Anti-American hard-liners are poised to dominate Iran’s upcoming presidential election, presenting a major new headache for the Biden administration as it tries to contain Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and promote stability in the Middle East.
The June elections loom as a major wild card in President Biden’s push to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and his demand that Tehran come into compliance. President Trump repudiated the nuclear agreement in 2018. Hopes for a quick return to negotiations were dashed when both Washington and Tehran said the other must make the first move.
A victory in the June contest by a figure more radical than current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could escalate Iran’s demands at the bargaining table and its destabilizing policies in the region, analysts say, putting in danger any hope of saving the nuclear pact.
Mr. Biden has resisted Iranian demands that Washington ease sanctions as a first step toward renewing talks over the nuclear deal, and Iran has elevated its uranium enrichment activities to pre-deal levels. Analysts say the window for diplomacy could soon slam shut.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an architect of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has warned that the upcoming election presents a “time constraint” for the U.S. to deliver on concessions to Iran, which he said is “used to resisting” American sanctions.
The Biden administration must stay firm in the face of the Iranian threats, analysts say. Iran’s true power brokers — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the religious conservative Guardian Council of clerics around him — favor a harder line after the two-term presidency of Mr. Rouhani, who analysts say is seen as a relative moderate in the Iranian political landscape.
“It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the next Iranian president is going to come from the Iranian right flank or the ultra-hard-liners,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow focused on Iran.
The most likely candidates are all veterans of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military force that controls large swaths of the country’s economy and sees itself as the protector of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“The upcoming election will be about cementing their power as well as Khamenei, Iran’s aging supreme leader, cementing his legacy,” Mr. Ben Taleblu said in an interview. “It would be a strategic setback if the Biden administration were to rush in before the election to offer sanctions relief in an attempt to resuscitate the nuclear deal.”
Others suggest that Iran’s supreme leader is carefully weighing which candidate would best preserve the Islamic Republic in the face of growing voter apathy and a disastrous economic decline. “Iran is an autocracy, and on all critical issues the views of the supreme leader always prevail,” former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said in an interview.
“The difference between hard-liners and moderates in Iranian politics is essentially one that enables Iran to negotiate with the rest of the world and the other does not,” said Mr. Haqqani, who now heads the South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
“The supreme leader and Guardian Council put out the hard-liners when they need the rest of the world to think that Iran is in fighting mode, and they put out the moderates when they think the world needs better negotiating partners from Iran,” he said. “But the fundamental nature of the regime still remains one in which the supreme leader and the Guardian Council make all decisions, and they are permanent hard-liners.”
Iranian leaders appear eager to generate interest in the June 18 vote. Parliamentary elections last year attracted a record low 43% turnout after a large number of reformist candidates were barred from running.
Ayatollah Khamenei, in a national address Sunday, placed pre-emptive blame on the U.S. and Israel for what he said was a campaign to discourage voting and embarrass the regime.
“They say the elections have been rigged or whatever, or they accuse the respected Guardian Council,” the supreme leader said, as reported by Agence France-Presse. “Or they discourage the people, saying: ‘Your vote has no impact, it will not help improve the situation, [so] why bother?’”
Vetting the field
The field will be skewed even before voters head to polls because the candidates must be vetted and approved by the 12-member Guardian Council by mid-May. Among those rumored to be under consideration are a range of hard-liners, including polarizing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Ahmadinejad was notorious during his 2005-2013 presidency for cracking down on human rights activists and for a deep hostility to Israel and the U.S. The Guardian Council vetoed his bid for a comeback third term in 2017, and it remains unclear whether he will be allowed on the ballot this time.
Other potential candidates include former Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who once headed the IRGC’s Aerospace Force and is now speaker of Iran’s parliament. Former Speaker Ali Larijani, who also has close ties to the IRGC but is believed to be slightly more pragmatic than other hard-liners, is also said to be under consideration.
Conservative forces opposed to Mr. Rouhani’s outreach to the West bolstered their standing with gains in legislative elections last year. Conservatives now hold roughly 85% of the country’s parliamentary seats, and about half of those belong to a particularly anti-American, hard-liner bloc.
Analysts say the hard-liner gains reflect anger and frustration at Iran’s leaders over the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. The deal initially resulted in major sanctions relief and a massive windfall of cash for Tehran in exchange for limits to and international inspections of Iran’s suspect nuclear programs.
Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and reimposed sanctions. He said the agreement dangerously ignored Tehran’s other destabilizing activities, including its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and backing of militants attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq. The more confrontational Trump era approach came to a violent head in January 2020 when a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander.
IRGC-aligned political figures led the push to exact revenge on U.S. forces for the Soleimani strike.
Iran’s economy has been staggered by the U.S. sanctions, and the government has faced widespread criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, the worst in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council now appear determined to approve only candidates who will continue with the hard line, unless Mr. Biden delivers major sanctions relief.
Despite the limited scope for politics in the Iranian system, some analysts say, it will matter a good deal to Mr. Biden who wins in June.
“The U.S. is always questioning if there really is a major difference between radicals and moderates in Iran,” said Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator who now specializes in Middle East security and nuclear policy at Princeton University. “Of course, the same question gets asked in Iran about the difference between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.
“Iranian media reports are constantly trying to claim there is no difference between Biden and Trump, but in reality there is a big difference, just as there is a big difference between hard-liners and moderates in Iran,” Mr. Mousavian told The Times in an interview. “I would argue there’s even more of a difference between Iranian hard-liners and moderates than between Republicans and Democrats.”
Prospects for a deal
Norman Roule, who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the CIA, said Iran may remain open to a deal with Washington even with a hard-line president.
“There’s no reason to believe hard-liners won’t dominate and win this election,” Mr. Roule said, “but a hard-liner will nonetheless likely speak of engagement and will be ultimately likely to support some form of a restored nuclear deal as long as that deal does not threaten hard-liner equities, such as Iran’s regional activities, the IRGC’s hold on the Iranian economy and society, and Iran’s missile program.”
Mr. Roule, now a nonresident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University, said Washington may still benefit from the dynamic. A hard-line Iranian president hurling threats at the West, he said, could “make it easier for us to develop unity with external partners, namely Europe, while a less-strident figure might foster unreasonable or unfounded hopes that Iran might be willing to make compromises that the supreme leader would never endorse.”
Some say the change of power in Washington could have a significant impact on Iranian popular opinion.
The Biden victory in November “came as a big disappointment to the Iranian hard-liners,” Saeid Jafari, a Middle East analyst based in Europe, wrote in an analysis published recently by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “They had hoped that Donald Trump’s re-election would help them to oust the reformist and moderate candidates in June’s presidential election. Now hardliners are concerned that the new U.S. administration will destroy their plans.”
Others say the regime is likely weighing whether to promote less-radical members of the hard-liner camp with the goal of keeping open the possibility of talks with Washington while making it clear that Iran’s overall posture has stiffened.
“The sense that the Americans have been playing hardball and will continue to play hardball even under Biden may lead the Guardian Council to promote a candidate like Hossein Dehghan,” said Mr. Haqqani at the Hudson Institute. “They may put somebody up from that cohort to signal that, ‘Hey, we have red lines you can’t cross.’”
But June is still months away, and Mr. Haqqani noted, “Reading the political signs in Iran is almost like reading the stars on an astrology chart.”