Esfandiary on Why Iran’s Presidential Elections Matter
Dina Esfandiary is a Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies in the War Studies department at King’s College London, and an Adjunct Fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Middle East Programme. Ms. Esfandiary’s research focuses on Persian Gulf security, Iran’s foreign relations, and relations between states and non-proliferation in the Middle East. She has published widely in leading publications that cover international relations such as Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, and The Guardian. A co-author of a forthcoming book “Triple-Axis: China, Russia, Iran and Power Politics (I.B Taurus, 2017)”, Ms. Esfandiary is completing her PhD in the War Studies department at King’s College London. Foreign Policy Concepts caught up with Ms. Esfandiary for a brief discussion on the significance of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections and what they mean for the region.
Can you start by explaining the significance of presidential elections for Iranian politics? Do presidential elections in Iran generally impact regional dynamics?
Iran’s elections are significant because they tend to determine the direction the country will take in the following four years. While within the Iranian system, the President’s mandate is fairly limited, his proximity to and relationship with the Supreme Leader, and his ability to play the political game and balance between different factions in Tehran give him more or less influence in areas that are traditionally outside his mandate. Traditionally, the Iranian president does not have much of a say in regional policies, but he is able to set the general tone, which President Rouhani did when he first came into office. Regional policies are usually determined by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, however, President Rouhani and his administration have had greater influence on Iran’s regional endeavours than some of his predecessors.
What is your assessment of Rouhani presidency? What were the high and low points of his presidency during his first four-year term?
President Rouhani’s focus was on bringing Iran out of isolation and reaping the economic benefits of doing so, which essential followed eight years of President Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement. While Rouhani was successful in reaching the nuclear deal with the P5+1 and bringing Iran out of international isolation, he did so at the expense of a number of other domestic political and social issues, including the state of civil rights. As a result, Iranians are somewhat disillusioned with his presidency, which explains a decline in his popularity.
Given the strategic alignment of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Iran in the region, what would Riyadh and Doha consider to be an ideal outcome of the Iranian elections?
The Gulf Arab countries would prefer a more moderate presidency in Iran, so they will prefer a Rouhani or a Jahangiri victory. However, the Gulf Arab states understand that the Iranian system is not monolith, and as a result, feel it to be a waste of time to have dialogue with the Rouhani administration and his ministry of foreign affairs, because according to Arab governments, Rouhani and his team do not represent the decision makers on Iran’s regional and foreign policies. Ironically, while a hardline presidency in Iran is more worrisome for the Gulf Arabs, it might make dialogue relatively easier once the Iranians decide they want to pursue it, because there will be greater uniformity between a hardline presidency and other key stakeholders like the Revolutionary Guards.
Will U.S-Iran relations be impacted by a second Rouhani term? What would you expect from Trump administration in this case?
If President Rouhani wins the election, it will likely have a lesser impact on US-Iran relations than the presence of the Trump administration, whereas if a hardliner wins, then it will likely have a greater impact on the direction of US-Iran relations. Under a second term, it is likely that President Rouhani will continue his cautious policy regarding relations with the US. The longevity of the nuclear deal will depend more on President Trump’s review of the deal and his administration’s final decision on what it aims to achieve with its policy on Iran.