The Iranian Presidential Election: Significance and Potential Outcomes

Lynx Global Intelligence

 

With less than a few days before Iran holds its presidential election, a victory for incumbent president Hassan Rouhani is likely. This comes despite blowback from his failure to deliver on political reforms, as well as the underperformance of the economy after Rouhani sold the nuclear accord and removal of sanctions to Iranians as a path to prosperity. Polls have shown that Rouhani may have 54% of the decided vote, sparking the possibility that he may win the election outright on Friday and avoid a runoff.  Polls are scheduled for May 19, with the possible run-off on May 26th.

A couple issues are working in favor of Rouhani and in disfavor of the conservatives. First, every incumbent Iranian president has gone on to serve a second term. With the 2009 election debacle and Green Movement protests still fresh in the minds of the ruling elites, stability and continuity are important factors in the race. Second, Rouhani’s base of reformist/moderate voters has remained solid. When turnout for an election is high, this tends to favor reformists like Rouhani. The conservative base, while mostly consolidated around former prosecutor and current custodian of the Imam Reza shrine, Ebrahim Raisi, is still partially fractured. Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former chief of the Iranian police force, enjoys significant support.

There are several concerns regarding the election and its outcome. No matter who wins the election, the nuclear accord is certain to remain in place. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has ultimate authority over foreign policy issues and the success of the nuclear accord is evidence of his tacit approval. Qalibaf has also indicated support for the agreement. However, a conservative victory would likely still come with risks. Both Raisi and Qalibaf have attacked Rouhani’s tepid economic record, pledging to increase subsidies to poor families and address youth unemployment. Their economic populism reminds the ruling class very much of Ahmadinejad’s destructive economic policies, a situation they do not want repeated.

There is a potential for social unrest. Ayatollah Khamenei warned recently that “disruptors” would be dealt with harshly. Should Raisi or Qalibaf pull off an upset that Iranian voters see as illegitimate, the possibility of protests increases. The regime would likely crack down immediately and decisively. Human rights abuses continue in Iran, but a very public repeat of anything resembling 2009 could give the international community a reason to reassess sanctions.

A victory by either Qalibaf or Raisi may embolden those who wish to see a more assertive Iranian foreign policy. A confrontation in the Persian Gulf or a missile test may invite the Trump administration to junk the nuclear deal. Earlier this year, the administration put Iran “on notice” after Tehran launched a test missile. A US pullout from the nuclear deal would, of course, be harmful to US investors interested in exploring the emerging market in Iran. While current restrictions on business with Iranian banks and the complexity of the sanctions themselves have deterred investors, it would be wise to continue to navigate these issues and prepare for an Iran that is ready to do business with US investors. Lynx Global Intelligence is prepared to provide on-the-ground knowledge of emerging markets in Iran, as well as clarify what the current risks are and explore ways of entering Iranian markets.

Some have suggested that Raisi’s candidacy is really a dry run for fielding a replacement for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is suffering from prostate cancer. Raisi, a conservative cleric with considerable experience as a prosecutor, is also the custodian of the Astan Quds Razavi, the powerful foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Raisi is also a member of the Experts Assembly, which has authority to choose the Supreme Leader. Raisi is an untried candidate who has been criticized for his lack of charisma, but the regime may be testing the appeal of Raisi as a potential leader, as well as the resonance of his conservative message.

At the same time, it is too simplistic to see establishment groups in Iran such as the Experts Assembly through a binary reformist vs. conservative lense. Saeid Golkar, a visiting fellow for Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, has instead suggested viewing such groups as divided between “three pillars”: the state bureaucracy, the clerical establishment, and the military. Golar positions Rouhani close to the state bureaucracy, and Raisi with the military. Khamenei navigates these groups, and despite the fact that he has expanded the powers of his office, the Revolutionary Guard still exert significant influence in Iranian politics. Despite this complexity, the regime seeks continuity and an avoidance of any shock to the system—in this case, an unprecedented loss for an incumbent president. The replacement of Rouhani with an administration that may be inclined to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, economic populism, and further antagonize a nation that is ready for change is widely seen as a potentiality best avoided.

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Hybrid Warfare: Irregular Soldiers, Political Subversion, “Lawfare”, Cyberwarfare, and Violent Nationalism

With the current European elections, many speculate social influence and interference by Russia

By:  Matthew C. Bebb, Lynx Global Intelligence

 

Violent nationalism as a force of legitimacy

Putin has exercised a unique type of hard power in the past decade with the use of hybrid warfare. This has been evidenced in the 2008 Georgia conflict, the present-day Ukraine conflict, and confrontations with NATO and EU countries. Putin has rejuvenated Russian nationalism by incorporating the Orthodox Church into policy making. The Orthodox Church serves as Putin’s “right hand man” that gives him legitimacy and moral superiority. Furthermore, Putin’s nationalism emphasizes “Russianness” by stating that people who speak the Slavic language are all part of Russia. This gives Putin self-appointed validity when intervening in other sovereign countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. In both conflicts, Putin states that he was coming to the aid of “Russians”. These “Russians” were not Russians, but Ossetians, Abkhazians, and East Ukrainians. However, Putin marries history with language by alleging that these people existed under the Russian sphere throughout history and belong to Russia. Putin’s strong nationalism calls upon “patriots” to enforce nationalism at home (e.g. The Nightwolves motorcycle club, Slav Mobs that beat up foreigners and homosexuals, and xenophobic organizations).

