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Crucial polls in Iran

 Editorial |  2017-05-19 16:29:16.0  |  New Delhi

Crucial polls in Iran

Iranian voters came out on Friday to cast their ballot in the crucial presidential elections. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that these elections will have significant implications for the Middle East, the global oil and natural gas market and India. It is a straight contest between President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who is seeking a second term, and hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi, a former aide of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The Iranian presidency is not a strong institution compared to other presidential systems. In the Islamic Republic, the real power lies with the Supreme Leader, who is not directly elected by the people. Nonetheless, the office of the President lends credence to the country's theocratic system, and a visionary, popular leader can manoeuvre within the limitations and push his agenda gradually," says a recent editorial in The Hindu. The international community watches with bated breath as these are the first elections since Iran signed the historic 2015 nuclear deal with a coalition of nations led by the United States of America. The deal lifted years of crippling economic sanctions, allowing Iran to open up its oil and natural gas reserves to the world.

The international community watches with bated breath as these are the first elections since Iran signed the historic 2015 nuclear deal with a coalition of nations led by the United States of America. The deal lifted years of crippling economic sanctions, allowing Iran to open up its oil and natural gas reserves to the world. Raisi, meanwhile, is a cleric who heads the country's largest charitable foundation. His hardline credentials are well-established, as part of a tribunal that sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows in 1988. At stake here for Iran is a choice between two divergent visions of the road ahead. If the country goes with Rouhani, it will strengthen the moderate faction, which has stepped on a path of economic modernization and greater international engagement. Under Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's isolation from the global economic order grew stronger, aided and abetted by political repression at home.

Rouhani's campaign in 2013 was premised on the promise of breaking the shackles of economic sanctions brought on by the nuclear crisis and turning that into economic benefits for its citizens. Rouhani did deliver on his promises to some degree. He oversaw the historic nuclear deal, allowing Iran greater engagement with the international community. However, with sanctions lifted only in phases and non-nuclear sanctions still in place, the Rouhani administration has found it difficult to attract foreign direct investment and modernise the economy. Unemployment, meanwhile, is still high. The Donald Trump administration's careless anti-Iran rhetoric has further dampened the possibility of better relations between the US and Iran, which is critical for peace in the Middle East. His constant reiteration of undoing the nuclear deal as his 'number one priority' has threatened the applecart. The Trump cabinet is potentially rife with anti-Iran hawks like Secretary of Defence-select, Retired General James Mattis, who still call Iran the "single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East". Making matters worse is the war against the Islamic State in Syria, with the Iranians backing the Bashar Al-Assad regime against serious opposition from the United States and its ally, Saudi Arabia. All these factors have played into the hands of the hardliners in Iran. Defeat for Rouhani would mean the return of hardline elements and a crushing blow for the moderate faction which seeks to oversee greater economic engagement with the world and stability in the Middle East in the face of growing transnational terror. For the hardliners, the aim is to keep the US out of the Middle East, whom they blame for most of the region's woes. They aren't wrong, but greater engagement with the world on Tehran's terms would bring more significant benefits for Iran.

Making matters worse is the war against the Islamic State in Syria, with the Iranians backing the Bashar Al-Assad regime against serious opposition from the United States and its ally, Saudi Arabia. All these factors have played into the hands of the hardliners in Iran. Defeat for Rouhani would mean the return of hardline elements and a crushing blow for the moderate faction which seeks to oversee greater economic engagement with the world and stability in the Middle East in the face of growing transnational terror. For the hardliners, the aim is to keep the US out of the Middle East, whom they blame for most of the region's woes. They aren't wrong, but greater engagement with the world on Tehran's terms would bring more significant benefits for Iran.

This US-Iranian rupture even goes against strategic Indian interest. The recent convergence and joint-working of the Indo-Iranian understanding were expressing itself with the development of the Chabahar port, Afghanistan region, and in the commercial domains. The US could again, arm-twist the Indians in a flashback to the earlier pressures that disallowed progress on the Iran-India gas pipeline. For the uninitiated, the nuclear deal had brought significant strategic autonomy as far as India's foreign policy is concerned. This is because India has vital trade and other important strategic links with both Iran and the USA. Last year, a historical trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Chabahar—a strategic port in the Gulf of Oman on Iran's southern coast with Afghanistan—was signed. The development of the Chabahar port will offer India alternative access to landlocked Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Both Iran and India share the goal of a stable government in Kabul free of the Taliban's influence. Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda. India has been trying to secure rights to develop the Farzad-B gas field in Iran, an offshore block that the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India had discovered in 2008. For its part, Iran seems keen on better relations with India after Tehran. One could posit that India would seek a victory for Rouhani to ensure greater consistency in policy and a

Last year, a historical trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Chabahar—a strategic port in the Gulf of Oman on Iran's southern coast with Afghanistan—was signed. The development of the Chabahar port will offer India alternative access to landlocked Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Both Iran and India share the goal of a stable government in Kabul free of the Taliban's influence. Globally, New Delhi and Tehran are on the same page in their opposition towards Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda. India has been trying to secure rights to develop the Farzad-B gas field in Iran, an offshore block that the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India had discovered in 2008. For its part, Iran seems keen on better relations with India after Tehran. One could posit that India would seek a victory for Rouhani to ensure greater consistency in policy and a de-escalation of tensions between the US and Iran.

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