Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran on May 19. Although most of the power is centralized in the hands of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, the presidential elections do have meaning, mainly as an outlet for the people to express their will and wishful direction.

In the previous elections held in 2013, President Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory on a wave of hope for change and reform. At the time of his election, many adopted the slogan “victory of moderation over extremism” and termed him the “reformist backed cleric”. Others described him as the “moderate candidate“. But everyone overlooked the fact that all candidates went through pre-screening, which meant that he was endorsed and approved by the Supreme Leader in advance, which cannot distance him too far from the extreme views of the Supreme Leader. The so-called gap between moderates and extremists, embodied by Rouhani and Khamenei, was clearly exaggerated and over-credited.

And now, speculations are on the rise regarding Rouhani’s chances for re-election.

Some points go in his favor. He did succeed, as promised, to ink the nuclear deal with the powers and, in the process, he managed to prevent an economic catastrophe. Although he has the image of a moderate, he is tolerated by Khamenei, and thus has brought internal stability. There is also a lack of any charismatic alternative since the threat of an Ahmadinejad comeback is enough to unite all Khamenei, reformists and clerics around Rouhani.

But, there are many reasons for Rouhani to go down as the first Iranian incumbent president not to be re-elected. Contrary to his promises, the economy has not picked up. The nuclear deal has not brought benefits to the people, but more to the IRGC and hardliners. Dissatisfaction is prominent throughout Iran and in many ways his pledges to bring about improvement in freedom and liberty of the individual are left in ashes. Whether it be a result of inability or ill-will, it does not matter to the average Iranian who’s hopes have been dashed. The leaders of the opposition Mousavi and Karroubi still remain under house arrest, concerts cancelled, sports-contesters barred from participating due to headscarf issues, people arbitrarily arrested and human rights in general in a dreary situation. All broken promises.

The two sides of the speculation regarding Rouhani’s chances are presented well in two al-monitor articles: al-monitor-Iran President and al-monitor-five reasons five more years.

At least this time the Iranians go to the presidential elections with less deception and more realism. Taking into account that Rouhani is not such a moderate and a reformer as perceived, noting the narrowing gap between “moderates” and “extremists” in Iran, and bearing an awakening skepticism regarding the archaic terminology and misconceptions in relation to Iran.  The article termed “who really won Iran’s elections” in the Atlantic, states it well quoting Karim Sadjadpour “The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians—such as reformists, moderates, and hardliners—is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics”.  At least this time the Iranians can go to elections with less deception and with a more realistic awareness of the options.

Advertisements

Filling the vacuum vacated by ISIS

It would seem that the defeat of ISIS, at least in Syria and in Iraq, is coming near. Already  in October 2016 security analysts predicted the defeat of ISIS, as reported in express. Since then, the noose has been drawn closer and tighter.

In Mosul, reports (like aljazeera) are corroborating that neighborhoods held by ISIS are completely surrounded by anti-ISIS coalition forces.  According to theguardian, key Mosul sites have been seized from ISIS. cbsnews summarized “ISIS is cornered, desperate and leaving a trail of destruction in Mosul”.  Reports have surfaced regarding the leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, who has apparently abandoned Mosul and gone into hiding (see independent).

Losing Mosul has been projected to spell the end of ISIS’s ability to further control areas in Iraq. A bizarre coalition of Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shia militias, Turkish forces, US airstrikes and others has brought about a change of tide.

The Syrian front is also nearing some kind of outcome. As reported on cbsnews, many areas in Syria are being liberated from ISIS strongholds. Although the battle still continues in Aleppo, it would seem that the Syrian army with the help of Russian military, have been able to re-conquer most of the city.

The Syrian front is no less complex than the Iraqi one. What began as a civil war around the legitimacy of the Assad regime has erupted into a full blown multi-state battle between ISIS and anti-ISIS coalitions. With Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghan, Pakistani and other Shiite militias intertwined in the military efforts. As reported in bbc, it would seem that at least a quarter of ISIS territory has been already liberated.

With President Trump pledging to defeat ISIS and even signing an executive order to plan the defeat of ISIS in thirty days, it would seem that we are at a crucial stage.  It always takes the US some time to make the move, but once it does, history has shown us that that is a decisive moment. During the second world war, it took Pearl Harbor to draw the US into the war, three years into the bloody battles, but once that happened it was decisive.

So, it is time to start asking the question about the day after – who will fill the vacuum?

