guardian Council’s decision on the vetting of the candidates was announced by the interior ministry. Contrary to all expectations, all the well-known reformist and moderate candidates were banned from the race.

Eshagh Jahangiri, currently the vice president in the Rouhani administration and known to be an effective debater, was disqualified. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who enjoys a certain popularity with the Iranian public, was not in a position to be a candidate due to leaks showing he nurtured unfavorable views of the Revolutionary Guards.

Perhaps most surprisingly, however, another familiar figure in Iranian politics was also disqualified: the conservative Ali Larijani. In Tehran, the speculation about the reason for his exclusion is mushrooming. A former chairman of the Majlis and close adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Larijani had probably requested (and received) Ali Khamenei’s personal green light before presenting his bid for the candidacy. His exclusion by the Guardian Council suggests that the supreme leader changed his mind. Why? Was it related to the situation of Ali Larijani’s brother, Sadeq, himself a former head of the judiciary system and a member of the Guardian Council? Sadeq Larijani is believed to have ambitions to succeed the supreme leader when the time comes.

Another possible explanation lies in a fear, felt by Ali Khamenei and his associates, that Ali Larijani was slowly moving into the direction of the moderates and reformists. They were not prepared to take the risk of having another “moderate” administration in the next few years, when the succession of the supreme leader could come up as an additional challenge in already challenging times, characterized by massive competition between the political elite over the future course of the Islamic Republic.

A variation of this last theory highlights the divisions inside the “conservative” or “Principlists” camp: that Ali Khamenei might have not had the final word in this specific instance.


Iranian politics at an inflection point

In any case, it is clear now that Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, is left as the only strong candidate among a cast of minor figures generally unknown to the public. One of his competitors, Central Bank President Abdolnaser Hemmati, is a competent technocrat and could of course reveal himself to be a great politician, but this is unlikely given how little time is left in the campaign. Moreover, Hemmati has no political power base of his own.

Raisi is a jurist with deep links to the security apparatus and a dark legacy of repressing popular movements, most notoriously in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners. A staunch conservative, he is being groomed as Khamenei’s heir as supreme leader. In 2017, he made an unsuccessful first bid to be elected president, losing to Rouhani. Still, his presidential campaign established him as a well-known political figure at the national level. The leadership of the Islamic Republic apparently wants to ensure that, this time, Raisi will not end up in second place again. The presidency, it is widely assumed, would be the springboard for Raisi to become the supreme leader one day.

Such speculation aside: the fact is that for the first time since 1989 an Iranian presidential election will take place with no real options for the voters – to the dismay, by the way, of some conservative voices. This will break the rule that prevailed until now: the Guardian Council selects candidates but ensures there is genuine competition, giving voters a real choice within the framework of the Islamic Republic.

Several preliminary lessons can be drawn from this evolution. The most troubling one is that the current leadership appears to no longer care about public opinion. Voter turnout is expected to be low. This will amplify the disconnect between the bulk of the urbanized middle class and the regime, which may result in a (further) deterioration of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.

One may have the impression that the current leadership is taking this deficit of legitimacy as a given. Its own survival appears to be more important than the trappings of pluralism in the Islamic Republic. If this manifests itself in the upcoming years, we would witness an important inflection point in the history of the Islamic Republic, a shift towards even less room for political competition and even greater suppression of popular demands.

To a certain degree, this would amount to a kind of “normalization” to regional standards, with the Islamic Republic aligning itself with more classic authoritarian regimes – in the Iranian case with a religious-military caste at the top. One cannot believe that, given the history of political activism in the country, such an evolution would bode well for the stability and prosperity of Iran in the long term.


Europe and the paradox of political change in Iran

The paradox, however, is that this inflection point in the nature of the Islamic Republic may have little effect on Tehran’s foreign policy. In fact, Iran’s strategy is dominated by geopolitical realities and realpolitik considerations. European powers, especially France, Germany, and the UK (the E3), should base their policies towards Iran on this premise.

In the current situation, the talks in Vienna on the nuclear issue may or may not lead to a compromise before the Iranian election. Ultimately, only the supreme leader will decide whether such a compromise is acceptable, at this time or later. At any rate, the signals coming from Iran suggest that even the hardliners understand that the dismal state of the economy, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, demands a concerted effort to get a removal or at least an alleviation of the US sanctions.

Hence, whoever is the next president in Iran, there should be room for negotiations. It is even possible that President Raisi might take a special interest in reviving the JCPOA in order to compensate for his deficit of legitimacy and to boost his popularity – in the context of an Iranian system which will be more homogeneous that it has been for years. Nevertheless, the challenge for the Europeans, de facto honest brokers in the current Vienna talks, will be the same as today: to find the right balance in packaging a solution that both Tehran and Washington can live with.

Beyond this, Europe should also take another factor into consideration. While Iran was under heavy sanctions over the last few years, the country’s leadership had the opportunity to test the reliability of Russia and China, which have been presented as an alternative to the West. Tehran pretends that it is entering a new era of cooperation with China through a seemingly gigantic strategic deal reached between the two countries. In this context, Iranians also insist that the Europeans have been hugely disappointing in the face of the Trump’s maximum pressure strategy.

But the EU and E3 would be well advised to take such accounts with a grain of salt. The European assumption should rather be that the Iranian leadership – including the conservatives and the representatives of the increasingly powerful religious-military caste – will maintain their capacity to assess the strategic balance of forces.

Iran’s leaders are certainly aware of the growing polarization between Russia and China on one hand and the United States and its allies on the other. They may also realize the new assertiveness of countries like Turkey. For Tehran’s decision-makers, the prospect of being totally aligned with and dependent on the Chinese and the Russians is not an attractive option: it would force Iran to give up its traditional objective of strategic independence, encapsulated in the revolutionary slogan “neither East nor West.”

Against this backdrop, whoever is the next president and whatever the evolution of the regime, Tehran should continue to have an interest in close working relations with the Europeans.

How to exploit this interest should be the subject of deep strategic thinking in European capitals. A renewal of trade relations should come with a deeper political dialogue with Tehran as well as more contacts with civil society. On the economic front, specific issues such as the greening of the economy should be prioritized. One option could be for the Europeans to coordinate their approach with the Asian democracies – India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and others – which in any case will play a part in reintegrating Iran in the international community – provided of course that the new Iranian leaders accept the JCPOA as the basis for European-Iranian relations.

An “Indo-Pacific-European” joint approach to Iran, while not creating too much distance from Washington, would be a smart way to show Iran that there is an alternative to the China/US competition.



Ambassador Michel Duclos is Special Advisor for Geopolitics to Institut Montaigne in Paris and non-resident fellow to the Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council. He has had a long diplomatic career. He was an ambassador at the COPS in Brussels, from 2000 to 2002, Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations from 2002 to 2006, and Ambassador of France to Syria from 2006 to 2009.  Between 2009 and 2012, he was diplomatic adviser to the French Minister of the Interior, then Ambassador to Switzerland from 2012 to 2014.

On Twitter: @MrjDuclos



About the blog

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.


David Jalilvand is an Analyst, running the Berlin-based research consultancy  Orient Matters

Achim Vogt heads the FES project Peace and Security in the MENA-Region.




Achim Vogt

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