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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Iran's Pivotal Elections: The Nuclear Deal, the Supreme Leader, and the end of Sanctions

On the 26th of February, the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran head to the polls to elect two different legislative bodies-the Islamic Consultative Assembly which is usually known simply as the Parliament or Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts, an upper house of sorts which is tasked with choosing the Supreme Leader of Iran, a post currently held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The election comes at a pivotal time in the Islamic Republic's existence. After months of negotiations, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Javad Zarif, emerged exhausted but triumphant, nuclear deal in hand. The agreement was a landmark one which seeks to curb Iran's nuclear program to exclusively pursue energy purposes. Substantial sanctions relief came months later and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly headed to Europe and hammered out billion-dollar trade agreements with France and Italy.

Iran is both a dictatorship and democracy. Iranians may elect the President, the Parliament, and Assembly of Experts, and they do so in large numbers. The 2013 Presidential Election saw 72.77% of registered Iranians head to the polls, where Hassan Rouhani was elected in a landslide. In 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president in an election that was likely subject to government tampering, Iranians poured into the streets, furiously asking where their votes went.

However, the elections and candidates are subject to strict scrutiny by the Guardian Council, an organization with close ties to the Supreme Leader, and reformists who seek to gradually change the country are often disqualified by the Council. The Guardian Council raised some eyebrows when they disqualified Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, from running for a seat in the Assembly of Experts, as Khomeini is the father of the Islamic Revolution and his likeness is still ubiquitous around the streets of Iran's cities.

Some of those disqualifications have been repealed, but many still stand. The elections are ten days away, and are widely seen as a public referendum on whether the Iranian people desire to see Tehran continue its negotiations with Western countries and entities such as the European Union and United States.

Most countries in the European Union already have relations with Iran, but the United States does not.

The history of US-Iranian relations is a complicated one and there aren't many clean hands.

Iran still harbors anger towards the United States for three reasons. In 1953, a coup d'etat was engineered by the US and UK, replacing Iran's constitutional monarchy with an absolute monarchy and deposing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. The coup was directly cited as a reason to distrust the United States by the Islamic Republic government when it came to power and overthrew the Shah.

In the 1980s, two more events further pushed Iran and the United States apart. The United States directly supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians perished in that war and many met death because of poison gas used by Saddam Hussein's regime. Very little was accomplished by the war. In 1988, as the war was drawing to a close, the USS Vicennes accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians. Vice President George H.W. Bush declared he would not apologize for America many times after the accident occurred, which enraged Iranians.

Tehran's hands are not entirely clean either. The government of Iran sponsors Shi'a militants in Lebanon such as Hezbollah and has supported terrorist groups like Hamas in the past as well. When a large wave of fundamentalist Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran they took dozens of embassy employees hostage for 444 days.

Hard-line rhetoric still flourishes on both sides. After the nuclear deal was struck, Ayatollah Khamenei forbade negotiations between the United States and Iran (which didn't actually end), and multiple senators and representatives from the United States have said without flinching that they will do all in their power to end or undermine the deal. Many presidential candidates such as Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio have promised to tear up the nuclear deal "on day one" if they are elected president. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has called it one of the worst deals ever negotiated.

Talking tough doesn't mean that deal is doomed, however. GOP Senator Rand Paul, a presidential candidate who dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucus known for his more cautious approach to foreign policy, stated that tearing the deal up on day one was unrealistic. Fellow GOP presidential candidate and Governor of Ohio John Kasich agreed, stressing the impetus should be focused on enforcing the deal rather than abruptly ending it. Independent-turned-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even called for full normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.

     Full normalization of relations is probably not going to happen right away even if Sanders is to shock the world and snag the nomination for president from Fmr. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and go on to win the presidency. Unlike the problems between the United States and Cuba which have mostly faded into the back of people's minds, the adversarial relationship between the US and Iran is still being steadily dismantled. A reformist or even moderate victory in the legislative elections, however, could clear the road for that in the future. It could send the message that the democratic elements of the Iranian government are slowly but surely strengthening and the authoritarian elements are on the defensive.

Even if the United States does elect a candidate that desires to end the nuclear deal, it may be a toothless promise on their part. This deal was not enacted exclusively by Washington and Tehran-the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China were all involved in its negotiations. The United Kingdom, one of the main actors behind the 1953 coup, restored full diplomatic relations with Iran last August. Iran enjoys stable relations with both Russia and China. France recently signed a trade deal with Iran, which happened not long after sanctions relief took place. The point here is that ending the nuclear deal would only achieve the desired goal for hawkish politicians in the western countries if Iran committed a serious provocation. If Tehran doesn't directly provoke the countries it just negotiated with, any new sanctions would be much less powerful in isolating the regime.

The wild card in all of this is the health of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 years old and rumored to be ailing. While the successor to Khamenei is not yet known and has not yet been decided, it is almost certainly being discussed behind closed doors. If the moderates and reformists in Iran manage to pull off an election victory in both the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts, which they very well could, it would represent a substantial boost in power and influence for the democratic elements of the Iranian government. A moderate or reformist Supreme Leader would represent a sharp contrast to the hard-liner Khamenei and could bode well for future relations between the United States and Iran.

This isn't 2009 and the Iranian government does not look like it's going to come crashing down to the sound of thousands of green-clad Iranians in the streets chanting "Down with the Dictator!" to President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei. But it could be the best chance for the "Republic" part of "Islamic Republic of Iran" to become a bigger player in Tehran, and that can and will benefit both Iran and the countries it wishes to become directly involved with again.

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