After WWII, we witnessed the ally forces splitting the territories amongst themselves, laying the foundation for decades long “Cold War” between the US (NATO) and Russia (Warsaw pact).

In Iraq, it is quite clear that Iran will maintain tremendous influence over any future political settlement, thus expanding the Shiite arc of influence way beyond the Persian Gulf.

What about Syria?

Assad is too weak and shattered to control anything. Russia, with all its might and power, will not camp down in Syria, thousands of miles away from homeland. Turkey may want to stay, but it would not seem to be feasible long term.

The real danger is an Iranian direct or proxy takeover, like it has done in Lebanon (with Hezbollah), in Yemen (with the Houthis) and in Iraq. Moreover – they have flooded the area with proxy fighters. Already the washingtonpost has warned that “thousands of Shiite militiamen” have led the charge in Syria, all loyal to Iran. These militias have bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government.  Philip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias is quoted stating “they are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran.” Iran is there to stay. They will fill the vacuum, expanding Shiite influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, unless action is taken to avoid it.

Mistakes have been made in the past, like with the splitting of regions of influence following WWII. A bigger mistake would be to allow an entity like Iran to fill such a vacuum. It would seem that it is time for the powers to start planning the day after.

 

Related articles:

aleppo-is-liberated-aleppo-has-fallen

the-nuclear-deal-and-the-fall-of-aleppo

whos-winning-in-the-middle-east

irgc-is-gowing-stronger-under-rouhani

zarifs-hypocrisy-soars-to-new-heights

 

Assad Becomes Weak Link Between Moscow and Tehran

President Donald Trump focused on the theme of strengthening US cooperation with Russia during his presidential campaign, and President Vladimir Putin seemed quite agreeable. The reasons for such cooperation spread from containing nuclear threats, through blotting out the Islamic State and solving the Ukrainian issue, to preserving world stability. But one of the most central issues at stake is deeply connected to the Syrian quagmire and Iranian hegemony.

Despite many convergent interests, the Syrian issue strengthened the cooperation between Russia and Iran. Of course, the Tehran-Moscow alliance between Russia and Iran relied on various interests, among them weapons and arms sales, economic interests, defying the West, building new coalitions and power centers and it was only natural for them to team up on Syria. For Moscow, it meant supporting Iran, helping a historical ally and “proving” to the world that it is in control in the region.  For Tehran, it meant solidifying the “axis of resistance”, support Hezbollah and Shiite militants and finalizing the “export of the revolution” to Bashar al-Assad, who is a minority Alawite closely related to Shiism.

During the Barak Obama presidency, things went well for Moscow and Tehran: US influence in the region dwindled and Obama accepted Tehran’s demand to stay out of the war.  Then, two things happened. The peace talks in Syria went into high gear and Trump was elected.

The Tehran-Moscow relationship began to weaken. The first crack in the wall was Moscow’s suggestion that the US take part in the Syrian peace talks, a suggestion which raised a torrent of objections from Tehran and from Assad. Assad was told firmly by Moscow that he had no say in regards to who was invited to the peace talks, including Syrian rebel delegations as well as foreign powers. The crack widened when Moscow decided that Syria’s constitution should be revised in order to allow for democratic change in power. Moscow then diverged from its common strategy with Tehran when it suggested that Assad may not stay in power and should be replaced with Syrian business tycoon Firas Tlass. The schism demonstrated the fact that despite the honeymoon period, this was not a marriage of love.

The conflicting interests between Moscow and Tehran in Syrian context became obvious basically on whether to blindly support Bashar al-Assad or not. Fred Hof, a former US state department official who oversaw Syria policy, was quoted stating that “Russia is fully aware of the corruption and incompetence of the Assad regime…and knows that a stable Syria is unattainable with Assad at the helm”. With the Trump victory in the US, and the option of increased cooperation between the US and Russia, the cards were reshuffled again and the wedge between Tehran and Moscow widened: Trump is eager to strengthen Washington-Moscow ties and is equally eager to pressure Tehran  – a classic “two birds with one stone” strategy.

Syria is not the only thorn in the relationship between Tehran and Moscow: Moscow does not wholeheartedly support Hezbollah or other Shiite militants and remains worried at the potential militarization of Iran’s nuclear program by the regime.

Tehran is now stuck between a rock and a hard place: Angering Moscow would seriously weaken Tehran’s global standing but accepting Moscow’s dictate on Syria would anger the hardliners in the regime. Tehran will have to decide whether to place Moscow before Assad or not.