x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran elects a new president but policies will not change

Despite the hopes of the international community, the election of Hassan Rowhani heralds few changes in Iranian policies

The votes have been tallied and Iran has elected a new president. On August 3, Hassan Rowhani will replace the controversial and provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and will inherit from him a daunting range of domestic, regional and international issues.

The four years of this presidential term promise to be especially critical for Iran, as the country has recently been in an unprecedented economic decline combined with major regional pressures and growing international isolation.

Mr Rowhani will find himself highly challenged by both domestic and international problems, since he has relatively few assets and only limited power.

In domestic policy, the long list of problems includes the high level of inflation and the unemployment rate, particularly in urban areas. Many young people are disaffected with the Islamic character of the regime, as well as with repression of political parties, journalists, minorities and activists.

In foreign policy, the issues begin with the sanctions imposed by western and other countries is response to Iran's nuclear programme. Also on the list are Iran's general defiance of the international community, relations with Bashar Al Assad's turbulent and challenged regime in Syria, Iran's hegemonic ambition in the Middle East, relations with its proxies throughout the region (including Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Al Mahdi Army in Iraq, and overall regional and international isolation.

Iran's economy is deteriorating, largely because of sanctions but also because of policy mismanagement by the current lame duck president, Mr Ahmadinejad.

He has insisted, for example, that rates for borrowers and depositors could not exceed the inflation rate.

According to recent statistics published by the International Monetary Fund, inflation in Iran has reached 25.2 per cent this year, and unemployment stands at 13 per cent (although the unofficial figure is above 23 per cent), and economic growth is minimal, at 0.8 per cent.

Moreover, the value of the rial has eroded for the past few years, to a point where it now costs about 39,800 rials (officially dh12) to buy $1 in Tehran. When Mr Ahmadinejad first assumed the presidency, a dollar cost 1,300 rials.

From a domestic economic perspective, it is very unlikely that Mr Rowhani will be capable of significantly enhancing Iran's declining economy, reducing the unemployment rate, or generating more job opportunities for the population.

This is partly due to the fact that Iran's economy is deeply wounded not only by the inefficiency and mismanagement of Mr Ahmadinejad, but also - and fundamentally - by the accumulated effect of trade and banking sanctions.

In addition, a high proportion of the national revenue is allocated to Iran's nuclear programme, facilities and technologies. Moreover, the country's revenues and oil profits are largely held by certain institutions: the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the army and the Basij, a paramilitary militia loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iran's economy is centralised, with the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard playing important roles.

As for Iran's foreign policy agenda, two objectives in particular are urgent. One is to do something about the four rounds of crippling sanctions and the unprecedented regional and international isolation. The other is the Syrian conflict, with which Iran is deeply concerned, that is now entering its third year without any political resolutions in sight.

My analysis of the ideological, career, personal, and political characteristics of Mr Rowhani show me what you might expect in a member of a field of hand-picked presidential candidates: his position on nuclear enrichment does not differ from the position of the Supreme Leader, the top officers of the Revolutionary Guards, or the leaders of the Basij.

Across Iran's political spectrum - principlists, moderates, reformists, and centrists - the nuclear programme has been a matter of consensus. Obtaining nuclear capabilities is viewed as a matter of survival for a regime coping with robust sanctions, a disaffected population, and regional and international isolation.

As a result, the international community's pressure and sanctions against the Islamic Republic can be expected to continue while Tehran will keep defying the international community.

As for Syria, Mr Rowhani is unlikely to push for any policies that would alter Tehran's current policy towards Mr Assad's sect-based police state.

Syria, Tehran's only consistent ally since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, is considered a bulwark against Israel and the United States, and serves as a conduit for the delivery of arms to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Mr Rowhani is well aware that if Mr Assad's regime falls, the balance of power will significantly shift in the region in favour of the Gulf Arab states (particularly Saudi Arabia) and against the Shiite-led collation of Iran and Hizbollah. If that happened, Tehran would lose much of its geopolitical influence and hegemonic ambitions in the region.

All these factors, considered together, suggest that the choice of a new president will actually change very little in Iran's policies.

 

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar and analyst, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East.

rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu