Irans Presidential Election, With Suzanne Maloney
Welcome to the president's. Inbox is here for podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing united states. I'm jim lindsey director studies at the council on foreign relations. This week's topic is iran's presidential election with being discussed what's at stake when ronnie and spoke to the polls on friday suzanne maloney susannah vice president and director of the foreign policy program at the brookings institution were research focuses on iran in persian gulf energy. She is advised. Both democratic republican administrations on iran policy including as a member of secretary of state condoleeza rice is policy planning staff during the george w bush administration and as an external adviser to senior state department officials. During the obama administration is written two books on iran in last year. She added the volume iranian revolution at forty which brookies institution press published suzanne. Thanks for being here. Thanks so much for having me. Suzanne finish presidential election in quotes when we talk about iranian elections not free and fair election in a western sense. For instance. candidates have to be approved to run but before we get the mechanics. Could you just give us a sense of how significant this particular election is. Thanks jim and i think it's a really good question. Iranian elections aren't free and fair. But they do. Have i think some signaling value in terms of understanding what the state of the internal political dynamics are within the islamic republic. And they also have a shaping impact on iran's engagement with the world and in terms of the regime's treatment of its own population. So we have seen at least some shifts in the way that iran engages at different points in time after the election in nineteen ninety-seven of a reformist cleric iran appeared to engage more openly with the world. There were in fact. Some significant reforms to iran's internal political system into its economy and we've seen shifts backward as well in two thousand five with the election of what's known as a principal list a hard line candidate by the name of mahmoud off nina jhad who engaged in provocations that alienated iran and contributed to iran's further isolation. So in that sense While this election won't represent a an accurate barometer of the opinions of the iranian people. I think that it will have some impact on iran's relationship with the world and it will also tell us something about the political establishment and where the islamic republic may go from here who cases dan. I want to get into that question. But let's hold off on it for minute. Likewise let's dolphins specific candidates and issues. I really like if you could just give us. A basic primer on iranian elections. Let's begin with the question who actually gets to run. Well that's one of the most significant elements of the iranian electoral system. Which is that. There is something called the guardians council and unelected body of twelve clerics and jurists who are empowered to essentially all candidates for all elections and they have played in increasingly heavy-handed role particularly around iranian presidential elections over the course of the past twenty years at this point. They have approved only seven candidates out of approximately six hundred who registered to run and while many of those were simply protest candidates or people who were registering purely for theatrics. Also this guardians council also in this case Disqualified both the sitting vice president of the islamic republic and a number of other senior officials who have held significant positions across the iran establishment including those that required vetting through the same process in the past. So it is clearly a very arbitrary mechanism and one which the islamic republic uses to essentially ensure that it's a very closed system of elections who picks the guardian council. They elected by the irani. People know they are not elected by the iranian people. Six of the members of the guardians council are handpicked by the supreme leader and six of them are essentially vetted through the parliament and they're approved by the supreme leader so there is at least some degree of mild competition but ultimately it's really They are a hand-picked elites chosen by iran's unelected supreme leader. Do we know suzanne. What criteria the guarding council uses as it. We knows the field so to speak mentioned. Six hundred down seven are there established principles or is this through their discretion. We're left to wonder how they get to the decisions. They make well as with most things in iran. It's a little bit of both. There are some established criteria including in post revolutionary constitution which include criteria such as a requirement to have been born in iran and that in the past has infect proven somewhat difficult to meet for some candidates but there are also a number of aspects of the vetting process which appear to be entirely at the discretion of the guardians council. And this is ben. Subject of a great deal of controversy as prominent members of the iranian establishment. Have at different points in time then disqualified probably the most famous case of that was in the two thousand thirteen presidential election which produced an outcome for hassan. Rohani who has now spent eight years in that position. One of the candidates who was disqualified for that race was in fact the former president of iran. The late elliott hashemi. Rafsanjani had served two terms as president. He had run again for president and had been vetted and qualified to compete but in two thousand thirteen. He was disqualified and it was. You know there's a. There's a robust Kind of conspiracy. Theory and discussion in iran about why that might be but i think the ultimate conclusion that we can draws that the guardians council sees its role as essentially protecting the insular political