It remains to be seen if the Iranians in mass numbers will go to the polls on Friday. Elections in Iran are neither free nor fair and after the fraudulent elections in 2009, faith in the utility of casting a vote seems to be at an all-time low. But whether the turnout is high or low, and whether the votes are counted or not, who becomes president of Iran may make an important difference for the country’s foreign-policy.
The ruling regime in Iran wants a turnout that is high enough to provide a semblance of legitimacy for the regime, but low enough to make sure that the loyal followers of the regime won’t be outnumbered at the polls. In the past elections, a very high turnout has benefited the reformists. So Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encourages his followers to participate in the elections by saying that every vote is a vote in favor of the legitimacy of the regime, while the regime at the same time takes measures to prevent too much excitement around the elections that could mobilize the anti-establishment vote.
Indeed, the two measures are mutually reinforcing. Saying that every vote is a vote in favor of the system suppresses the anti-establishment vote precisely because it is aimed at signalling the lack of legitimacy of the system.
Yet, in reality, for most people the elections are not about legitimizing or delegitimizing the system. For most, the elections provide one of very few opportunities to push for change in a peaceful manner without risking punishment, violence or at worst instability or even civil war (most Iranians want change, but not at the expense of ending up in a Syria scenario.) If they vote, they will simply do so because it provides the lowest risk path towards change.
On Friday, we will find out if the prospects of change through the ballot box has become so small as a result of the shrinking political space in Iran that large number of Iranians simply will conclude that it’s not worth voting. The risk may be small, but the benefits may simply be deemed nonexistent.
Though the political space in Iran has contracted significantly in the past couple of years – even the candidacy of a former president and founder of the Islamic Republic has been rejected – and though the differences between the existing candidates leaves much to be desired for the Iranian people, the differences are important and the result of the elections can be significant for one specific area: Foreign policy.
As some of the candidates are dropping out as we near election day, the contest is increasingly becoming a three way race between arch-conservative Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator; the centrist Hassan Rouhani, the former nuclear negotiator; and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran.
While Mr. Qalibaf is an unknown quantity on foreign-policy, there is greater clarity about the two former nuclear negotiators in the race. Mr. Jalili has promised to keep Iran on its current track, and there are few reasons to doubt his sincerity. Iran would sustain a principal position that by definition is antithetical to the very concept of compromise.
There are three factors that may create opportunities for resolving tensions with Iran if Mr. Rouhani wins the elections – and the regime is forced to respect that result.
First, it’s not just about Rouhani; it’s about the personnel that would follow him into government and populate key ministries and institutions and reconfigure the political makeup of the regime’s decision-making table. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, within months he fired 80 of Iran’s most experienced ambassadors and foreign policy profiles. Many of these were Iran’s most pragmatic and competent foreign policy hands, often key players in Iran’s more conciliatory decisions, such as the collaboration with the United States in Afghanistan and the suspension of enrichment in 2004. They were replaced by inexperienced ideologues hired not for their capabilities but their loyalty to Mr. Ahmadinejad. A reversal of this trend can prove quite valuable.
Second, Mr. Rouhani and his entourage hold a different world view than those close to Mr. Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader. While still suspicious and distrustful of the West, and while still committed to Iran’s bottom line on the nuclear issue, the elite that associates with Mr. Rouhani does not see the world in Manichean black and white. The outside world may be seen as hostile, but common interests can still be found. Collaboration is still possible. Rather than emphasizing ideology and resistance, they pride themselves on being pragmatic and results-oriented (of course, within the context of the political spectrum of the Islamic republic). It is not a surprise that most of the sensitive arrangements Iran have entered into came about during periods that this current dominated Iran’s decision making.
Third is the difference in assessing the risks of peacemaking versus confrontation. The hardliners’ insistence on resistance at any cost combined with their hesitance about compromise, indicates far greater willingness to accept risks for escalation and confrontation than for compromise. A similar problem exists on the American side, where risks for confrontation are easier accepted and assessed to be smaller than the risks one inevitably has to take to strike a deal. This psychological dimension of Tehran’s cost-benefit analysis should not be discounted.
The West cannot impact the elections. But if Mr. Rouhani wins and choses to pursue a more conciliatory foreign policy, the response of the West can determine his success and whether more moderate elements can push the radicals to the margins.
Trita Parsi is an author and the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council . His latest book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press) was released in 2012.