An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun
In elections on Feb. 26, Iran is set to choose a new Majlis, or parliament, as well as the “Assembly of Experts” – a body of religious scholars whose main job is to choose the Supreme Leader – currently 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, hopes that last July’s nuclear deal – officially implemented last month – would lead to a shift in power in the Iranian regime toward “moderates” and away from “hardliners” appear doomed.
Iran has never been a genuine democracy, with clerical hardliners nurtured by Khamenei and his predecessor, regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, holding almost all the reins of power.
This election looks to be a good demonstration of how this works. Reportedly, 80% (645 out for 801) of candidates for the 88-Member Assembly of Experts were barred from running. Of the 12,100 announced candidates for the Majlis, 55% were eventually allowed to run, but moderate candidates in particular seem to have been targeted by the “vetting” process.
President Hassan Rouhani’s “moderate” camp claimed only 1% of their candidates survived vetting, and Rouhani himself reportedly complained, “If only one faction is present in the vote, and the other is not, then why are we holding elections?”
This decision was made by the 12-member Guardian Council, half of whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, which vets all candidates and ensures the “compatibility” of laws with the “teachings of Islam”. In barring reformers and moderates from running, it was effectively following orders from Khamenei, who told election officials on Jan. 20, “Only those who believe in the Islamic Republic and its values should be allowed to enter parliament.”
Of course, this kind of manipulation of Iran’s undemocratic politics by the regime is standard practice. What was new is the expectation of Western normalisation toward Iran following the implementation of the nuclear deal, which has lifted economic sanctions on Iran estimated to be worth around $150 billion.
Since that time, Khamenei has signalled repeatedly that, while he wants the sanctions lifted, he will not countenance any progressive changes in Iranian domestic politics or foreign policy. And he and his allies are using their ample power to make sure this does not happen.
Take for example, Khamenei’s tweet on February 15, “All problems root in the arrogant powers at the top of which is US and the Zionist regime is epitome of evil.” In October, he banned all negotiations with the US, saying any contact might “open gates to their economic, cultural, political and security influence.”
The regime has been signaling its intentions with actions as well – actions including an October ballistic missile test that violated a UN Security Council ban, the firing of rockets near a US aircraft carrier, and the detention and public humiliation of 10 US Navy sailors that Iran claimed had strayed into its waters.
Yet World powers have been so eager to implement the nuclear deal that they have all but ignored these signals and actions. They have even downplayed the findings of the December report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had been lying for years about its nuclear weapons development work, and that it was impossible to form a complete picture of Iran’s weapons program because Iran has been destroying evidence and refusing to answer questions.
Meanwhile, Iran is still wreaking havoc across the Middle East in pursuit of its hegemonic ambitions. It is now anticipated that Iran will use a portion of its new funds to prop up its allies including the brutal Assad regime in Syria, Houthis in Yemen, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and the terror group Hezbollah – based in Lebanon but also supporting Assad.
Such a foothold across the region enables Iran to claim that it already has control over four Arab capital cities – Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sana’a. Iran’s evolving presence is perturbing for Sunni Middle Eastern, states especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are now ramping up efforts to fight the Assad regime in Syria.
The key provisions of the nuclear deal will expire in ten years and Iran will then be effectively able to develop nuclear weapons unhindered. Ten years is a drop in the ocean for an ancient civilization. This reality is well understood by Iran’s neighbours, and therefore is likely to spark a nuclear arms race in an already volatile region.
Despite this turmoil, Western diplomats and business leaders flock to meet with Iranian leaders, keen to tap into Iran’s lucrative market, with governments encouraging this both out of economic self-interest, and out of a misplaced belief – being refuted by experience – that engagement will lead to Iranian moderation or strengthen moderate forces within Iran.
However, if the nuclear deal is to have any hope of curtailing Iran’s destructive and destablising behaviours, Iran must now be treated with greater caution and scrutiny than ever. Vigilance will require firm policies regarding the way the West responds to Iranian transgressions, nuclear or otherwise. Iran must be called to account for any nuclear violations as well as for its support for terrorism, its breaches of arms embargos and its gross abuse of human rights.
Given the risks, for all Western nations, including Australia, caution will better serve their national interests than automatically upgrading political ties or encouraging businesses to prematurely rush into the Iranian market. Nuclear related sanctions on Iran are being lifted, but real normalisation with Iran must wait until the regime can demonstrate that it can behave like a normal state.
Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle East politics at Monash University for many years.