Irregular soldiers, low intensity warfare, and NATO confrontation

Putin, along with many Russians, views the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. This “catastrophe” was compounded during the Balkan Wars when NATO bombed Serbia. Furthermore, Slavic speaking countries such as Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Poland and Macedonia pivoted away from Russia after the war and embraced EU relations. Consequently, this further weakened Russia’s sphere of influence in the Slavic world while also bringing his enemies (EU and NATO) into his backyard (Ukraine and Georgia). Thus, Putin has sought to engage in realpolitik strategy in Russia’s near abroad by staging military exercises in sovereign spaces in order to project strength, demonstrate its posture, and deter further encroachment into the Russian sphere. This has taken place in the form of dangerously close flybys of NATO ships, naval drills in the Arctic, flyovers in EU airspace, showing off new military hardware at parades, and threatening the use of its nuclear weapons if provoked.

For all this muscle flexing, Putin is smart enough to know that engaging in formal mil-mil warfare against the West would end in disaster. Instead, Putin has clandestinely sent unmarked Russian troops such as those seen in the Crimea land grab. Or he sends in regular Russian soldiers who pose as civilian rebel fighters such as those seen in East Ukraine. These irregular forces give him plausible deniability while exercising his hard power secretly. On the other hand, if NATO or other Western militaries were to intervene against these regular troops, Putin could react with full force stating that Russians were being attacked and he had no choice but to use military force. Fortunately, these conflicts have been low in intensity and have not yielded international intervention.

Political subversion 

Putin has also supported and/or sponsored movements that cause political volatility such as Euroskeptics parties, the Brexit movement, European ultra-right wing parties, European anti-immigration parties, and secessionist movements with pro-Russian goals. These parties represent a disconnect between the beliefs and values of the European Union and its institutions. Putin thrives on these dissidents because they undermine the legitimacy of the European Union and look to Russia as a model for governance.

Putin’s image of strongman authoritarianism and Russian exceptionalism are propagandized by government-sponsored media outlets such as Russia Today, Sputnik, and Pravda. Each of these sites are hosted in various languages in order to reach a broader audience. The disinformation campaign used by the Kremlin seeks to undercut EU goals and thwart the idea of American exceptionalism. Coupled with his media campaign are Russian cyberwarfare efforts that continually attack American economic and political secrets. This is another type of hybrid warfare that gives Putin plausible deniability by stating that these could be rogue hackers who don’t work for the government. However, it is widely acknowledged that along with Putin’s cyberwarriors are a horde of internet “trolls” who write disparaging comments on social media sites about the West.

Lastly, Russia’s role in the UN is a flagrant hypocrisy. Putin manipulates domestic and international laws in order to achieve his goals (i.e. lawfare). Putin advocates states’ sovereignties. In other words, no foreign power should have a say in another country’s business. That is unless, of course, you are Vladimir Putin. Russia has a habitual veto voter in the UN and undermines the international community’s progress toward addressing many issues. Putin also claims that Russia must maintain its sovereignty by eliminating potential fifth column agents within the Russian state (e.g. NGOs, foreign companies, and tourists).

Recent News Confirming Information Warfare Feb. 21, 2017

Defense Minister Shoigu, backed by his top brass army generals, addressed the State Duma on February 21st. The usual protocol for addressing the Duma on security matters adhered by Shoigu along with his predecessors was a private affair. These plenary sessions were always declared state secrets, and members of the Duma were not allowed to share any information with journalists. However, during last week’s address by Shoigu, there were press present and live stream media provided by the Defense Ministry. Replying to questions from Duma members, Shoigu shared that four years ago Russia secretly created an “information warfare directorate” within the defense ministry. This is a new branch of the military that will be engaged in cyber warfare “counterpropaganda.” Apparently, this will involve hacking into databases and Internet trolling. Duma officials were caught off guard when Shoigu publicly disclosed what was once secret information, now being put on blast for state media.

Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, a former chief of the Airborne Troops and the current Duma defense committee chair, told journalists these new troops will “protect [Russia’s] national defense interests and engage in information warfare,” including cyber warfare. Retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the defense ministry’s international cooperation department, insists Russia should be more aggressive in information warfare “to open up concealed Western data in the US and in Germany to expose their lies”. The hacking of e-mail accounts to dump their contents into the public domain could seem to fit the Russian understanding of “information warfare.”