Iran’s 2017 Elections: The World Is Watching – OpEd

The presidential candidates for Iran’s elections have garnered their support from their voters for the upcoming results. This event comes at a critical time where the world is watching, especially for the United States. In a region where not many citizens have the right to vote, Iran’s elections have a meaning for their people to politically participate in Iranian society. City council and local elections are also taking place in Iran. The Islamic Republic has been successful because it is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, and it has successfully secured its citizens from the ongoing violence abroad.

The Iranians will go to the polls to decide the future of their country. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has hailed the country’s elections in the run up to the final vote. In addition, massive voter turnout will be expected when the voters head to the polls, but the elections symbolize something more than political participation. The Iranian election also symbolizes the Islamic Republic’s determination to hold onto the traditional values that derived from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as to demonstrate their faith and trust in Islam. The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others are closely monitoring the election results, and Iran’s elections have stirred up envy coming from regional countries like the Gulf states. Iran has had the distinction of being able to hold fair and transparent elections with a high voter turnout in a secure atmosphere. Many experts expect Iran’s elections to be an example of democracy and the people’s respect to decide their future in such a volatile region.

Why Should the World Watch Iran’s Election?

This election is not only important for Iran and the region, but for the world. We have to take into consideration that we live in an extremely hostile geopolitical world, and we are also seeing the rise of populism. Populism has caused a lot of instability in the United States and Europe, but people are watching because they want to see if this populism could carry forward in Iran, especially with the rise of Ebrahim Raisi, one of the hard core conservative candidates in the running.

Essentially, Iran’s election will boil down to the political ramifications of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the economy, and the policies promised by President Rouhani to decide the direction of the Persian powerhouse. Voters will decide on either Ebrahim Raisi or Hassan Rouhani on their promises for the economy, domestic affairs, and most importantly, Iran’s interaction in the Middle East and around the world.

Is Iran a Democracy?

In the West, we view Iran as an authoritarian regime, and we also view Iran from the latter days of the Cold War. The long hostile history between the West and Iran still exists today, but we don’t see Iranian society through the eyes of Western society. Iran is a vibrant democracy, it may not be perfect, Iran has an ugly human rights profile, they have been responsible for arming Shia militias, but the Iranian people do care about the direction of their country and they can politically participate so then their vote means something. There is a lack of understanding from the West towards Iran.

It is also interesting to point out that there is a great deal of hope and wisdom that Iran can manage despite the fact that they have been under so much international pressure, being under the weight of international sanctions and the great deal of political prejudice has strived Iran to become more independent from the rest of the world. The elections also carry out the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that represents the interests of the people to stay within the peripheries of a religious and a modern society. The fact that Iran is a religious and modern society represents the Islamic Republic as an independent democracy that is quite different from western democracies.

The United States has throughout history tried many times to undermine Iran. But at the same time, the U.S does not want Iran to follow their own democracy. In the Middle East, there are many regimes where citizens do not have the right to vote and everything is done by family consensus. Since the 1979 Revolution, which was over thirty years ago, Iran has been a beacon for stability and regional security.

If you look at former President Obama, he said that Iran’s influence in the region is increasing and other countries should come together to come into terms with it. However, Iran has shown some significant restraint when it comes to the war of words that are coming from the West.

The Health of the System

The most important issue that many of us are concerned about is the health of the current Iranian system. Ayatollah Khamenei is aging and there is a concern that if he passes away, what would be next? We don’t know the answer to this question. The Islamic Republic is the health of the system and it is not necessarily in the hands of Raisi or Rouhani, but the future of the system is in the hands of the voters who will determine the turnout of the election. The Supreme Leader has focused more on the macropolitical issues of allowing the people to decide the fate of their country and avoid the distractions going on near their western borders. At the end of the day, the winner of the Iranian elections will be the Iranian people. This election will determine what the Iranian people want and the country should focus on itself, its own domestic issues.

During the previous election, voter turnout in 2013 was roughly 73% with Hassan Rouhani winning a whopping 51% of the vote over Tehran Mayor Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf. People are coming out and voting which is in fact a reflection of democracy within a country with so many restrictions on human rights. When it comes down to the Middle East, there is so much violence, the region is plagued with wars, and instability exists, but Iranian voters come out with no sweat and go to the polls to vote. This is quite significant because anywhere you look, there is always something going on such as wars and instability near Iran.

