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Six things you need to know about the Iranian election

The Arab world sees no difference on who is president as Iran continues its destabilising meddling in Arab affairs

Image Credit: AFP
Rouhani (L) and his chief election rival Ebrahim Raisi
Gulf News

Q) How is the Arab world viewing Iran’s presidential elections?

A) The Iranian elections do not appear to have gained much interest in Arab countries, largely due to the presence of other “more pressing issues” in Arab nations where Iran is accused of fomenting tension.

Iranian interference in many Arab countries, including Syria, Yemen and Iraq has made Arabs less interested in following the internal developments in the Islamic republic out of their convictions that Iranian foreign policy is unlikely to change regardless of who is president.

While touted as a “moderate” in Iran and the West, Hassan Rouhani has not been able to stop Iran’s meddling in the Arab world.

Arab countries have long accused Tehran of interfering in their internal affairs, fomenting sectarian tensions and attempting to export its Islamic revolution to the neighbouring countries.

Q: Does the president has real power and influence?

A) In some matters. Although Iran’s electoral process is far from being free and fair, presidents do play a role in shaping Iran’s foreign and domestic policy which often reflects the ebb and flow of society and they also have the power to appoint key Cabinet members and provincial governors.

“Iran’s elections are often viewed in the west as black and white, with the supreme leader sitting on top and nothing else matters,” said Reza H. Akbari, a programme manager at the Washington-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “But the political system is far from monolithic, and elections are competitive.”

Although the position remains subordinate to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who carries the final say over Iran’s foreign and domestic matters, presidents have negotiated and swayed the supreme leader’s decision on a variety of issues. one of the most recent being Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.

What would have been unimaginable during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president, Rouhani was also able to secure a team of experts to negotiate a nuclear deal, that lifted some sanctions and began the process of thawing relations with the west.

Rouhani’s emphasis on diplomacy and his pledge to open Iran to the international community, compared to Ahmadinejad’s isolationist approach, illustrates the nuances that different actors bring to the role of president and how those differing agendas has far reaching domestic and foreign policy influence.

Presidents also have tremendous influence over the economy. After inheriting a messy economic mess from Ahmadinejad who mismanaged public funds, Rouhani was able to bring inflation rights from 40 per cent down to 7.5 per cent in 2016, according to local media in Iran.

Q: How do elections in Iran work?

A: This is the Islamic republic’s 12th presidential election. The voting age in Iran is 18 and there are about 50 million eligible voters. Presidents can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms. Presidents generally win second terms, experts say, but slow economic growth has fuelled criticism against Rouhani and made a much tighter race than anticipated.

“There are people that argue that change is not happening fast enough,” Akbari said. “They do not see the impact on sanctions relief that came as a result of the nuclear deal as much as they want to.”

The Guardian Council — a 12-member unelected clerical body — is responsible for vetting candidates. Out of 1,600 people who registered to run in this year’s presidential elections, the Guardian Council approved six people.

Former President Ahmadinejad, a divisive conservative figure who served two terms from 2005 to 2013, registered to compete in this year’s presidential election, but was disqualified. To win the presidency, a candidate must get more than 50 per cent of the vote. If no candidate wins the majority, a run-off between the two lead contenders will take place a week later.

Q: Who are the leading candidates for president?

A: Hassan Rouhani, 68: He is a centrist leaning candidate who is running for a second term and is considered the front-runner. In 2013, he campaigned on the platform of enacting social and domestic reforms, such as providing universal health insurance, supporting an open political atmosphere in universities and engaging with the west. While he did keep his campaign promise of sealing the 2015 nuclear deal, many of Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promises on social freedoms have been stalled after he ran up against fierce opposition from hardliners who worry that Rouhani’s policies will undermine their power.

Ebrahim Raisi, 56: Although experts say that Raisi doesn’t have much political experience, he appears to be the preferred conservative choice among hardliners and has close relations with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In 1988, Raisi was part of a tribunal that oversaw the execution of thousands of political prisoners.

Q: What issues matter to Iranians?

A: Iran’s economy has played a huge role in the presidential election. Unemployment and poverty remains a huge problem in Iran’s big cities and rural towns. Many feel disheartened, arguing that they have yet to reap the benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal, causing some experts to speculate whether there will be a low voter turnout among Rouhani supporters.

During the televised presidential debates, conservative candidates leveraged those sentiments using populist rhetoric and lashed out at Rouhani for Iran’s slow economic growth. Qalibaf and Raisi promised to improve the economy by providing government housing and offering monthly cash payments to the poor.

Q: Will the election affect US-Iran relations?

A: All six presidential candidates said they will agree to uphold the nuclear deal during the televised presidential debates. But experts are concerned about how a conservative candidate will interact with President Donald Trump.

During the Obama administration, bilateral communication channels were established, helping to de-escalate potential crises. But so far, no channels between the Trump administration and Iran exist. This worries Akbari, who said that as tensions between the US and Iran increase, if a conservative candidate was to become president, there is a chance for things to spiral out of hand.

“Trump’s rhetoric towards Iran is so harsh that to have someone else on the other side who is equally harsh, it might provoke an unintentional confrontation,” Akbari said.