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Hardliners Are Steering The Iranian Presidential Election

 PinPoint

Iranians are to choose a new President later this month. These elections are taking place at a pivotal time for the country, both at home and abroad. Much has changed in the four years since the last election. What are the voters thinking and what lies ahead?

Iran’s leaders need a substantial turnout to legitimize their control over the political system. Over the years, dissatisfaction has been growing among Iranians who now feel more disenfranchised than before. The ‘hand picking’ – a pre-selection mechanism -of the candidates by the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has led to discontent among the citizens.

But that is just one of Iran’s many woes. The regime has grown overly aggressive against dissent. The current political landscape is marred with heavy handed measures which are on the rise since the last presidential election in 2017. There have been deadly crackdowns on anti-government protests, arrests of political and social activists, and executions of political prisoners. For instance, when the government arbitrarily increased the price of petroleum in November 2019, thousands of people took to the streets in more than 100 cities. Within a few days hundreds of unarmed protesters were ostensibly killed by security forces. Protesters demanded the resignation of members of Iran’s ruling elite and the government. Similar protests could erupt again.

The political preferences of Iranians and thus the presidential candidates can be categorized into three factions: Hardline, Centrist, and Reformist. As evident from previous elections, low voter turnout has usually favoured the hardliners and conservatives.

Recently, the Guardian Council practically has barred most reformist or centrist candidates from contesting and only seven were approved. Two of the seven are considered to be reformist or centrist, but both have apparently a low profile. Iran’s prominent judicial figure, Ebrahim Raisi, who was the runner-up in the 2017 election, is the best-known contender. He is also the favourite candidate among the hardliners. Observers believe the others who have been allowed to contest are only there to help Raisi’s bid, reports BBC.

The economy has always played a key role in the Iranian elections and it is high on the agenda of every candidate. Due to the precarious economic situation, Iran is now in one of its most critical phases since the 1979 revolution. The impact of sanctions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has caused one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history, with the inflation rate reaching 50%.

Tensions soared under Trump administration and Joe Biden’s victory in the US election sent positive signals for a prospective nuclear deal with Iran. Although most hardliners within Iran’s political establishment regard talks with the US as pointless, reformists and centrists favour such parleys. Reconciliation with regional rival Saudi Arabia, and reducing rhetorical aggression towards Iran’s arch-foe Israel will remain in focus. Talks could reduce friction in the region and also create an opportunity to bolster Iran’s ailing economy.

However, as the overall policies of the Islamic Republic, including its foreign policy, are determined by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, those who intend to boycott the upcoming election believe whoever is elected will have little power to change the status quo without Khamenei’s consent. And even then, normalising relations with the US or recognising Israel as a state remain unthinkable.

Denigrating the nuclear deal or delaying its restoration may serve the hardliners. If the fate of the deal remains uncertain during the campaign, this could engender voter apathy. But if an agreement is concluded after the election, a conservative President would still stand to reap the benefits, including the lifting of sanctions. Iran’s competing political factions in recent weeks have wielded the nuclear talks like a cudgel. Hardliners wary of engagement with the West have landed the harshest blows, leveraging their control of Iran’s airwaves to discredit President Hassan Rouhani’s government and the more moderate wing of Iranian politics it represents. The intensifying response by hardliners could complicate, but not derail, negotiations that have been taking place in the recent past.

As the talks on the nuclear deal proceed, hard-liners are becoming more concerned by the electoral implications, including the possibility that successful negotiations could embolden a candidate associated with the moderate camp, such as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javaid Zarif, to enter the power game.

In times of highly volatile political climate, things can go one way or another, right up to election day, which will define the future trajectory of Iran.

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