Unlikely To Change International Position ~ salman haidar
THE elections in Iran have yielded a clear and unambiguous result in favour of the reformist Mr Rouhani. Iran has a complex system of elections and it had been considered likely that none of the many plausible candidates who had entered the lists would succeed on the first ballot, making a runoff unavoidable. Among the candidates were some regarded as reformists who favoured change and others seen as conservatives supportive of the status quo, and it was hard to tell who among them might prevail. As it happened, the reformists showed greater adroitness and as the countdown neared they were able to coalesce and jointly support Mr Rouhani. As a result, he was able to win on the popular vote, comfortably ahead of all the others. Moreover, he got more than 50 per cent of the votes and so did not have to face a runoff. He is thus to be sworn in as President at the appointed time in August.
Mr Rouhani&’s victory is clear, not so its implications. It cannot be assumed that the conservative opposition will now become quiescent and give the new President a free hand as he exercises his authority. The Iranian Parliament, which is reputed to be conservative in orientation, has a mind of its own and has authority in some areas, including acceptance of candidates for the Cabinet, so some give and take between Parliament and Presidency may be necessary. Nor is there any parallel elsewhere to the office of the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who stands outside the popular vote and whose position was not at issue during the election. Mr Khamenei is above the fray yet able to intervene when he feels the need. He has been given credit for supporting the free election we have seen: last time, when President Ahmedinejad was elected to his second term, there were widespread allegations of rigging while this time there are no such accusations.
Whatever the finer balances within the system, the manner and the extent of Mr Rouhani&’s victory should strengthen his authority and permit him to address public discontent and demands for change. Considerable restiveness has been reported from Iran over heavy handed intervention by unidentified groups who claim to uphold public morality. Mr Rouhani made some oblique references to such groups in the course of the campaign and may now try to curb their largely self-appointed role. No doubt there are many in Iran who would be looking forward to a relaxation of the unpopular stringencies to which they have been subjected.
The most pressing problem, however, is to try to do something to repair the economy. Iran has been suffering for years from high inflation and high unemployment, much of its economic difficulty being attributable to the damaging sanctions imposed internationally under US urging. Iran&’s nuclear programme is the ostensible cause of the sanctions, the purpose of which is to compel transparency and open Iran&’s nuclear sites to international inspection under IAEA auspices.
Inspection has been a cat-and-mouse game for many years: there have been occasional discussions between the parties and seeming concessions that have raised expectation but with no results achieved, and there have also been loud claims that Iran has secret nuclear facilities and is delaying matters while it adds to its store of fissile material. More ominous, there have been repeated threats of direct action ~ i.e. military attack ~ on Iran&’s nuclear facilities if agreement is not reached soon. Most recently, Iran has faced fresh charges of giving clandestine aid to the Syrian regime against which international pressure is now rising.
In these circumstances, there is little to suggest that Iran&’s successful elections will make much of a difference to its international position. Its arch foe Israel has already said that elections amount to little and there should be no letting up on sanctions ~ indeed, Israel&’s leadership has asked for their further strengthening. Others, too, point to the fact that there has been no recasting of the apex leadership as a result of the elections. The Supreme Leader and his council, believed to be the final arbiters of strategic policy, may be in no hurry to change the essentials.
On the other hand, Iran&’s desire for change has been signalled by the election result. So far as the local people are concerned, they may have to continue to cope with the effects of sanctions but have had much to bear and may wish to see their burden reduced. They may also be looking for liberalisation at home to soften some of the severities of the regime, and the expectation that Mr Rouhani would proceed in that direction was considered to be an important factor in his success.
Responding perhaps to the public mood, Parliament as well as the Revolutionary Guards have shown willingness to cooperate with the new elected authority. Though the diehard opponents of Iran are unwilling to yield ground on sanctions, yet even on this front there could be some stirrings of change: US Secretary of State Kerry has indicated readiness to engage directly with Iran, while expressing the hope that Iran will meet its international obligations on its nuclear programme. Maybe Mr Kerry&’s remarks will encourage the parties to re-open discussions and take dialogue a stage further.
India has welcomed Mr Rouhani&’s election and hopes to work cooperatively with his administration. The recent tightening of sanctions under US requirements has affected some of India&’s important interests, including the ability to obtain energy supplies from Iran. It would be to India&’s benefit if the small window in the sanctions regime that is currently kept open for Iranian oil to flow to India, and some few others, were enlarged and extended, to help ensure the security of oil supplies from the Gulf.
India is at one with the USA and other members of the international community in asking Iran to meet IAEA requirements relating to its nuclear plans but India&’s important interests in the energy field also have to be protected. There are other significant regional issues and developments in which Iran will have a role that will need to be taken into account.
Together, India and Iran have joined in developing a fresh route from the Gulf to Afghanistan and thence to Central Asia, which has great strategic potential. Nor can Iran be ignored in the current parleys about post-2014 arrangements in and around Afghanistan. For India, it would be desirable that dialogue between Iran and its international interlocutors be resumed soon, and that moderate rather than uncompromising views should prevail. Maybe the impending visit of Secretary of State Kerry would be a good time for India to take up these matters.
The writer is India&’s former foreign secretary