Iran Prepares to Vote; Trump Prepares to Visit Gulf

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 9, 2017

Iran’s presidential elections are scheduled to take place in two weeks’ time. Commentators and observers from the region continue to speculate as to the likely winner, but most agree that the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani has the advantage — though the country’s supreme leader has recently been sending mixed signals about which candidate he favors. Meanwhile, as President Trump prepares to visit the region, many have been eager to give him advice on the future of U.S. relations with the Gulf states and Iran.


Commenting on the presidential race in Iran, Al Monitor’s Mahsa Rouhi believes that, despite the “managed uncertainty” of a less-than-fair election, President Hassan Rouhani will still win a second term: “Historical trends suggest that Rouhani will be the likely winner next month. But it is in the interest of the political establishment to aim for a competitive election while keeping the scales in Rouhani’s favor. Managed uncertainty helps drive voter turnout, and high levels of electoral participation are valuable for the Islamic Republic. In a country with a diverse, politically active and young population, the democratic process is an important tool that is used to channel political engagement. It is in the supreme leader’s interest to ensure that the democratic process is perceived as legitimate and serves as a tool for mass participation in the political process…. This is not to say that the outcomes of elections are a foregone conclusion, but rather that the Iranian political establishment has strategic preferences for electoral politics that are evident from previous election cycles. This tradition of managed competition is also evident in the current election cycle.”


But as Adel Al-Salmi puts it in a recent Asharq Alawsat op-ed, Mr. Rouhani has received little public support from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who “slammed [the] election slogans of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani on the removal of the ‘shadow of war’ from Iran by signing the nuclear deal. Iranians should not thank Hassan Rouhani’s policy of detente with the West for any reduction in the threat of war, Khamenei said on Sunday, stepping up his criticisms of the president as elections approach. Hours later, Rouhani renewed his position, but softened his tone…. Khamenei and his hardline supporters have also criticized the nuclear deal — which stifled talk by Washington of possible military action against Iran — for failing to deliver promised economic benefits. But speaking at the opening of a refinery that Iran says will make it self-sufficient in oil products, Rouhani defended his position…. One of Rouhani’s main challengers, Raisi, an influential cleric with decades of experience in the hardline judiciary, said Iran had no need of foreign help to improve the economy and could always defend itself.”


Events in Syria are also playing a role in the Iranian presidential election, with Amir Taheri, also in Asharq Alawsat, expressing dismay at the exploitation of Iranian efforts for Russia’s gains in the region: “‘Do we need a new policy on Syria?’… Russia and the United States are approaching a tacit accord to divide the Syrian ‘cake’ between them, leaving Islamic Iran to look for the crumbs…. For months, unhappiness, even anger, against Iran’s involvement in the Syrian quagmire has been rising steadily. Last week, one of the leading strategists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Dr. Hassan Abbasi, aka ‘Kissinger of Islam,’ was rudely attacked by students in Tabriz where he was campaigning on behalf of Ayatollah Ibrahim Raiisi, one of the six approved candidates in the current presidential elections. The theme of [the] critical students was that Iran had made too many sacrifices in Syria only to give Russia ‘an additional card’ in its power game against the United States….It may be premature to announce a radical change in Iran’s analysis of the Syrian situation. But one thing is certain: the policy Iran has pursued in the past six years has reached its limits. The search for a new policy is on.”


The view from the other side of the Gulf is markedly different. According to a Reuters report published by Khaleej Times, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remains skeptical of Iran’s role in the Muslim world, and “ruled out on Tuesday any dialogue with arch rival Iran and pledged to protect his Kingdom from what he called Tehran’s efforts to dominate the Muslim world. Prince Mohammed also said in a nationally televised interview that Riyadh had the resources to crush Houthi fighters in Yemen, where Saudi forces head an opposing coalition of Arab states, but that the cost would be heavy on both sides…. ‘How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … that they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world’. He said that Iran’s ideology was based on belief that “the Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for (his) arrival … and they must control the Muslim world. We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims and we will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”


Among the Gulf countries, there is general agreement that, as Gulf News’ Abdullah Al Shayji writes, the United States needs to take a tougher stance against Iran and “reassure Middle East allies”: “Although GCC states have welcomed, albeit with guarded optimism, the tough talk and bold move from the Trump administration on the Middle East, there are lingering doubts on the steadfastness of the administration and its commitment to GCC security….For far too long, GCC allies have been underappreciated, taken for granted, pushed around and not been consulted over many strategic issues….Buoyed by Trump’s tough talk and strong stance vis-a-vis the Middle East, GCC states had hoped that with the Trump administration in office, things would begin to look up and that both sides could see eye-to-eye and work together, restoring their relationship to equal footing…. Aligning the strategies of the US and its GCC partners, Trump — in his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia this month — should send a clear signal that the US-Saudi-led GCC alliance is firm and both sides stand to gain from a strengthened alliance.”


The Saudi Gazette editorial staff issued a similarly strong-worded editorial, calling on Mr. Trump to revisit the Iran nuclear deal and impose new, tougher sanctions: “The Iranian nuclear deal was always going to be one of the bitterest parts of Barack Obama’s international legacy…. Unfortunately, Obama did not listen to the counsel of America’s allies in the Middle East, not least to the warnings from here in the Kingdom…. Tehran’s increasing meddling in the region, in Eastern Province, in Iraq, in Yemen, Bahrain and most obviously in Syria and Lebanon was and remains an immediate threat to stability in the Middle East….If Trump decides the Iranian nuclear deal must be revisited and sanctions reimposed, then it is crucial that he looks at the wider picture. Iran is intent upon destabilizing the region. Nothing Obama did in his weak and vacillating incumbency served to check or even discourage Tehran’s malevolence toward Washington’s loyal allies in the Middle East. It seems clear that the Trump administration must start over with Iran. The missile tests alone justify suspending the January 2016 nuclear deal…. If the Geneva deal 15 months ago was another Obama red line, Iran has already crossed it.”


Concerned that President Trump may be lulled into a sense of false security, Arab News’s Majid Rafizadeh has some words of advice, cautioning him against appeasement: “We have heard it for almost four decades. Everyone thought it would work. Six U.S. presidents tried it and failed repeatedly. What is it? Addressing Iran by engaging with or appeasing it one way or another. Iran is a top national security threat to the U.S….The Iranian government is sworn to incapacitate and damage the US. Many lives of Americans have been lost due to Iran and its proxies…. As a result of Iran’s sectarian agenda in Iraq and Syria, the situation became more radicalized and militarized; Daesh and other radical groups gained more power in the region and around the world. The Middle East became a more dangerous place. President Donald Trump should look at this historical evidence that speaks for itself. Engagement with Iran and appeasement policy with Iranian leaders has not worked for almost four decades, and will not work as long as the revolutionary, religious, theocratic, authoritarian and anti-American political establishment of the Islamic Republic is in power.”


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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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