Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will “se­ri­ously shape” Iran’s for­eign pol­icy

Iran’s supreme leader makes the fi­nal for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions, but he can’t al­ways de­ter­mine their out­come.The up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will def­i­nitely im­pact Iran’s fu­ture for­eign pol­icy, says Maysam Behravesh

The Daily News Egypt - - Politics - Is a PhD Can­di­date in the De­part­ment of Politi­cal Science, Lund Univer­sity, Swe­den, and a con­trib­u­tor to Mid­dle East Eye.

DW—For­eign pol­icy is a key part of the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates’ elec­tion cam­paign. But what kind of lat­i­tude do they have?

Maysam Behravesh: The grand scheme and gen­eral con­tours of Ira­nian for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­icy are set out by the Supreme Leader and his in­ter­nal cir­cle of trusted ad­vi­sors, in­clud­ing top mem­bers of the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion Guards Corps (IRGC) or Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards, based on their vi­sion and con­cep­tion of Iran’s na­tional in­ter­ests and iden­tity.That’s ba­si­cally the dom­i­nant gov­ern­ing struc­ture that holds un­ri­valled power in the coun­try.But this does not mean that the elected pres­i­dent or his for­eign min­is­ter is pow­er­less, re­dun­dant, or just an un­con­di­tional fol­lower of the Lead­er­ship.The pres­i­dent can se­ri­ously in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process at two key points: first, when they are for­mu­lated col­lec­tively at the Supreme Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (SNSC), the sec­re­tary of which is ap­pointed by the pres­i­dent, and sec­ond dur­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion phase.

We know for a fact that dur­ing the nu­clear talks, some of the leader’s “red lines” were man­i­festly vi­o­lated by Iran’s ne­go­ti­at­ing team, prompt­ing his hard­line sup­port­ers and crit­ics of the con­se­quent nu­clear deal to in­veigh against pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani and for­eign min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif and even call the lat­ter a “traitor”. More­over, if we as­sume the pres­i­dent is sim­ply a fa­cade, as some main­tain, how would you then ex­plain such a huge dif­fer­ence in Iran’s for­eign pol­icy prac­tices un­der Rouhani and former Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad? Af­ter all, the leader and the dom­i­neer­ing state ap­pa­ra­tus he mar­shals were the same dur­ing both pe­ri­ods.

The con­ser­va­tive can­di­date Ebrahim Raisi’s meet­ing with a vis­it­ing Rus­sian of­fi­cial has raised a de­bate on Moscow’s in­ter­est in Iran’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Do you think Rus­sia wants to in­ter­fere in the elec­tion?

It is not easy to claim that Rus­sia is go­ing to in­ter­fere in Iran’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion or not,but of course Rus­sians are deeply in­ter­ested in the out­come. And this in­ter­est mainly stems from the fact that they have used Iran over the past cou­ple of decades as strate­gic lever­age to bal­ance their own re­la­tions with the United States and other western pow­ers on the one hand and with China on the other. As I have ar­gued else­where, ba­si­cally what Moscow favours is an iso­lated and lonely Is­lamic Republic that has no sound or re­li­able ties with the west, in­clud­ing Europe, and is thus forced to rely more heav­ily on Rus­sia for mil­i­tary and politi­cal sup­port. Such a state of af­fairs reached its peak un­der Ah­madine­jad af­ter Iran’s re­la­tions with the US and EU sys­tem­at­i­cally de­te­ri­o­rated due to his and his back­ers’ provoca­tive speeches and hard­line poli­cies as well as over the spi­ralling nu­clear cri­sis.

What ef­fect will the re­sult of the elec­tion have on the Syr­ian con­flict?

That’s quite a tricky ques­tion.There are two things to take into ac­count.

First, the Syria dossier does not fall within the Rouhani ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­mit of author­ity.To put it a bit more bluntly, Syria is not Rouhani’s cup of tea! While the Supreme Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (SNSC) does have a say over Iran’s Syria pol­icy, the sub­stance of it is pri­mar­ily de­ter­mined by the Supreme Leader and his IRGC cir­cle of ad­vi­sors.

Sec­ond, and more sig­nif­i­cantly to my mind, there seems to be a di­ver­gence of at­ti­tude and ap­proach to­wards Syria be­tween Rouhani’s mod­er­ate gov­ern­ment and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship in­clud­ing Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei, though they are try­ing not to pub­li­cise their dif­fer­ences. Just take the Khan Sheikhoun chem­i­cal at­tack in April as an ex­am­ple. Rouhani stri­dently called for the for­ma­tion of a truthfind­ing com­mit­tee to look into the deadly as­sault—as Ger­man for­eign min­is­ter Sig­mar Gabriel also did— and stressed the ne­ces­sity of “re­forms” in the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment while Khamenei mainly fo­cused on the Amer­i­can re­sponse and dubbed the mis­sile strikes against the alShayrat air­base a“strate­gic mis­take”.

Gen­er­ally, since he as­sumed of­fice in 2013, Rouhani seems to have fore­gone Syria in favour of get­ting the nu­clear dossier some­where,which he ul­ti­mately did.And, need­less to say, he does not want—and lacks the bold­ness by the way—to pick fights with the more pow­er­ful Supreme Leader over this or that pol­icy is­sue-area.

So if Rouhani is re-elected, Iran will likely have a con­tin­u­a­tion of the same pol­icy to­wards Syria as we have wit­nessed so far, but here is the key point:If Raisi is elected,the Is­lamic Republic’s pol­icy to­wards Syria, and Ye­men will prob­a­bly be in­ten­si­fied and pur­sued with greater vigour.

As I ar­gued above, Raisi will be the con­sol­ida­tor of the Supreme Leader’s “re­sis­tance econ­omy” and pro­moter of his rev­o­lu­tion­ary for­eign pol­icy, at the ex­pense and to the dis­favour of more mod­er­ate forces home and abroad.

Rouhani al­ways says his gov­ern­ment is in­ter­ested in good re­la­tions with neigh­bours. But with US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump now in of­fice and his anti-Iran poli­cies, Iran is quite alone in the re­gion. How can Rouhani change that, if he is re­elected?

I have no doubt in the sin­cer­ity of the Rouhani ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ten­tions and ef­forts to mend fences with neigh­bours,in­clud­ing SaudiAra­bia and Turkey.

But to be frank, Rouhani can­not change that dy­namic overnight. So let’s not set our ex­pec­ta­tions too high. He can­not take Iran out of re­gional iso­la­tion eas­ily, for two rea­sons: the in­ter­ven­tion of do­mes­tic spoil­ers and height­ened ex­ter­nal hos­til­ity.

Iran’s re­gional pol­icy may ex­pe­ri­ence a con­sid­er­able de­gree of con­ti­nu­ity if Rouhani is re-elected, its re­la­tions with the west will be ad­versely af­fected if Raisi wins the elec­tions, and this may even have neg­a­tive con­se­quences on the nu­clear deal as well.

Maysam Behravesh

The up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will def­i­nitely im­pact Iran’s fu­ture for­eign pol­icy, says Maysam Behravesh

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