establishment of the islamic republic essentially setting very narrow boundaries on the choices that are available to iranians. You mentioned the incumbent. President ruhani suzanne. He's not up for re election. But that's because he's term limited by the iranian constitution correct. That is correct. Okay so now as we look at some of the decisions that were made to exclude candidates you mentioned not allowing the incumbent vice president to run. i also notice. According to news reports that former parliamentary speaker ali larijani was innocent as conservative was not allowed to be a candidate. But his brother happens to be a member of the guardian council and he issued a public protest against the council's decision and then subsequently i tell how many endorsed the council's decision. But then a senator tweet apparently is by tweet. These days that in the vetting process some candidates were wrong calling on the council to reevaluate. And as i understand it. The council decided not to reevaluate. Should we make anything of this. There's always drama in iranian elections and this round appears to be drama centered on the personality of ali larijani and potentially around. I think the larger larijani family who have been key elements of iranian political establishment throughout the past forty plus years as you mentioned sonic large on the brother of the man who was disqualified serves on the guardians council on has been in other very significant positions. He wants been talked about as a potential heir to the supreme leader In terms of that position there are rumors that ali larijani's disqualification may have come because of reports about potential dual nationality of one of his children. Of course many of the siahaan's of the iranian elite have some managed to produce far-flung opportunities for their own children and so we find daughters and sons of the most senior members of the islamic republic. Who spent much of their lives in europe or in the united states and it would appear that. This is one of the issues with respect to ali larijani. In my view. This was a little bit more of a tempest in a teapot. Larijani has run in several prior iranian presidential elections. He's never managed to secure much of the vote. There was some sense that he might try to position himself. As the moderate who could succeed where hassan rohani stumbled rohani also coming from kind of moderate conservative background but larijani has very limited charisma. It's not clear he couldn't fact avoid the pitfalls that have dragged down the ronnie presidency. Nor is it very clear he would have been able to command the same kind of excitement at the polls that did appear to emerge at least with some degree of orchestration. No doubt back in two thousand thirteen when ronnie was first elected so. I think this was the controversy which may or may not have stirred up a little bit of additional interest in this year's iranian elections. But i'm not sure. It had a manifest impact on either the outcome of the election or on iranian policies. And so we shouldn't read. It assigned the idaho power somehow. How waning ring question. I think it's a sign that iranian politics are always contentious and that the political establishment feuds among itself and that there are secrets that they are prepared to deploy to their own advantage in order to gain some kind of currency but beyond that what it tells us about the resilience of the iranian system. I think is is what we already know which is that. This is a system that has survived every catastrophe. I would've said short of the plague that the islamic republic has indeed survived a pandemic. it has taken a devastating toll on the country's population and its economy. And yet you know despite the internet in fractiousness within the iranian political establishment the elite remains relatively resilient as the regime. So as you look at the disqualifications my understanding is is that the main moderate candidates and again let me put that in quotation marks have been excluded. Maybe you can help us understand. Suzanne what determine moderate means in context since many of the policies favored by so-called moderates would not be seen as moderate here. Let's say in the united states or in europe. Yeah i will try to probably over. Simplify the divisions within the iranian elite. And i'll do that by stretching back to nineteen seventy-nine very briefly. It's important to recognize that you know. Iranians came to the streets to overturn the monarchy and then they embraced in a slavic republic without a lot of specifications about what that would entail but there was no one political constituency that actually affected the islamic revolution and while the political establishment has narrowed considerably over the years. I threw a effective civil war that took place during the first years of the islamic republic and more recently through attrition and through the intensive intensifying polarization among the elite. There has never been one single perspective on politics or policy there have always been deep. Philosophical divides over key issues within the islamic republic. And so what we've seen over the course of these many years as an attempt to sort of explain this or understand it by putting it in terms that we recognize which is to say laughter right reformist versus conservative in those terms. Don't always translate perfectly but it is quite clear that in the late. Nineteen ninety s a political tendency within the establishment of the islamic republic came to the fore that really did believe in trying to liberalize political institutions of the revolution to try to incorporate more opportunity for democratic institutions and For the views of the iranian people to help to shape those policies and they in fact for a brief time appeared to be ascendant but at every point for the past twenty years. Those forces have been on the defensive because they don't control the key levers