The U.S. and Iran have been engaged in on-off talks about the resuscitation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the ‘nuclear deal’ – for some months now following the U.S.’s unilateral withdrawal from the treaty in May 2018. So far, little progress has been made on any of the key issues involved on either side, although recent economic and financial data from Iran has kept the Islamic Republic at the negotiating table.
There are hopes in some quarters of the U.S. State Department that this data, in conjunction with the election in Iran on 18 June of a new president, will result in a softening of Tehran’s stance towards accepting the tougher clauses that Washington wants to include in any new nuclear deal. These hopes, though, are likely to come to nothing, as the Iranian Presidential Election has been multiply rigged to ensure that no such president will emerge.
Firstly, in broad terms, there is no such thing as a moderate in top-level Iranian politics, which means that whoever becomes the next president will be of a carefully pre-determined type. “It is not possible to be a serious politician in Iran unless you absolutely believe in the core principles of those who founded the Islamic Republic,” a senior source close to Iran’s current administration exclusively told OilPrice.com last week.
“At the centre of these guiding principles is the concept of Velayat-e-Faqih, which means that all serious political and religious authority is entrusted to the Shia clergy, which makes all key decisions for Iran, provided that they have been approved by the foremost religious leader - the Supreme Leader himself [currently Ali Khamenei] – and this is then enforced by the guardians of the  Revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC],” he said.
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“In practical terms, these decisions will cover everything of significance for Iran, from foreign policy, through defence policy, economic policy, and intelligence policy, to any domestic policy over and above how many aerials a specific apartment complex in Tehran can have on its roof,” he added. “In short, there is no such thing as a moderate or hardline Iranian politician – they are all what would be termed in the West ‘hardline’ – but this differentiation that began in the West has been used as a negotiating ploy in Iran ever since to get what Tehran wants simply by saying: ‘If you don’t agree with this we will not be able to control our hardliners,’” he underlined.
“There are those politicians that believe that more engagement with the West will get Iran more of what it wants than more engagement with Russia and China, certainly, and there are questions of Iranian sovereignty attached to that but that is not an ideological difference, just an economic one,” he told OilPrice.com. Indeed, it should be remembered that outgoing President, Hassan Rouhani – often cited as a moderate in this sense – began his adult life as a cleric, becoming an ardent follower of the leader of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei.
This structure is reinforced with the second element in Iran’s power structures that pre-determine the type of president it will have after the 18 June election. Although Iran’s 290-member parliament (the ‘Majlis’) is an elected house its power is confined to determining non-essential matters but its decisions even on these can be overturned as all of the legislation passed by it then needs to be approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution (the Guardian Council). This 12-member body acts in the manner of a general constitutional overseer, with half of its membership always being Shia theologians directly chosen by the Supreme Leader himself. The other six members are lawyers selected by the head of the judiciary, who is, in turn, also directly appointed by the Supreme Leader. In practical terms, then, Iran’s parliament has tended to deal with very small-scale domestic issues only and even these, if they relate in any way to economic or state security matters, are taken out of its hands. Related: Iran Is Planning An Oil Export Boost
The final element of pre-determination in the 18 June Presidential Elections is that the pre-selection process for ‘suitable candidates’ for the position began some time ago by a body over which no one, except the Supreme Leader, has any authority at all – the Expediency Discernment Council of the System (Expediency Council). With the current President – Hassan Rouhani – constitutionally barred from running for a third term, the Expediency Council has been busy vetting potential candidates that it, in turn, will give to the Guardian Council, which will then publish the official shortlist of six candidates by 26 May.
The Expediency Council was originally created by the Supreme Leader to resolve any differences that arose between the Guardian Council and the Majlis (Iran’s 290-member parliament) but it also now functions in turn as a key advisory body to the Supreme Leader. According to the Iran source, last week saw Iran’s Supreme National Security Council send an eight page ‘foundation document on candidates’ to the Expediency Council that stresses: “Any candidates of the Presidency will have to meet the qualifying conditions that Moscow and Beijing have presented to Iran as preconditions for the continuation of their support.” The document goes on: “The level of the [Iranian] people’s participation in this [18 June 2021] election is less important than ensuring that the candidates’ ideas are congruent with those of our Russian and Chinese partners.”
This view appears to echo that of Supreme Leader Khamenei who has also repeatedly stated that the U.S. should remove the sanctions on Iran immediately and without any preconditions before Iran returns in full to its obligations under the JCPOA. In the meantime, Khamenei is fully in favour of the wide-ranging 25-year deal signed between Iran and China (and a corollary expansion of cooperation with Russia) first struck and exclusively reported in 2019, and its later developments exclusively covered at OilPrice.com.
“This is the reason why the potential candidate for the presidency who most seeks to re-engage with the West – [Foreign Minister] Mohammad Javad Zarif – has already been critically undermined by the anonymous release of tapes in which he is heard criticising the extent of the IRGC’s influence in his Ministry’s affairs and personally criticises the IRGC’s former commander, the assassinated Major General Qassem Soleimani as prioritising military objectives over diplomatic ones,” said the Iran source. “It is also the reason why so many potential candidates have emerged in the last month who are so closely linked to the IRGC or other military institutions, including Saeed Mohammad [an adviser to new IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami], former oil minister Rostam Ghasemi [an economic affairs aide to the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds force], and former IRGC officer and Chief of Police, the current Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad Ghalibaf,” he concluded.
By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com
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Moreover, US sanctions on Iran may never be lifted even by 2023 or ever. The reason is that the positions of the United States and Iran are irreconcilable.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London