Dina Esfandiary is a fellow in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Today Iranians are heading to the polls to choose their next president. At first glance, it seems that Iran’s elections won’t change the big picture in the region. But that’s not entirely true. Who serves as president will determine whether moderation is a feature of Iran’s regional policy or not.
Iran’s elections do matter. The president determines the direction the country will take in the four years that follow. He sets economic policy and manages relations with the different factions in Tehran, which has considerable impact on how much freedom Iranians will experience in their daily lives. But why should that matter to those watching from outside Iran?
In Iran, the president’s mandate is limited. But his relationship with the supreme leader, and his ability to play the political game and balance between the different factions in Tehran, potentially give him considerable influence in areas that are traditionally outside his mandate. President Hassan Rouhani demonstrated that he had Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ear during the nuclear negotiations. And as a regime insider, he was adept at balancing the interests of competing groups within the system even when they were slinging mud at him.
When it comes to regional policy, the president traditionally takes a back seat. Iran’s foreign policy is the purview of the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Force, currently deployed in countries such as Syria and Iraq. In private discussions, Gulf Arab leaders lament that there is no point in talking to the Rouhani administration, since the president is not the decision-maker in regional and even foreign policy.
True enough — if only in a formal sense. Yet this ignores the fact that the president, depending on his force of personality, is still able to set the general tone and ambitions of Iran’s policies abroad and to shape the decision-making around them. This is exactly what Rouhani did. His administration had greater influence on Iran’s regional endeavors than those of some of his predecessors.
In Iraq, Iran’s ground operations have been invaluable in pushing back the Islamic State — and this has involved coordination with the United States and its allies. The push for cooperation with the United States has come primarily from the technocrats and realists in the Rouhani administration. By contrast, Iranian proxies, which are controlled by the IRGC, have exacerbated the sectarian battle by carrying out atrocities against the Sunnis, flying Shiite flags and plastering pictures of Iranian religious leaders in recaptured territories. The Rouhani administration has done its utmost to curb their overt sectarianism, and it has had some success.
A similar dichotomy has been on display in Syria, where the Quds Force became increasingly visible as it helped the Assad regime regain control of lost ground. At the same time, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, expressing internal divisions of opinion about the extent of Iran’s involvement in Syria, has been pushing for dialogue and conceding that Assad could go.
Rouhani’s reelection would continue this dynamic. While the results of Rouhani’s efforts have been mixed, any moderation in Iranian regional policies is welcome. As a second-term president, Rouhani, like his predecessors, will presumably be willing to take greater risks. This could mean expending political capital to push for policies that are unpopular with the system.
One example of that is dialogue with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors. After the January 2016 hanging of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al Nimr by the Saudi government, tensions between Tehran and Riyadh took a turn for the worst. Iranians became increasingly anti-Saudi, making Rouhani’s goal of talking with the Gulf Arabs unpopular. Despite this (and some) “inflammatory” rhetoric from Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince recently, Tehran insisted that it was ready to talk with Riyadh.
It is true that a second-term Rouhani would also face greater vitriol and pushback from his domestic opponents, beyond what he faced with the 2015 nuclear deal. That means that the political cost of unpopular policies will be greater, but Rouhani’s capacity to shoulder those costs will also be greater, giving him greater scope to push his policies through.
A victory by Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric and the only other possible victor in these elections, would likely result in greater unity of views on regional policy within the Islamic republic. Resistance from fellow conservatives will likely be limited and decisions more easily reached. But a conservative win naturally lessens the scope for pragmatism.
This means that under a hard-line presidency, an unpopular policy such as dialogue with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors becomes unlikely. Rather, Iran’s regional position will inevitably harden.
Just like all other areas of policymaking in the Islamic republic, foreign policy is the result of considerable political maneuvering and debate. That is why, at times, it looks inconsistent from the outside. It is also why change is difficult and slow. Rouhani seems to be on his way to an uneasy victory. His reelection should be watched and welcomed by those outside Iran because he will maximize the potential for a more moderate approach to Iranian foreign policy.