In Iran, the president is not the head of state, but heads the executive branch, represents the country in the world. The state is headed by a supreme leader who controls the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches. This post is held for life by a clergyman. Since 1989, the 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been Iran's supreme leader. The president is elected by Iranian citizens, but his candidacy must be approved by parliament (Mejlis). The Guardian Council may prohibit certain candidates from participating in elections. In 2017, such a fate befell conservative ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running again.
Why the world is watching the elections in Iran
It is preferable for Ukraine that the new president of Iran changes its position on the case of the downed Boeing, which flew from Tehran airport on January 8, 2020. The incident took place five days after a rocket attack on an American military base in neighboring Iraq in retaliation for the elimination of the Iranian Quds Special Forces commander, General Qasem Soleimani, by a drone strike at Baghdad airport. According to the Iranian side, the passenger plane was shot down by mistake and mistaken for an American cruise missile.
However, Iran has not yet clarified a number of issues that concern the governments of Ukraine, Canada, Great Britain, Sweden and Afghanistan, whose citizens have died. The Iranian leadership refuses to provide the names of the Iranian anti-aircraft gunners in charge. Apart from the statements of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, there is no evidence that they were imprisoned. It is unclear why Iranian airspace remained open despite fears of US missile and bomb attacks. The Iranians delayed for several months before handing over the black boxes of the downed plane for examination. The promise to pay $ 150,000 each to the families of the victims was never fulfilled.
The command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps does not want the tragedy of Flight PS752 to deteriorate their image. The guards are considered the elite of Iranian society, and their officers have great influence in politics and business. Therefore, this question is not popular in Tehran. It is also unknown what kind of Corps object was covered by air defense systems in the area where the plane was flying. In February 2021, Canadian intelligence released audio recordings of a conversation attributed to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. According to him, the plane was shot down on purpose, and the whole truth about the incident will never be revealed in the interests of national security. Canadian Foreign Minister Mark Garneau called Iran's behavior shameless. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is recognized as a terrorist organization in the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain.
It is not known what position the team of the future Iranian president will take in negotiations in Vienna with the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany on the return of Iran and the United States to the fulfillment of the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Action Plan. So far it has not been possible to agree on anything. The problem is that the current Iranian authorities insist that the United States be the first to lift the sanctions and return to the fulfillment of the terms of the plan since ex-President Donald Trump was the first to leave the nuclear deal in 2018. Thus, he wanted to force the Iranians to take on more obligations: to abandon the financing of terrorist organizations, the development of ballistic missiles, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the liquidation of all nuclear facilities. These requirements go beyond the 2015 nuclear deal.
However, the Joe Biden administration is ready to lift the sanctions only if Iran returns to comply with the terms of the nuclear deal. The main conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan: Iran's agreement to reduce the level of uranium enrichment to 3.67%, dismantle some of the equipment at nuclear facilities, take out surplus enriched uranium for processing into nuclear fuel in Russia, admit IAEA observers to its nuclear facilities in exchange for sanctions.
It is worth clarifying the positions of the main candidates for the presidency of Iran on problematic issues in order to predict the possible consequences of a change of power in this country.
The election campaign in Iran can be described as an attempt by conservative candidates to take revenge on representatives of the reform camp, one of which is Rouhani. If the reformers are in favor of a relative modernization of social and political life in Iran, an increase in the country's openness, then the conservatives are focused on strengthening political Islam and are more inclined to confrontation with the West. Over 40 candidates have registered for the presidential elections.
Conservatives have strong positions in the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In February 2020, they won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections and increased their presence in the Mejlis to 221 seats. The number of seats for reformers in parliament fell from 121 to 20. At the same time, the conservative camp is not homogeneous.
An authoritative candidate, supported by broad sections of Iranian conservatives, is the head of the judiciary, former prosecutor general and judge, 60-year-old Ibrahim Raisi. He was predicted to be Khamenei's successor. In the last presidential election, he came in second. According to a February poll by the Canadian organization IranPoll, the majority of respondents (27%) are ready to vote for Raisi. The poll was conducted by telephone among 1,006 Iranians. Raisi's victory is not the best option for Ukraine. In the area of responsibility of the current head of the Iranian judiciary is the investigation of the tragedy of flight PS752. Concealing the details of the incident, the names of those involved in the destruction of the plane - that's his job. Raisi can be expected to toughen up his position at the negotiations in Vienna. In 2017, he accused Rouhani of weakness and compliance while commenting on the 2015 nuclear deal.
The presidential candidate is the former speaker of parliament and retired brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, 63-year-old Ali Larijani. He welcomes the Vienna talks, the nuclear deal, and backed President Rouhani on the issue in 2015. Larijani was Khamenei's advisor. As speaker of parliament, he paved the way for the signing in 2021 of the Iranian-Chinese agreement on strategic expanded cooperation, according to which the PRC will invest $ 400 billion in the Iranian economy in exchange for oil supplies at low prices. Despite the fact that the former speaker called the United States "a threat to the whole world," his daughter Fatima Ardeshir-Larijani entered the medical university in Cleveland. Larijani is a pragmatist and knows how to find compromises with opponents. Therefore, he must understand that for more predictable relations with the West, the number of problematic issues must be minimized. One of them is the case of the downed Boeing.
Said Jalili, 55, a former secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, is running for president. He is one of the few Iranian politicians who strongly oppose the nuclear deal, and considers it a one-sided concession to the West. Jalili has a reputation for being an uncompromising politician. In 2015, conservatives advocated expanding the nuclear program.
Also running is ex-defense minister, 64-year-old brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, retired Hussein Degan. He now works as a military adviser to Khamenei. Degan is under personal US sanctions for his involvement in the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marines' barracks in Beirut. The politician believes that the United States should be the first to return to the fulfillment of the terms of the nuclear deal. He is against any additional obligations, including limiting Iran's missile program. According to him, the Islamic republic has no plans to create nuclear weapons, but there is an interest in the development of nuclear energy.
According to unofficial information, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is going to promote its man to the post of the highest leader after Khamenei's death. There is a version that they can completely remove clergy and concentrate all power in their hands. These conversations emerged against the backdrop of the growing involvement of former security officials in the country's political life. In addition to Degan and Larijani, four more candidates have a military background. Initially, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was created as the guarantor of the theocratic regime in Iran and the support of the Ayatollah.
The collapse of the nuclear deal, which was presented as an achievement of President Rouhani, the crisis phenomena in the economy due to American sanctions and the negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic played not in favor of the reformers. In Iran, the number of unemployed and food prices are growing. The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 3.37 million Iranians. Reform candidates cannot shake off the Rouhani trail associated with the crisis. They were unable to develop clear priorities for foreign policy. Slogans about openness and peace do not correlate in any way with Iran's participation in armed conflicts in Syria and Yemen and sanctions. According to the portal Rasanah, the level of support for reformers among voters has dropped to 10%.
The press called representatives of the "defeatist camp" incumbent Vice President Eshak Jahangeri, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Chairman of the Tehran City Council Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who are running for president. The leader of the Faction of Hope party, Mohammed Reza Aref, was denied registration, who suggested that the reformers unite and nominate a single candidate. Other candidates, such as Yazd Provincial Governor Mahmoud Qummi, former Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, MP Massoud Pezeshkyan or women's rights activist Zahra Sojaei, have little political weight.
Prospects after the elections in Iran
The international community must understand that there will be no fundamental changes in Iran's foreign policy after the presidential elections. The president is accountable to Ayatollah Khamenei, who will raise the stakes in the negotiations if the US does not want to return to the nuclear deal. Iran is deliberately delaying negotiations in Vienna until the presidential elections. It is possible that the new president will demand big concessions from the Americans, including compensation for economic damage from sanctions, and raise the stakes in the negotiations. This year Iran has increased its uranium enrichment level to 63%. To produce nuclear charges, uranium must be enriched to 90%. In 2019, Iranian Supreme Court spokesman Gholam Hossein Ismaily demanded that the United States pay $ 130 billion in compensation.
Even if the United States and Iran manage to return to compliance with the nuclear deal and the true information about those responsible for the crash of the Ukrainian passenger plane is made public, the confrontation will not end there. Biden is under pressure from a group of Senate members led by Democrat Rob Menendez, who insist on a new agreement with Iran to limit not only nuclear but also missile programs. Similar sentiments are in the political circles of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the 2015 nuclear deal is not perceived as a security guarantee. After all, the existing restrictions did not prevent Iran from resuming uranium enrichment above the permissible standards.
It is possible that the aggravation in the Gaza Strip and the unrest in Jerusalem are calculated to sow discord in the relations between Israel and the Arab countries, which have recently been improving against the background of the Iranian threat. Although Tehran and Hamas support different sides in the Syrian conflict, they understand that Israel is their common enemy, and the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict prevents the normalization of relations with Muslims. Iran's goal is to prevent the formation of a coalition between Israel and the Arab world.
Should the Vienna talks break down, the Biden administration could tighten sanctions so much that it would be easier for Iran to abandon its nuclear program than to insist on its own. An alternative scenario is that the United States will gradually lift sanctions as Iran limits its nuclear program, but this still needs to be agreed.