of power whether it's the security forces or whether it's ultimate decision making within the institutions of government. Iran government is bifurcated between these elective institutions like the presidency and the parliament and the institutions. That are unelected like the guardians council that we discussed in the office of the supreme leader himself. Which has grown quite large and so elections are still held. There is still quite a bit of diversity. Within the political establishment but ultimately the impact of those elections has become increasingly less significant on key iranian policies because ultimately the elective offices can only accomplish what the unelected office is. Permit them to accomplish. Okay we spent some time talking about candidates. I want to talk about voter. Suzanne who gets to vote in iran. This assistant like the united states. You can vote if you want to not vote if you want to. This system like australia where you're required on penalty to vote. Who is the iranian electric. Urinate electorate are all adults over the age of eighteen. And while there are some pressures incentives around voting. There is not a such a penalty that individuals can't simply stay away from the ballot box. And so what we've seen over. The course of the past. Twenty years is a is a continuing reduction in the levels of turnout punctuated occasionally by exceptions to that trend. But i would expect in based on the polling that has been done within iran as well as by outside organizations. This is likely to be the lowest turnout in any election. Since iranian revolution in nineteen seventy nine and turn out. Times has been well over seventy percent. There have been you know sort of attempts to utilize the turn out as a sort of vindication or legitimation of the islamic republic. And that is why there was some speculation that the larijani disqualification might have been a kind of ploy to generate additional interest to try to persuade people to come out and vote but the fact that there has been no real shift in the slate of candidates who are available to iranians that there has been no permission for anyone who represents a significantly different point of view From that of the political establishment suggested at this stage the leaders of the islamic republic are quite content to have a relatively modest turnout. They will use in the thirty s or forty percentile of the electorate as enough of a of a legitimation of their own power to do iranian campaigns. Work suzanne. I mean they made a decision at the end of may as to who the actual candidates can be the elections about twenty four days later how to any of the remaining seven candidates get their case with forty ronnie and public. Well first of all. It's important to note that the official campaign is preceded by a long period of unofficial campaigning. By most of the aspirants to power within iran and so the debate about who the president might be did not begin with the qualifications by the guardians council. That's been going on for months. But it is one of the interesting features of the iranian system that there is short and intense burst of official campaigning. Activity may typically does include of public appearances. That's become more difficult because iran is going through. What would describes v wave of cove it at the moment and the pandemic restrictions have made it complicated. At least one of the candidates leading candidate ibrahim racy has come under intense criticism for holding a large public rally and has canceled at least one subsequent public rally but there's also an enormous amount of television coverage which is the way that most uranium received their news even today and there are typically debates. This time around there have been three public debates which have been broadcast and while viewership is not as high as it has been in more apparently competitive elections that took place in the past. They tend to be wheeling conversations where each candidate is looking for an opportunity to jab at the other and they can be bitter nasty and quite intensely fought. These have not been quite as interesting but they've had some important moments in drama. An interest in it does appear at least. Some of the polling suggests that there is a modest uptick in terms of expected participation perhaps as a result of the interest that may have been generated by those conversations suzanne. You've mentioned the gentleman who is favored to win. Is abraham racy. He tells a little bit about him. Who is he. What's his background. What does he propose. Ebrahim racy is the head of the judiciary and he is someone who has been on the ascendant for the past decade or so seen as a potential successor to the supreme leader when he dies. Iran's supreme leader is over the age of eighty at this point and while he's in good health. There's a lot of speculation about who might come next rice. E has a background in the judiciary Having served in in various subordinate roles and about a decade ago he began to take on increasing interest as someone who was being given important positions. He was made the administrator of iran's largest shrine and its endowment which numbers in the billions in mashhad was added in twenty nineteen to the assembly of experts which is another important of body within iran and he was one of the candidates For years ago when hassan ronnie ran for reelection and he was the kind of foremost adversary to rohani in that campaign so he has been given increasing prominence but his most important so to speak is is evident. Willingness to indulge in fierce and completely arbitrary repression against iran's he was one of several individuals who approved what has become known as one of the worst massacres since the iranian revolution. The killing of upwards of five thousand political prisoners after the end of the iran iraq war five the islamic republic and and role in that it which is a crime against humanity is something that candidates have alluded to in this election within iran but has made him detested. Many is five iranian public suzanne. Is there a chance that he in fact won't win. The opposition tomb will coalesce around another candidate. And if so who might that candidate. Unfortunately i think there is a very limited chance that he won't win. Because in fact of the seven candidates five are from the conservative or principal side of the iranian political spectrum and only two or from the more moderate or reformist camp. The best known of those were the most prominent of those nassir bazzi who just resigned his position as head of iran's central bank and who has been the most effective and articulate of the critics in this campaign of rac- but the real question that everybody's watching now is to see which among the conservative candidates will withdraw their own candidacies in order to pave the way for icees victory. That's a well-known tactic in iranian elections. In fact it was a reformist candidate who withdrew from the race just a few days before the actual ballot in two thousand thirteen that enabled asandra honey to win at that time. And that was a heavily broker decision by mohammed autograph to essentially hand the field to ronnie at this point several days before the the actual vote none of the other conservative candidates have in fact withdrawn. But they are being heavily lobbied both in the public press as well as presumably in private to do so and most of the public opinion polling which has been conducted in iran. Seems to suggest that even if they continue in the race. Racy is the hands on favorite among conservative candidates. Who are most likely to turn out. There is a. I think a real question about what the turnout will be from those who would favor some kind of Reformist candidate or those who are alienated from the islamic republic. And so it seems likely that racy could win by default because the electorate that comes to the polls will be mostly those who find him. Attractive will so as his jockey is going on suzanne. The issue's been what are they at least publicly disagreeing about i will note you mentioned earlier. Iran has been racked by the pandemic maybe five surges in all its economy has been in a shambles for quite some time. There's the question. I would imagine of political balance of the country though. Obviously that may get Caused the guardian council gets to say who runs the issue. The iran nuclear deal divisions in these conversations that these candidates are having most iranian elections as in most elections anywhere in the world. The bread and butter issues loom largest. But of course in iran the bread and butter issues that is the economy and the day to day lives of ordinary people are intimately connected with relationships with the rest of the world and by default by extension with the nuclear deal as and so there has been a lot of conversation about how to fix the economy what that entails and of course the fact that the more prominent opponent of the front runner is the former head was in fact when he registered still the head of iran's central bank has put that candidate hennessy on the hotseat as essentially bearing some responsibility for the fact that the economy has been somewhat disastrous. Despite the fact that this is ben a period of time in which is a lot of focus on those issues but of course stat also opens up the conversation about the nuclear issue and about iran's relationship with the rest of the world and so this is despite the fact that these debates weren't terribly fascinating. These were the really juicy moments where you heard the back and forth between these candidates about. How do we address the fundamental dilemma. That iran cannot really fix its economy without addressing the nuclear issue without finding a way back into the nuclear deal which inevitably mean some compromise with the international community and with washington in particular some of the more conservative candidates focus on the criticism of the current administration and focus on the need to really strengthen domestic production. The iranian supreme leader has preached a mantra of resistance economy. But probably the best moment for the more moderate candidate hem. Ati came when he said we cannot have a fixed economy without an engagement with the world. It's simply not possible and so if you propose to fix the economy without getting back into the nuclear deal and facilitating at least some abatement of the economic sanctions. That we've been suffering under. Please tell us how you're going to do that. They've also been you know. Sort of side debates about various individuals credentials have been illusions to races very dark past and to his role in suppressing dissent. But really you know very little sort of frontal assault on easy for this gruesome role that he has played in iranian history. Suzanne is there any chance that the iran nuclear deal could prove to be a wild card in the ultimate election. Vote in. I asked that because iran is announced that is reached a broad agreement with the united states over lifting sanctions on its industrial sectors. Obviously that plays into the point. You're just making about how to rejuvenate. The economy gets going again. Is there potential at news. Coming out of these negotiations could have a political impact. Your essentially results already baked into the cake. My sense is that the general disillusionment with the system with the state of the iranian economy and with the expectation that there can be some kind of a breakthrough that would have a dramatic and fast impact on. People's lives is already well priced into the campaign that we're seeing play out. But of course. This is your ron and its elections. Have proven to be surprising. In the past anything is possible. There has been a lot of discussion about the timing of what is intimidated to be some kind of agreement between the united states. Iran about a