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Challenges for the New Iranian President

Next Friday Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) will “elect” a new president from the eight vetted candidates. Most likely non will get the necessary 50%+1 votes and the top two will have a runoff election. The main news so far has been disqualification of ex-president Rafsanjani by the Guardian Council (GC). The 12 member Council is closest to a “Supreme Court” in IRI. At least this was the intention originally. Its main task is to make sure laws passed by the parliament (Majlis) are compatible with Sharia and the IRI’s constitution. Its six Islamic jurists (Faghih) are appointed by the Supreme Leader Khamenei. The six constitutional experts are selected by the Majlis from a list of thirty names submitted to it by the head of Judiciary branch, himself a Khamenei appointee. Therefore the GC is in control of the Leader and does his biddings. Among its tasks is “observing” that presidential and parliamentary elections to make sure they are conducted properly. The GC has interpreted this observation to mean that only “qualified” candidates are permitted to run. Candidates must show their loyalty and commitment to the Supreme Leader and IRI, not just in words but also in practice. Being dominated by ultra conservatives, the Council has used this criterion to deny a large number of high ranking IRI loyalists whose politics it (and the Leader) did not like. A large number have chosen not to run for fear of being rejected by the Council. Ex-president Khatami, one of the more popular of such loyalists, did not run because he was told in no uncertain terms that he would be disqualified. Yet, rejecting Rafsanjani for lack of commitment and loyalty to the IRI and the Leader would be too much even for the GC. Rafsanjani’s resume in contribution to the IRI, for better or worse, is second to none; including that of the Supreme Leader, to his ascend Rafsanjani played a critical and decisive role. So the Council came out with a new criterion: Rafsanjani was disqualified for “old age and frail health!” This unprecedented “reasoning” by a Council whose president is senior to Rafsanjani by quite a few years and frailer in health!

Reactions to this disqualification have been generally centered on two criticisms:

First, there are those who argue this is unfair and undemocratic, thus damages validity of the elections. Not too many, even among regime’s supporter, consider these elections are democratic and fair. Had the GC approved Rafsanjani this reality would not have changed. Even if the GC would cease to “observe” elections altogether still they would not have remotely resemble a fair and free one.

Second, are those who argue the IRI missed an opportunity to right its ship. The more moderate and pragmatist Rafsanjani would improve relations with the rest of the world, US in particular. He would stop the crazy rhetorics of current president, and resuscitate the economy and so on and so forth. Without denying Rafsanjani’s pragmatic  attributes, and even conceding that today’s Rafsanjani is different from the one four years ago, he could not make much of a difference, unless the Leader would want and support him. He did not.

What is news worthy about this disqualification is the obvious lack of tolerance of dissent by the Supreme Leader.  At the cost of humiliation and ridicule the GC and Leader preferred to disqualify a personality like Rafsanjani over the risk of letting him become the next president.B ut, why?

The first live debate among the eight candidates was on economic issues. They were supposed to discuss  their economic plans. An uninspiring and boring debate with cliché answers. No doubts Iranian economy is in big trouble. Inflation is over 30% and unemployment around 18%. Its exports have declined by at least 30% and its imports by 40%. Iran’s oil exports, the lifeline of its economy, have been cut by more than fifty percent. The national currency has lost two third of its value. In economics a couple of percentage change is news. Iran’s number one economic problem, however,  is that it is “politicized.” In a typical country political decisions are made for benefit of economics. In IRI it is the other way around; economic decisions are at the service of political aims. From very early the IRI has locked horns with the US and its allies, the latest manifestation of it over IRI’s nuclear policy. The question is not if IRI is right or wrong. It is if it can afford such confrontational policies. The toll of such policies, best reflected in economic sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, is way too high. The above mentioned disastrous declining numbers are direct consequences of these chocking sanctions. Without resolving political issues that have resulted in imposing these sanctions there will be no chance for implementing any meaningful economic rescue plans. This was the proverbial “elephant in the room” that none of the candidates addressed in that debate. They knew that the Supreme Leader will not allow them dealing with these issues. He does not trust even Rafsanjani when it comes to negotiation with the US. At best, the next president will be a chief executing officer, not a policy maker. Khamenei wants to be in charge of policy. So far there is no indication that he is serious about resolution of these issues. Numerous rounds of negotiations between IRI and “5+1” (five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) have been fruitless and gone nowhere. Some have argued this is a time wasting tactic. It could be inability of the IRI representatives to get what the Leader is demanding.

