Two remarkable events coincided this week in the Middle East. Donald Trump made his first presidential visit abroad and Iran held its presidential election. Until yesterday, no one knew whether Iran would give a second term to an embattled moderate who’d had some success normalizing relations with the west, but less in improving the economy; or a clerical butcher, endorsed by the Grand Ayatollah and responsible for the execution of thousands of dissidents over the past few decades.
When a rival conservative candidate, the mayor of Tehran, dropped out of the race a few days before the election, many feared the hardline vote would solidify behind Ebrahim Raisi, the former attorney general who imposed revolutionary Islamist discipline at the end of the hangman’s rope. But it didn’t. Instead, Hassan Rouhani’s supporters rallied to the polls in massive numbers and brought him a second term.
While the vote is clearly a renunciation of the clerical hardliners, and tarnishes the reputation of Raisi, whom Ayatollah Khamenei was maneuvering into succeeding him, it’s hard to know what Rouhani’s second term will mean domestically. The U.S. under Donald Trump has plans to impose new sanctions. Those sanctions which were supposed to be removed remain in place at least partially.
Will the EU rebel against the U.S. position and continue relaxing sanctions and warming relations? As the Trump administration continues to falter at home, the odds of our allies defying us and seeking their own path are incalculably higher. If that happens, our own GOP and Israel Lobby-endorsed hardline approach will become the laughingstock it deserves to be.
Rouhani has been stymied by internal forces opposed to his moderate reformist agenda. He has not been able to offer economic opportunities and improvement to the everyday lives of most Iranians. In some ways, this is due to the bifurcated governance structure imposed from the outset of the Islamic revolution in 1979. While there is a democratic system, it is overshadowed by a theocratic one which dominates in most important ways. Thus democratic impulses are stymied by theocratic ones.
But one thing is for certain: Iran will not move backwards. It will not renounce its nuclear deal with western nations. It will not turn back to the empty revolutionary slogans of the days of the U.S. embassy takeover. How Iran will pursue relations with the rest of the largely Sunni region remains to be seen. But many of these decisions (i.e. Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria and Houthi rebels) are dictated by the Grand Ayatollah and IRG, which are power centers unto themselves; and largely independent of civilian/democratic oversight.
The Rouhani victory is bad news for Pres. Trump, Israel and their Sunni allies. These are the very nations at the top of Trump’s itinerary. Among other goodies, he and deal-making son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have come bearing the gift of a $300-billion/ten-year weapons deal for their Saudi hosts to feast on (listen below to David Brancaccio’s Marketplace report on the deal).
These weapons will be used to combat Iranian influence in the region and to fuel an increasingly lethal arms race which has brought 10,000 dead Yemenis and mass starvation.
The U.S. under Trump is proudly taking up the cause of the worst rulers in the region: the dirtiest, most corrupt, most ruthless, most homophobic and misogynist. The kings, emirs, tin-pot dictators, and bemedalled generals who would sooner mow down thousands of protesters in the streets than grant them an iota of freedom. Welcome to the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the Gulf States. While we turn our back to the most technologically advanced, best educated, youngest society in the region; one which offers ready and open markets for our exports.
Further, Trump has a cock-eyed plan to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace by cajoling the Saudis into imposing a peace deal upon the Palestinians. The deal would, of course, be cooked up in a backroom deal among Trump, Netanyahu and King Salman. And then forced down the unwilling throats of Palestinians.
All these machinations would’ve been so much easier had Iran followed the script hardliners in Israel and the west had expected. A Raisi victory would’ve made demonizing Iran so much easier. It would’ve made the U.S.-Sunni-Israeli coalition so much stronger (nothing promotes unity better than fear).
But now, this coalition will be sailing into a stiff headwind which will imperil its progress. It’s so much harder to demonize a nation when its leaders appear reasonable and moderate to the rest of the world; while you appear truculent and armed to the teeth.