return to compliance with the joint comprehensive plan of action many anticipated that from the iranian point of view. It would be better to delay until after the election is done. Simply because that would prevent me from getting credit for any breakthrough others have worried about the impact about that kind of a delay because we may see some change in the iranian negotiating team. In the foreign minister himself javad zarif who is closely associated with ronnie. And of course was the architect from the iranian side of the nuclear deal. And i think there's a broader problem of optics. If you have an iranian president who is credibly accused of crimes against humanity who espouses the most repressive interpretation of iran's own political system you know how easy will it be for the united states and its partners to celebrate a return to the deal that involves significant economic relief to iran at a time where it's government appears to be moving in a more retrograde direction. So let's play this out. Let's assume that reecey wins as he is favored to do what you see the consequences being. I asked that question keeping in mind. A point you made earlier that elected officials in iran can do what unelected institutions bodies allow them to. Do i think right. Uc's election will not have a significant shift on the tone and opportunities for a resumption of compliance with the jcp way. I think that the momentum is moving in that direction from both sides. There's obviously an incentive that is fairly strong from the iranian side to give a new government some breathing space for economic recovery. That would come in the wake of the suspension or waiver of some of the us sanctions. That are in place. Obviously the nuclear deal did not involve an end to all us sanctions. And so that is why. The negotiations have been so complicated. But it would. I think create more opportunities. For iran's supreme leader to really reinforce the essential conservatism of this regime to try to undo where possible at least the hope for any kind of liberalization and democratic breakthrough within iran. And it would. Certainly i think cast a pall on the opportunities for engagement beyond the nuclear deal between iran and the united states as well as frankly cast a pall on the opportunities for other countries particularly from europe and asia to really jump into economic opportunities in a very big way because iran under a racy presidency would be subject to far more concern and recrimination from the international community. Do you see any change in a recent government toward other countries in the region whether we're talking about the arab governments in persian gulf war toward israel. I think if anything government will only reinforce the fundamental inclinations of the islamic republic to engage in hostile rhetoric and toward subversive action against the wider neighbourhood the patterns of iran's support for militia groups across the arab world are too well entrenched and frankly there has never been a serious or full-fledged debate even within the political establishment about those issues so i see absolutely no inclination from a more consolidated hardline iranian regime to contemplate any shifts in a positive direction toward the rest of the region. So let me ask you to put your forecasters had on suzanne looking out her two year. Where do you expect us. Iran relations to be well. It's never wise to make predictions where iran is concerned. But i think in one respect. I can say with some degree of confidence that i expect. There will be continued conflict and tension in the us iran relationship and that is not simply You know sort of a generic statement. I expect that in fact we will see a resumption of the nuclear deal but it will not be a resumption that in any way. Improves the overall tenor of the relationship. Between the two capitals and it will be a nuclear deal which is under much greater strain because the timeframe has become much more contracted and the timeline for some of the expiration of the restrictions. Under the deal has become more urgent and there will be increasing frictions over the interpretation and implementation of the deal. Even after it's done. So i you know whereas in two thousand fifteen in two thousand sixteen. The nuclear deal was seen as a pathway to a better iranian relationship. And a reduction in tensions between the two capitals. I think in this case it will have very little impact. We will still see a very tense and likely conflictual relationship. Am i correct to infer from that. Assessment suzanne that you think the by administration is not going to succeed in its design. Arte created deal. That is longer stronger. And broader that is to extend the provisions further out into the future inhabit covered. Not just a nuclear program. But ballistic missiles in iran's behavior in the region i am very pessimistic about the prospects for any additional agreement if in as we are able to reinstate the joint comprehensive plan of action and frankly i'm concerned that the lifespan of the jcp away will be shorter than it is expected to be simply because of the conflicts that are going to arise as we begin to approach some of the expiration dates on that note. Close up the presence inbox for this week. My guess has been suzanne maloney vice president director of the ford policy program at the brookings institution suzanne. Thank you for an exceptional conversation. Thank you jim. Please subscribe to the presence in boston. Apple podcasts spotify or wherever you listen in liberals review they help us get notice it shout as always opinions expressed in the presence of august solely those the host or guests on a c. Far which takes no his short positions on matters of policy. Today's episode crucify by. Zoe calls from senior producer. Jeremy shirley so did double duty as retorting engineer. Thank you so special. Thanks to margaret gach for her assistance. This jim thanks for listening.