The Democratic Autocracy: Iran and the Middle East

“Iran has chosen its next President, Ebrahim Raisi - a hardliner, an ultraconservative”, read the global news headlines after the results of the presidential elections of Iran were announced. It was nothing unexpected for no one but Raisi stood a chance. After all, the whole show was run by the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. He had the Guardian Council bar moderates such as Ali Larijani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to make sure that the vote was in favour of his favourite candidate- making it clear that the Supreme Leader wasn’t going to settle for anyone except Raisi as the President of the Islamic Republic. The turnout in the elections was the lowest in over four decades even after several appeals from the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader himself. The message was clear from the people of Iran – they were fed up and wanted better for themselves and their country. So, the real clutter is, why do these elections matter? More importantly, how can this election change the course of history for Iran and its relations with the world?


THE PRESIDENT AND THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT

The answer lies primarily in the influence Iran has over the Middle East which has been the hotspot of Western conflicts and regional instability for over two decades now. Iranian influence over Iraq has never been stronger than it is today. Palestine, Syria, Lebanon- all these nations have links to Iran in form of their rebel militias and funding for military and radical operations. Hamas, Houthis, Hezbollah – all such organizations have Iran as its primary support. Moreover, Iran’s enmity with Israel or ‘The Zionist Regime’ as Iran calls it makes it even harder for Western powers like US who have funded Israel’s military and programs over decades to ignore Iran as a ‘nuisance state’. Even with the Supreme Leader as the chief, the President of Iran matters because he is the face of the government and proves to be the link between the government and the Supreme Leader. Now with Ebrahim Raisi’s takeover as President, all the powerful posts in the Republic have conservatives as their heads.


Secondly, the point that we are all aware of is Iran’s nuclear programme and how it is flourishing with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal. The majority of experts of international relations and diplomacy believe that Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy to isolate Iran has unequivocally failed. This is because this muscular policy aimed to cripple down Iran’s economy and leave it on choice for the Islamic Republic to sit down on a table for a new deal, one that was more favourable for the US and its allies like Israel. Is the reality of Iran’s nuclear programme today as expected? The answer is a straightforward NO. Iran’s nuclear programme is flourishing with the latest update that it has small amounts of 60% enriched uranium, which is close to being used to make a nuclear weapon. This ran alarms all around the world especially for the new Biden administration that is trying to renegotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers in Vienna.


DID THE US ‘‘MUSCULAR POLICY’’ WORK?

Many experts in the West fear that the new President of Iran who is seen as an orthodox and unchanging individual will be harder to negotiate with for a new nuclear deal that is acceptable to all. But the fact remains that even when Hassan Rouhani was the President, the power to start such dialogue was with the Supreme Leader. So, if the Supreme Leader doesn’t want something to start, it won’t really matter who is the President. After all, it is the Supreme Leader who will decide the fate of every aspect of any future nuclear deal.


Moreover, the US sanctions that were a part of the US muscular policy have also started to show that they failed to affect Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East and its nuclear programme. Surely the sanctions have damaged the Islamic Republic’s economic stature and its currency has lost its value to quite some extent but what this has led to is a parallel black market between Iranians and its partners all around the world. No sanctions can remain effective forever. One cannot just isolate a country rich in natural resources and oil and cut it off from the rest of the world. The China-Iran deal worth $400 billion proves this point. China has promised to invest billions of dollars in Iranian infrastructure and their oil and petrochemical industries in exchange for crude oil at a discounted price over the next 25 years.


THE DYNAMICS THAT HAVE TURNED VOLATILE

The dynamics are changing in the Middle East and South Asia like never before. The US is withdrawing a considerable chunk of its forces from the Middle Eastern region and is losing its grip over Iraq and its government.

However, the focal point of all the chaos today is Afghanistan. With the complete US and NATO troop withdrawal, the Taliban is the reality of Afghanistan. Countries like Russia, China and Pakistan have already given clear signals that they will recognise a Taliban led government. Iran decided to have its ambassador back in Kabul. The Indian Foreign Minister’s recent visits to Iran and his taking part in the swearing-in ceremony of Raisi shows that India has understood that it needs Iran as a tool to deal with the new dynamics in Afghanistan.


WHAT TO EXPECT?

The US has been humiliated like never before in Afghanistan. The messy withdrawal and subsequent takeover by the Taliban have raised eyebrows in the quarters of the US allies and partners around the globe. The American administration is on the backfoot. The US cannot afford to have all hostile relations with Iran now. The next few months are extremely crucial as the US does not want to be seen as a flailing state by agreeing to Iran’s demands at the table in Vienna following the embarrassment in Afghanistan. If not a new JCPOA, then what are the options for Joe Biden who is facing serious political issues at home and is anxious about the midterm elections in 2022? Israel is worried about the talks going on as it sees the lifting of sanctions from Iran as a threat to its ambitions in the region. We saw Naftali Bennet and Biden talking some ‘out of the box’ solutions to Iran’s challenge during his visit to the White House. However, what is to be seen now is what Iran can pull off on the table in Vienna. After all, when asked if he was going to meet Joe Biden soon, President-elect Raisi’s reply was a straight ‘NO’. This is surely nothing other than a ‘maximum pressure’ policy from Iran’s leadership to get the most out of the Vienna talks.

Sources:

  1. https://theprint.in/opinion/400-bn-deal-an-eye-catcher-but-iran-is-just-a-square-in-chinas-geopolitical-chessboard/632683/

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