Experts argue that a regimented Iran led by a hardliner president might be more confident in dealing with the West.
If pundits and pollsters are proved right, Iran will have a conservative president after the June 18 elections.
But if the favourite hardliner candidate Ebrahim Raisi wins, how will the new presidency shape Iran's relations with the West, primarily the US?
“A more monolithic Iranian system might feel more confident in engaging with the West and less bogged down by infighting,” Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, a prominent American think-tank, tells TRT World.
Although many reformist and moderate leaders were disqualified by the country’s Guardian Council, there is still a thin possibility that a moderate candidate like Abdolnaser Hemmati could clinch a surprise win. Hemmati, Iran's Central Bank governor, was removed from the post on May 30. His rival Raisi is the Chief Justice of Iran.
For many Iran watchers, including Vaez, the power struggle between Iran's reformists and hardliners sends mixed signals to Western governments, making them unsure about Tehran’s real political intentions. It also hurts Tehran to formulate both a consistent and concrete foreign policy towards the West.
But if conservatives win, Iran will have a unitary system of governance, which could rein in the country’s powerful institutions like the Revolutionary Guards, a supporter of hardline policies. The Iranian military establishment is likely to conform to the policy changes made by a government led by the hardliners.
“The stage is set for Raisi’s victory,” says Vaez.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal with the US and its allies, Iran’s foreign policy towards the Western world has been highly influenced by the agreement. Under the former Obama administration, Washington and its allies have also thought that relations between Iran and the West could be normalised in the context of the nuclear deal.
After the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, Tehran has continued to focus on the revitalisation of the agreement with Washington. President Biden also believed that the deal could help address some outstanding issues like Iran’s intervention in the Yemen war and its alliance with Lebanon's Shia group Hezbollah.
‘Consensus’ on the nuclear deal
Now, even most Iranian hardliners appear to support the restoration of the nuclear deal, according to experts. Under the new Biden administration, Washington has also launched a rapprochement policy with Tehran to restore the nuclear deal with Tehran.
In the last eight weeks, both sides alongside European, Russian and Chinese partners have been negotiating to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, the Austrian capital. “It’s one of the fastest negotiations ever between Iran and the Western states,” a European diplomat told Haaretz.
In a previous TRT World interview, Vaez noted that Iran’s “deep state” is also interested in keeping the nuclear deal alive to ease the country’s economic troubles, which have worsened under both US sanctions and the pandemic, which has hit the country badly, increasing inflation to 50 percent.
“There is now a general consensus in Iran that the country should stabilise the nuclear deal with the Biden administration, thereby rebooting the economy through benefits granted under the deal,” wrote Ali Reza Eshraghi, projects director at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s MENA division, in March.
“(W)hile Washington is afraid the next Iranian president and administration could throw a spanner in the works, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now has an interest to “grant” the agreement to the next president,” wrote Zvi Barel, an Israeli writer, referring to Iran’s needs for both economic recovery and enhancing public trust.
Now the restoration of the nuclear deal is pretty much on the horizon, Vaez says. “That is likely going to happen in the next few weeks,” he says. But Tehran will not announce it prior to June 18.
“I think it is more likely to happen after the elections because the leadership in Iran doesn’t want a diplomatic breakthrough to have any electoral implications,” Vaez says.
Fatima Karimkhan, a Tehran-based journalist, agrees with Vaez. “I don't think that these negotiations will reach a result before the elections. Because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei doesn't want anyone to use it as a tool in the elections,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
Despite the fact that most moderates and reformists were disqualified by the Guardian Council, Hemmati’s recent popularity still worries the country’s conservative establishment.
But Vaez also adds that the restoration of the deal does not mean that the old nuclear status between Washington and Tehran could be fully reestablished. “Neither Iran’s nuclear breakout time will go back to more than 12 months, nor will it be able to get its economy to where it was in 2016,” he says.
But in the face of escalating tensions across Palestine, where Tehran supports both Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel, an ally of Washington, and any other possible troubles emerging from Middle East’s hotspots like Yemen, Iraq and Syria, reaching an agreement is a better option for both sides.
“It is also important to remember that the alternatives to restoring the deal are even less attractive for both sides,” Vaez observes.
The Biden administration ended its engagement in the Yemen war in which Tehran has supported the Shia Houthis against a Saudi-led coalition backed by Washington. Saudis and Iranians are also reportedly negotiating to ease their tensions.
In the end, following the restoration of the nuclear deal, Tehran might choose to be less confrontational toward the West even under a hardliner government.
Doubts about hardliners
Karimkhan, the Iranian analyst, has some doubts about the negotiation capabilities of hardliners with the Western powers. “They [hardliners] look at the foreign policy as a war more than a conversation,” she says.
There are also other problems related to hardliners’ human resources. “The point is that they don't have the people to negotiate with others [Westerners],” Karimkhan says.
Iran’s current top diplomat, Javad Zarif, a highly skilled personality, was educated in the US. He stayed in America for more than 15 years, acquiring a great deal of knowledge about Western political thinking. Zarif, who has been credited to reach an agreement on the nuclear deal with the Western powers, is also a professor of international law.
The current reformist President Hassan Rouhani was also educated in Scotland, gaining his PhD degree in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University.
“Of course they [hardliners] have a closer relationship with the Supreme Leader, but the point is just having him on your side doesn't mean that they could negotiate better with others [Westerners],” says Karimkhan. But Iran’s worsening economic conditions “make the negotiations necessary right now,” she adds.
Khamenei is crucial for the realisation of any foreign policy agenda items. “You have to consider that the whole foreign policy is under 100 percent control of the Supreme Leader, so if he doesn't want a negotiation there will be none,” she concludes.