A series of tumultuous events have characterized Iran’s 9000-year-old past which has seen the rise and fall of rulers, from Deioces of the Median dynasty to Ayatollah Khomeini, who brought Iran at the vanguard of international trade and affairs. Heading towards the 7th Presidential Election to be held in May 2017, the incumbent President, Hassan Rouhani, is closer to a second term than his counterparts. The future President, whomsoever he may be, must acknowledge the issues of death penalty, torture, freedom of press, women and minority rights within the country before realising their strategic position in the region. Critical factors which address contemporary Iran’s future can be categorized under three succinct areas, detailed below, that bolster the country’s position.
Theocracy Over Democracy?
Iran’s complex administrative system has remained largely unchanged since 1979. The theocratic democracy has allocated greater powers (military and administrative) to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who maintains a conservative approach to the country especially about capitalism, United States and Israel. However, does the political configuration adhere to democratic principles or theological dogma? It is the non-secular subjugation of electoral candidates to the 12 member Guardian Council which makes one question the democratic aspect of Iran’s political fabric; the recent prohibition of Conservative Ahmadinejad from contesting after serving two terms as President further examines the overriding theocratic structure.
The World Bank reports show political instability in Iran reducing from -1.62 in 2010 (onset of US sanctions) to plateau at -0.91 in 2015 during Rouhani’s Presidency. His negotiations with the European Union and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and USA, plus Germany) to secure a crucial deal for Iran’s nuclear program has provided economic sanction relief. Khameini has issued a fatwa against the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, his call for transparency in elections has been seen as a positive move. Thus, the role of religious leaders has paved the way for Iran’s growth, notwithstanding domestic policies moulded by religious interests. Iran has depended on national myth of Pahlavi and interventionism to propagate the need for the current administrative order. This element of myth building has forecasted future international policies especially with Iran’s vehement anti-imperialist strategies
The Nuclear Dossier
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was officially signed in 2015 on contractual terms of reducing the enrichment of Uranium and ensuring there is no production of fissionable matter. This nuclear deal has played a significant role in thawing Iranian relations with world powers thereby opening the state to possibilities of playing a vital role, through diplomacy, force or economic tools. A poll conducted by University of Tehran Centre for Public Opinion Research (UTCPOR) found that majorities say they would expect to see, within a year, better access to foreign medicines and medical equipment, significantly more foreign investment, and tangible improvement in living standards, because of the deal. The nuclear projects have been monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) giving Iran the international endorsement it would require for future expansion for domestic use and trade. At present Turkey and Iraq account for 90% of Iran’s power exports while this energy trade has strengthened relations between Iran and countries as far as India and South Africa.
Rouhani’s reelection, however, is not imperative for the nuclear deal as the Ayatollah has already supported it. As disturbances beyond the border threaten the development of the program, the onus falls upon Iran to ensure compliance with monitoring bodies to prevent any disastrous outcomes or sanctioning by other countries.
Iraq, Syria and Beyond
Iran cannot be ignored in its immediate neighborhood as they have established alliances to combat the Islamic State, Syrian rebels and American intervention in the region. Russia has reaffirmed the importance of Iran as a key player in the region. The tripartite alliance between Iran, Russia and Turkey has perturbed the European Union and US. Moreover, Iran’s alliance with Iraq to eliminate the Islamic State fighters through the deployment of nearly 100,000 Iran-backed fighters has strengthened the ties between the two OPEC*expand on relationship with OPEC* members. Thus, it would be impractical to selectively ignore Iran’s policies and supportive role.
On the other hand, scholars fear Iran’s collusion with non-state elements. Claims of Iran’s military training and arms support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen has heightened tensions between the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the 95% Shia population of Iran. The two countries have been polar opposites on crucial issues such as interpretations of Islam, oil policies and relations with the United States. As founding members of OPEC and OIC, the two states could realign their interests as their resources and relative stability would transform power relations in their joint neighbourhood, however, antiquated ethnic differences threaten any plausible alliance; ideological differences have situated the countries on opposite sides of the battlefield through the numerous proxy wars fought in the region. Iran’s support of UN deemed terrorist outfits of Hezbollah and Hamas has given Saudi Arabia and Israel reason to denounce Iran’s pursuits in the area. Nevertheless, past disputes with countries of the Arab League and NATO have progressed to a point of mutual dependence and assurance of support.
The Strategic Future
At this pivotal time in the estranged politics in the Middle East, the elections can emphasise Iran’s significance in trade whilst domestic reformation stands to establish a more stable government. His negotiating capabilities can transform the economically weak state of Iran into a formidable entity. Moreover, the shift from dependence on oil trade will advance growth. The paradigm shift in Iran’s association with certain NATO allies like France and Germany, alongside the strengthening of relations with Eastern countries, has brought the country to the forefront of altering the regional status quo. Thus, with the dawn of moderate reformist strategies, the international and regional importance of Iran as a military and a geopolitical force cannot be overlooked. It is up to Iran to utilize the aforementioned factors to their advantage so as to further their presence in the Persian Gulf. This can be done by accelerating either their soft power in negotiations and alliances, or hard power (as seen with the deployment of Iran’s military in Iraq) or both simultaneously.