For Iran to face such significant international pressure through sanctions, and face the pressures of the economy, it is remarkable how Iran can still conduct its own foreign policy. Elections go beyond religion and politics, but people have some sort of voice and their vote counts and means something for political determination. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini even called the Islamic Revolution a revolution of values, a revolution of universality for the Iranian people to have a united identity that brings people together, and people aspire to be free. In Iran, people are dignified, there are no standoffs, there are no personal attacks, but elections are done in a respectable way that we don’t normally see in the West. Iran’s democracy not only works, but it can inspire others and it empowers the people to protect the sovereignty of the nation. Iran’s elections can also be a lesson for all of us where democracy not only works, but it can inspire people and they can determine their own future.

The JCPOA: The Shining Star of Rouhani’s Foreign Policy

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will be one of the key issues that Iranians will be voting on in these upcoming presidential elections. So far, the JCPOA has been good for Iran’s economy and they have obeyed the obligations that were listed in the deal. Rouhani has said that the JCPOA is a way for Iran to engage with the West and it will take time for there to be a final settlement.

Raisi on the other hand, has said that the JCPOA has not really worked in favor of Iran as promised. Regardless of who wins, the JCPOA issue is not going to be on the foreign policy side, but on the side of the Iranian economy. Rouhani promised the Iranian people that the JCPOA will revive Iran’s economy by adding more jobs, more economic growth, more foreign investment will pour into Iran (right now we’re seeing this from the Europeans), and build on Iran’s internal capacity to increase production.

Iran can become less dependent on the West and focus on domestic production. How will Rouhani or Raisi do this? We don’t know. The survival of the JCPOA depends on the vision of Rouhani or Raisi to give diplomacy a chance, and revive small businesses in Iran.

What to Expect

This election will not necessarily come down to foreign policy, but for the future of Iran’s economy. We can talk about how good or bad the nuclear deal was, but this election will come down to Iran’s economy! Iran must deal with the domestic issues when it comes down to economic stability. These include employment, economic growth, education for the younger generations, and domestic growth.

But if the economy can get better, how will Iran engage with the world? From the past decades, the United States has sought to undermine Iran going all the way back to 1953 when the U.S overthrew a democratically elected Mohammad Mosasadegh that restored the Pahlavi Dynasty to power. The problem the U.S has in understanding Iran is that it is already a superpower. To some extent, the U.S can influence Iran to prevent and slow down its rise and increasing presence in the region, but you cannot prevent Iran from being Iran. Another misunderstanding is that Iran historically, is a civilization that dates back 3,000 years ago while the United States came out of the Age of the Enlightenment. Iran is a very old country with a rich history and they have promoted democracy inside an authoritarian government. Iran has also remained independent from western imperialism while most of the countries in the Middle East were under the occupation of the British and the French. The Middle East was also one of the regions that broke out of the decolonization movement after the Second World War.

Let’s face it, Washington cannot contain Iran, but there needs to be an engagement policy coming from the United States to resolve their differences with Iran and move forward towards normalizing relations which will take some time. The way Iran was able to grow economically and politically with the sanctions in place is remarkable and the Islamic Republic has been able to develop an independent economy. Since Iran is independent, its foreign policy is not something we would perceive it to be in the West, but it is to help other nations such as Yemen (one of the world’s poorest countries) become independent as well.

The turnout for these elections will be huge, possibly larger than the turnout in 2013. The vote is basically about the economy, transparency, calm elections, and candidates Raisi and Rouhani will follow their voters promises as well. This election is important for Iran, but it is also important that the entire Middle East is watching this election not only because of foreign policy concerns, but because of the large turnout that will be expected for this election that can provide a demonstration for stability in such a complicated region. The Iranian election will not only be about transparency, but it will also be a signal for Iran’s domestic and foreign policies moving forward in the next four years till 2021 which will impact the broader region for geopolitical means.

*Vincent Lofaso, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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