Even if the regime and its Supreme Leader decide to resolve the political differences with the US this will not be easy; and will take a while. It is naïve to think that the US who is sitting on thousands of bombs, and its ally Israel probably over two hundred of them, are concerned about the one bomb that IRI does not yet have. What US demands in reality, is a total ‘face lift” of IRI’s role in the region; in Syria, Lebanon, Persian gulf, Afghanistan,… Five years ago “detante” would do it. The US was heavily involved in Iraq and was planning to increase its presence in Afghanistan. In both cases a hostile IRI could cause significant damages. Additionally, the US’s vulnerably   in the Persian Gulf and IRI’s upper hand in Syria and Lebanon would make a “do no harm” policy of IRI for the just inaugurated Obama administration attractive. That all has changed now. The US is out of Iraq and in the process of reducing its presence in Afghanistan. Assad’s regime is shaky and may not survive. US allies in the Persian gulf are on offensive. Leaders of IRI, once decided that they want to seriously negotiate, should ask themselves what can they offer to entices the Obama administration to sit down for negotiation and to agree lifting these sanctions. Detante will not do it anymore.They should think of some “carrots” as well. There are a number of crucial issues that the two have similar national interests and can be carrot for both. Security of navigation in the Persian gulf is one. It would be a major disaster for everyone if an Alqaedeh suicide bomber gets a small plane to hit one of the super tankers crossing the shallow waters of the gulf. Also, Iran can offer US a safe and easy way to help Karzai regime in Afghanistan and get its troops and heavy weapons out of that country. Both Iran and the US have common interests in the Central Asia and Caspian see; to curtail dominance of Russia.

Even if the new IRI president and Obama administration resolve their differences and agree to lift sanctions there are still major obstacles. Anyone who knows the political process in the US, all the rivalries between Republicans and Democrats, white House and congress, and so on, knows how difficult it is to undo the damage and lift the sanctions. In addition there are powerful lobbies that are opposed to the lifting of sanctions. A few weeks back Secretary of defense Chuck Hagel made a trip to the region and sold $10billion worth of weapons to the Persian Gulf allies. Israelis got some of the most sophisticated US warplanes also. All in the name of “Iran, the enemy.” These countries’ lobbyists, as well as those of the military industry complex will resist lifting of sanctions In short, even if there is enough will power to lift the sanctions and normalize two countries’ relations, it will be a gradual, long, and arduous  process. Will IRI’s leader be willing to go through this process?

The status quo cannot continue for long. There are unbearable pressures on Iran’s economy that are chocking it. Social developments have a way of surprising social scientists and activists. Precious few would have predict fall of Mubarak in Egypt a year prior to its happening. There are other examples, too. Not only is it difficult to predict “when” or even “if”, it is not wise to insist “what” will happen. A wide array of alternatives is probable. The best case scenario is replacement of current Islamic regime by a secular, democratic and inclusive encompassing coalition that in addition to political forces represents ethnic and religious minorities. There is no serious attempt to form such a coalition at the moment. But again, “one never knows.” The worst case scenario is implosion of IRI and emergence of a “failed state” in which ethnic and religious minorities fight in a brutal civil war much worse than the Iraqi, Afghani, or Syrian ones. This will be a catastrophic event, not only for people of Iran, but the entire region and even world. Will IRI leaders go that far? Uncompromising and brutal, yes, but irrational and suicidal, no. During eight years of Iran-Iraq war they rejected any compromise and insisted that the war ends once they reach Jerusalem via Baghdad. Once it was clear that they may lose the war, and their regime, the leaders (Rafsanjani and Khamenei in particular) convinced the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to accept a cease fire that he resembled to “drinking the poison challis.” By preventing Mr. Rafsanjani from running, Mr. Khamenei refused to drink from the challis. Does he prefer to take it from someone junior to Rafsanjani, thus less threatening to his power, or is he thinking it’s not the time yet? If latter, there will be more misery and hardship for people of Iran to come.

G. Reza Ghorashi is a professor of economics at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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