by Reza Akhlaghi

via Foreign Policy Association

With less than two months into the elections, what is your assessment of this year’s election dynamics and of the absence of key presidential contenders in the country’s faction-based political system?

In the upcoming elections, there is no sitting president running for re-election. So lack of clarity regarding the leading contenders is not that unusual. In the 2005 election, the field of candidates also had not fully clarified two months before the election. Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati was still contemplating a run while former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had not yet declared his intent to run (and once he did, everyone assumed he would win). This uncertainty is part and parcel of lack of political parties or groups with large social base and lack of established process for candidate selection within and among these organizations. In every election, new mechanisms and processes are invented or improvised as potential candidates jockey to establish their viability or ability to attract votes before the Guardian Council begins the process of vetting. The state of competition remains unclear for the upcoming election because of two unknowns:  the so-called Nezam’s—which is usually another way of saying the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s—preferred candidate and the extent to which variety of views will be allowed on the presidential slate. These are unknowns not only to us but to the players themselves. The desire to hold at least a seemingly “clean” election and the hope to “erase the memory of 2009” all work to maintain the uncertainty about the extent to which the coming election will offer a choice, no matter how limited, on the country’s domestic and foreign policy direction, as it has been the case in the past few elections.

Do you believe there is a new cadre of reformists emerging in Iranian politics? If there is one, how genuinely reformist are they and do they have a reform platform? 

I am not sure what you mean by genuinely reformist. But there is no doubt that there continues to be a whole array of groups in Iran that think in order for the Islamic Republic to function properly and achieve its revolutionary ideals of independence and freedom, it has to move in the direction of political and social reform. To be sure, some think these reforms have to be more structural or deeper than others. Meanwhile, the conservative establishment, by securitizing the political environment, has so far argued that these folks want to reform the Islamic Republic out of existence.  In other words, by reacting as severely as it has, the Iranian deep state –-whose shape remains rather unknown for those who study Iran—has effectively rejected any type of structural reform at this time in no uncertain terms. If anything, it has become more entrenched and reactionary. What we see in the reformist circles in Iran is an adjustment to this reality. Clearly, some reformists are disheartened by this reality and are announcing the death of the possibility of reform within the existing constitutional and political framework. But I would say that the conversations surrounding the upcoming elections – both presidential and municipal – suggest a decision has been made not to abandon the electoral process as a means to both claim some political power as well as pursue gradual change. The way it looks so far, even if the reformists are not able to put forth –or are prevented from putting forth –a strong presidential candidate, they will be actively present in the municipal elections particularly in large cities such as Tehran. They will also be engaged in serious conversation regarding whether to support a centrist candidate in case of the absence of a popular reformist candidate.

With the current dynamics of the post-Arab Spring—the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the crumbling of the Syrian state, the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement with possible cooperation between the two states on Syria, and the Saudi-Qatari efforts to undermine Iranian interests—do you think Iran is gradually facing a strategic crisis?

The strategic jockeying that is occurring in the region is not a static or linear dynamic with one side losing and the other side winning, particularly since the side that is presumably working to engineer Iran’s strategic decline consists of many actors with different types of relationship with Iran as well as with each other. Egyptian internal dynamics remain highly volatile and as evidenced in the Syria tragedy, the outcome is no longer in anyone’s control. The dystopia created so far is as much a headache – if not more – for Israel and Turkey as for Iran. The disintegration of Syria and reinvigoration of Jihadist forces may count as a “loss” for Iran but raises real and unpredictable security concerns for the neighboring countries of Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon with no guarantees that even the Persian Gulf countries feeding the insurgency – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar – will not be bitten back. Furthermore, let us not forget that the strategic relationship between Iran and Syria was solidified in opposition to a very different Iraq and may not be as important for Iran given the drastic changes in Iraq. Iran’s strength in the region, although no doubt impacted by its alliances, is better defined by its geography as a crossroad and its resources, both material and human. No other country in the region matches it. In the next decade, Iran’s strategic vulnerability remains its domestic politics. The key question remains whether the country’s contending leadership can develop rules of the game that underwrites relatively peaceful transition of power and allows for forces excluded from the political process, which have nevertheless amassed quite a bit of social power, to have a say in the direction of the country.

Nearly thirty five years since the revolution, the Iranian women remain barred from running for president. Is this a reflection of the state’s ideological conflict with the presence of Iranian women in key decision-making posts?

The silver lining in the refusal of the Guardian Council to explain the reason for the disqualification of candidates is that it has never come out and said that the women who have been disqualified for all the past elections were so because they were women. So while I do not see a viable female candidacy at this point, it is significant that the guardians of Islamism in Iran have not chosen to set up an ideological barrier on this issue; at least not yet.

If sanctions against Iran were further tightened without resulting in achieving any concrete policy objectives for Washington, how, in your view, Washington and Tehran would respond to such measures respectively? 

Tehran’s approach to the escalating sanctions regime has followed a pattern. It becomes most active in trying to prevent the impending sanctions.  But, once they are imposed, its efforts shift to adapting to and undercutting the sanctions as well as pushing its nuclear program a bit forward in order to remind everyone that the sanctions regime is not changing Iran’s calculations. Under these circumstances, after the imposition of every set of sanctions, the initiative is moved back to Washington. So far Washington has been very successful in instituting an escalating sanctions regime and making sure that Tehran does not rest easy and remains in a constant state of adjustment to new sanctions. But it is not clear how long this dynamic can continue without risking war. Volatility and potential risks are very much hidden in the current dynamics in which containment is declared not an option despite the repeated “all options are on the table” mantra while military attack remains on the menu. Under these circumstances, sanctions are not an alternative but a path to war no matter how uneasy and displeased the American society and military establishment remains about the prospect.