Tricky ally

What is at stake for Rus­sia in Iran’s elec­tion?

Financial Times USA - - FRONT PAGE - by Roula Kha­laf roula.kha­laf@ ft.com

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.

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