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Iranian Elections: President-elect and Regional Security

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 28, 2005

    The results of the second round of elections in Iran's ninth Presidential elections, announced June 24, are not unexpected given that the first round held on June 17 revealed that the victorious President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a much greater appeal for the average Iranian voter than his opponent, the former Iranian President and pragmatic cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

    The verdict was conclusive with 62 percent of the 28 million votes cast going to the former Mayor of Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is perceived to be a hardliner and close to the all-powerful Iranian Shia clergy. Iran's new President will assume office in August and he will be the first non-cleric to hold this post since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

    In his first official statement on June 25, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that he would strive to create a "modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic model" for the world – a formulation which will be very carefully studied in different capitals, particularly in Washington.

    Tehran's relevance in the regional security and strategic calculus has always been acknowledged and its pivotal geo-strategic location, proven energy potential and distinctive strategic culture are significant indicators.

    Currently Iran is part of the 'axis of evil' configuration from Washington's perspective and much of the US response flows from the anxiety about Iran's nuclear transgressions and the allegations about support to terrorism in West Asia apropos Israel.

    Iran is a declared non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) as part of the NPT regime and, over the last four years, the US has accused Tehran of violating its treaty obligations and pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. The AQ Khan network is also part of the transgression pattern by way of WMD material that has been supplied to Iran and currently the EU is trying to play the role of a mediator in the Iran-US nuclear impasse.

    However, it is evident from the pre-election campaign speeches that the Iranian President-elect is unlikely to bring about any radical changes in the prevailing Iran-US relationship and, consequently, the regional security calculus will continue to be brittle with the potential to deteriorate, should the EU efforts fail.

    The Bush denunciation of the elections as being suspect have not helped the tenor of Iran-US relations and the hawks on both sides will be strengthened by the results.

    At the regional level, the ascendancy of the conservative Shia clergy in Iran – both in the executive and in the parliament – will have its own effect on the Shia constituency in the neighbouring Arab states.

    Iraq is the proximate state and the Shias represent the majority. The democratic electoral process is still nascent and contested in Iraq and the Ahmadinejad experience will influence events in Baghdad – either indirectly or otherwise.

    The on-going tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the under-currents of intra- political Islam will also be impacted with tangible implications for the energy/oil domain.

    The determination of the Bush team to usher in genuine democracy in the Greater Middle East has had unintended consequences and Iran is a prime example. Ensuring that elected regimes in the region are also supportive or subaltern to the US is not a feasible proposition and could well become a strategic oxymoron for the Bush team.

    While it is true that the Iranian Supreme Guardian Council had disallowed a number of candidates (including all the women) from contesting the presidential polls, the June 25 results are reflective of democracy – the prevailing Iranian variant.

    The irony for the US is further compounded by the fact that in 1953 when democratic aspirations were surfacing in Iran, Washington intervened to suppress the people's will and supported the Shah's monarchy, which was finally overthrown in the 1979 Khomeini Revolution.

    Now the Iranian people have made their choice – no doubt a bitterly contested one, for there are a large number of Iranians who are opposed to the conservatism associated with the Iranian clergy.

    More than 70 percent of Iran's population is less than 30 and unemployment currently at 12 percent is growing. The aspirations and frustration of the people are increasing and there is a palpable divide between the few who are affluent and the vast number who are impoverished (Iran's per capita income is US $ 2,000) as also between the urban and the rural populace.

    Thus, the domestic turbulence in Iran is likely to grow if the new President imposes a draconian socio-cultural code which will affect the western leaning young. The clergy is deeply critical of what they see as the pollution of susceptible Iranian youth by the excesses of the Great Satan-the US – and its permissive modes.

    India has a long and abiding relationship with Iran and outgoing President Khatami was the Chief Guest at the Indian Republic Day parade during the Vajpayee-led NDA years. Iran remains a very important source for India's growing energy requirements and a major LNG deal has just been signed. The possibility of importing gas from Iran is being examined as also transit routes to Central Asia and to that extent India's holistic security profile is inexorably linked with Iran.

    Hence, any turbulence within Iran or related degradation of the regional security grid will be undesirable. Given the US stance on Iran, the need for a calibrated approach in India's bilateral relations with both the US and Iran is imperative. In the evolving security mosaic at the global and regional level, the Ahmadinejad victory in Iran represents a very distinctive challenge.