What is at stake for Russia in Iran’s election?
The Iranian businessman chased me after my talk, babbling about Vladimir Putin, Tatarstan and Iran’s presidential election, which is taking place on Friday. “Please look into how Putin is interfering in the election,” he insisted.
It was a few weeks ago and I was speaking to an audience of Iranian and British business people about US policy and Iran, and the prospects for the nuclear deal that forced the Islamic republic to curtail its programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The businessman’s mutterings sounded paranoid. But they piqued my curiosity and sent me searching for an explanation.
It turns out that the Russian connection surfaced in April during a visit to Tehran by the president of Tatarstan. Rustam Minnikhanov, who has sometimes acted as a Putin envoy, met several officials, including Ebrahim Raisi. He is the senior cleric and hardline candidate who is hoping to deny the centrist and internationally respected Hassan Rouhani a second term in office. That meeting, it seems, was enough to earn Mr Raisi the label of Russia’s man, and spark rumours of Russian interference. On social media, the conservative candidate’s name was mockingly altered to the more Russian-sounding Roysieh.
Now the Iranian businessman’s anxiety made sense to me. Except that, politically, it made no sense at all. Russia has become a master meddler in other countries’ elections. Iran, however, is an outlier. For one thing, the Iranian election is not worth Mr Putin’s trouble. The presidency is an influential position but not the most powerful. The ultimate decision maker is Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who will be replaced only after his death. His successor will be picked by a council of religious experts who will not be swayed by outsiders, least of all the Russians.
Iran and Russia work together at times but they also have a fraught history. Iranians trust Russians even less than their American enemies. Above all, they hate anyone who dares to meddle in their affairs, even if they defend their own interference in the politics of countries around them.
Second, this election is a rare occasion where the interests of Russia and western governments converge. Mr Rouhani is the architect of the 2015 nuclear agreement that Iran signed with world powers, which included the US and Russia. Although we think of Russia as the serial international troublemaker, the risk to the accord’s fate today lies more in Washington than in Moscow.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump, who claims to have mastered the art of the deal, railed against it as one of the worst ever negotiated. The Trump administration has yet to find fault with Tehran’s implementation of the accord but it is reviewing its Iran policy, and wants a more robust approach. In fact, the biggest fear for the nuclear agreement is that the US will pile up on Iran so many more unrelated sanctions that Tehran will eventually retaliate by halting compliance.
Third, Mr Rouhani seems to have a perfectly good relationship with Russia. He was feted in Moscow in March, where he met Mr Putin, signed a series of deals and received an honorary degree from Moscow State University.
Yes, Russia and Iran have something of a problem in Syria, where they are allies and rivals at the same time. Their support has ensured the survival of the regime of Bashar alAssad. But Russia is hoping ultimately to strike a deal with the US and is willing to contemplate, at some point, the departure of Mr Assad. Iran is more attached to him and wants the Shia militias it funds to stay on in Syria.
Still, if Russia’s immediate political interests are to safeguard the nuclear deal and manage the Syrian war, the configuration of the regime in Tehran suits it rather well. The big decisions in Iranian policy, whether on Syria, the US or the nuclear deal, will remain in the hands of the supreme leader. A president can temper or exaggerate the leader’s inclinations. Mr Rouhani would counsel moderation; Mr Raisi could reinforce the leader’s more belligerent instincts.
So if Russia were to meddle at all in the election, surely its interest would be to bolster Mr Rouhani and help keep the nuclear deal alive.