The run-off in Iran’s parliamentary elections seems to have given Hassan Rouhani, the centrist president, a workable parliamentary majority if his followers combine with reformists and independent conservatives against Islamist hardliners. The outcome also appears to endorse last year’s deal between Iran and world powers, which traded economic sanctions relief for restraints on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The president should now be better placed to enact some of the economic reforms to attract the investment Iran desperately needs. Ultimate power, however, still rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and theocratic institutions that answer to him, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the judiciary.
Yet Mr Rouhani’s coalition did exceptionally well in February’s elections to the Assembly of Experts, the body that will select the next supreme leader. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who came first in that contest and a key Rouhani ally, has been floating the idea that next time round the assembly might choose a leadership council rather than a single leader — and dilute theocratic power.
Whatever the hopes for the future, right now an Iran whose young population wants to open up to the world, and taste the opportunities denied them by the regime’s isolation, is still stuck. The opening is constricted by “secondary” sanctions still in place on the IRGC and “state-sponsored terrorism”. The IRGC is not just a praetorian guard at home and a strike force abroad. It is a business empire with tentacles everywhere; western banks — some of them already fined billions by the US for sanctions-busting — are chary of entering Iran lest they come into contact with it.
The main Iraqi militias came after the 2003 US-led invasion. There is plenty of blame to spread around.
Not just Mr Rouhani, therefore, but above all Ayatollah Khamenei, who threw his decisive weight behind the nuclear deal and now feels short-changed, has choices to confront. At the centre of this is the regional activity of the IRGC.
The IRGC and its expeditionary branch, the al-Quds Force, along with Iran-allied Shia militia in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, have cut a swath through Arab land and forged an axis of power from Baghdad to Beirut. For the most part, Tehran has taken advantage of opportunities opened by others. Hizbollah, for example, the powerful Lebanese Shia paramilitary force, emerged after Israel’s 1982 invasion of civil war Lebanon. The main Iraqi militias came after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s minority dictatorship and propelled the local Shia majority to power. There is plenty of blame to spread around.
The present regional mayhem is marked by proxy wars pitting Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Wahhabi ideology against Shia Iran. The emergence of sulphurous jihadist groups such as Isis, imbued with Wahhabist ideas, means that minorities such as the Arab Shia, Syria’s Alawites or many Lebanese Christians look to Iran for protection against their savagery — just as Iran’s perceived aggression pushes many Sunni towards extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
But the Islamic Republic of (Shia and Persian) Iran is plainly seen as an aggressive interloper by Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia. Unless that changes it looks as if the economic potential opened by the nuclear deal cannot be fully realised.
Nor does the sorry spectacle offered by the region burnish Iran’s reputation. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, backed in the air by Russia and on the ground by Iran, is pulverising what is left of the northern city of Aleppo, including its hospitals. The Shia Islamist-led government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad is crumbling in the face of popular protests at the venality of the political class, and a challenge for power by Iran-backed militia. Is any of this really in Iran’s interest?
“If Aleppo falls, how are they going to govern it, and who’s going to pay for its reconstruction? Russia and Iran will end up holding a very hot potato,” says a former Arab prime minister. And Syria will still have a Sunni majority.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the most mellifluously moderate voice of Iran abroad, its foreign minister and chief negotiator of the nuclear accord, keeps repeating that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to define their interests and accommodate each other without exclusions. The Saudis in effect respond that Iran has no valid interest in any Arab country — and were incensed by US President Barack Obama’s call in a recent interview for them to “share the neighbourhood”.
Saudi Arabia’s intransigence and anti-Shia belligerence are huge obstacles to regional detente, but so too is Iran’s aggressive pursuit of geopolitical regional goals that cut across its full re-entry into the international community.