Similar to the United States and France, Iran is to set to have a new President in what’s shaping up to be a polarized election between current moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his conservative counterpart—Ebrahim Raisi—who is also custodian of the wealthiest charity and business conglomerate in the Shia world. On Friday May 19, over 50 million eligible voters in Iran will take to the polls.
The Iranian election will have a profound socio-political impact domestically. Even after the much celebrated 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six other world powers, the country continues to suffer from a stagnant economy and unemployment. The Rouhani administration inherited former President Ahmadinejad’s broken economy of negative three percent and lifted it to a 26 percent growth rate since 2013. However, one of Rouhani’s biggest promises in the 2017 election is the lifting of the “non-nuclear” sanctions. Ahead of Friday’s election, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that “the Supreme Leader regards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a test for our counterparts, and if our counterparts show interest to find resolution we have the readiness to enter other stages.”
With just a few months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the Iranian election will also have significant implications on the United States, as well as its regional neighbors. It remains to be seen how President Trump will address Iran. All this while Europe has already shown vested interest in a post-sanctioned Iran and is welcoming to what can be a promise of an open Iran. More importantly the majority young population of Iran—with 50 percent of them under the age of 30—the Iranian people strive to belong to an international community and they will choose whoever can deliver them a glimpse of that hope.
To further unpack the 2017 Iranian presidential election and its regional and global implications, EWI Visiting Scholar Tara Kangarlou spoke with Dr. Sadegh Kharazi (pictured), one of Iran’s most prominent diplomats who served as the country’s Ambassador to the United Nations and France under President Mohammad Khatami.
Q: The election is shaping up to be a close race between President Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi—who many in the West suspect to be a favorite among the conservatives. How do you evaluate the Rouhani-Raisi match? What are some of the key make or break points for both candidates?
Kharazi: “There has been no insignificant election in Iran; because each election is a reflection of the country’s foreign policy and domestic political climate, while being entwined with an element of surprise and an unpredictable result. This time around, the elections are even more important because of the unfinished implementations of JCPOA, Trump’s election in the U.S., and unique regional conditions in particularly with Syria, Iraq, and the hostile behavior of Israel and Saudi; and its result will no doubt affect the region.”
Q: One of the biggest success stories under President Rouhani was the nuclear accord between Iran and six other world powers back in 2015. Do you think that’s a big enough score to gauge people’s vote for the second term?
Kharazi: “The nuclear deal removed a huge dam that was in front of the nation and the people of Iran; and today it needs to be mended, taken care of, and honored by its foreign signatories. This can indeed help Rouhani’s re-election.”
Q: You are a diplomat, a politician, and a strong voice among the moderates and the reformist majority in Iran. Which candidate do you think will help Iran’s economic boost, global engagement, and strength in supporting regional stability? Why?
Kharazi: “I consider Rouhani an appropriate choice at the moment who can help economic growth, diplomatic openings, and renewed political opportunities for Iran. Rouhani’s motto is ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the international community. This will ultimately lead to economic progress and growth under a calm and stable umbrella that’ll be a direct result of a better international cooperation.”
Q: Some regard Iran as one of the very few actual Democracies in the Middle East, while many others in the West—especially the United States and its allies doubt the “electoral process” in Iran and argue otherwise. How much influence do people’s votes truly have?
Kharazi: “Take a closer look at the United State’s allies in the region. Are any of the Saudi, Bahraini, or Qatari systems of governance based upon any sort of “election?” Let’s not go far and just look at what happened in Turkey recently—why has there been no criticism from the U.S. toward Turkey’s referendum? One of the biggest indications of a Democracy in any country is the election of an “opposite party” to that of the ruling government. For example, after Khatami there came Ahmadinejad and after Ahmadinejad you had Rouhani elected. You can also look at the shake up of our conservative parliament into a reformist one. Also, the excitement and prowling of the candidates and their supports to gain majority votes—in and of itself—is a loud indication of the power of the people’s vote.”
Q: When running for president, candidate Trump expressed criticism of the nuclear deal. How do you think Ebrahim Raisi’s foreign policy approach will be toward the U.S. and preserving the JCPOA? How will Rouhani’s be?
Kharazi: “All Presidential candidates have accepted JCPOA as an international agreement. Disagreement in reaching our demands falls in the helm of our Western counterparts.”
Q: Today the Middle East region is suffering from multiple unrests in Yemen and the six-year-old crisis in Syria. There is a great opportunity for regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia) to work together in resolving some of these matters) but just this past week, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Price, Mohammed Bin Salman said that Saudi won’t engage in any dialogue with Iran, accusing it of following an “extremist ideology.” How would you comment on the Saudi position?
Kharazi: “It’s mind boggling that the Saudi’s accuse Iran of having ‘extremist ideologies’. Do we see any other outcome in their support of radical religious groups other than fostering hostility and terrorism? Let’s remember which country supported ISIS in Iraq and Syria and which country fought against ISIS. Throughout history, Iran has always been in support of the middle ground and tolerance. Even the Islamic Revolution of 1979 falls within the more peaceful revolutions in history. Unlike the classic revolutions in history we didn’t see rivers of blood or massacres. The Saudi’s comments are humorous to me. I encourage your readers to read and study the history, implications, and ideologies of Wahhabism; and also do a bit of research on Shiism. Then they will be able to see the truth behind such remarks.”