“It’s The Economy, Stupid!”: The Iranian Presidential Election

by Barkley Rosser

“It’s The Economy, Stupid!”: The Iranian Presidential Election
“It’s the economy, stupid!” quoth James Carville back in 1992, adviser to Bill Clinton during his successful presidential election campaign then. And so quoth Stella Morgana in an informative piece written a few days ago prior to and about the Iranian presidential election as linked to by Juan Cole The Iranian Election: It’s the Economy, Stupid!. For those who have not seen it yet, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has won decisively with 57% of the vote over his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who got 38.5%. Rouhani is viewed as a moderate in the traditon of former president Khatami, who is under house arrest, while Raisi was supported by hard line clerics and the supreme leader, Ali, Khamenei. Many view Raisi as a potential successor to Khamenei.

In the Iranian system the Supreme Jurisprudent, Khameinei, has control over the judiciary and security forces and ultimately over foreign policy, while the president has most control over economic policy and other domestic policies, although social policies are controlled partly by both, with a sharp difference over those, even though Rouhani himself is a Shi’i cleric. The Supreme Jurisprudent also has a veto through his Council of Guardians on all laws passed, which are judged on whether or not they are sufficiently Islamic. Also, all candidates must be vetted by them on the same grounds, with Rouhani passing four years ago through their filter, while other more “liberal” candidates were banned. So, Iran is a partial democracy at best, but still a partial democracy, with the same kinds of rules and restrictions applying to the elections for its Majlis, the legislative body.

As Morgana notes, the economy was the leading issue, especially from Raisi’s side, although Rouhani also emphasized his relative social liberalism, and it is thought that he got support on this from young, urban, and female voters. In many ways the Iranian economy looks sort of like the US one did a few years ago, say at the time of Obama’s reelection campaign. It is not in all that good shape, with 12% unemployment, 30% for youth, stagnant wages, 7% inflation, and entrenched inequality with substantial amounts of corruption. OTOH, there has been positive growth in the last two years since the partial lifting of international economic sanctions following the 2015 nuclear deal, with inflation down from 40%, and much of the corruption is perceived to be among the clerical elites who supported Raisi, even as Raisi attempted to play the populist and push a program of monetary handouts for the very poor. His line was essentially that things may be getting better, but they are still bad. He also pushed a harder line nationalism and religious extremism, and in this regard looked more like politicians such as Trump and Le Pen, and his defeat can be seen as another rejection of authoritarian nationalism that has been going on since Trump took office.

While many thought it was, one issue not in contention was the Iran nuclear deal itself, which was supported in any case by Supreme Jurisprudent, Khamenei, and thus also by Raisi as well, along with Rouhani, of course, who negotiated it and ran on doing so four years ago. Nevertheless, there was a difference in emphasis, with the economic critique by Raisi partly amounting to a critique that the deal had not gotten the economic benefits promised by Rouhani, and thus, perhaps, should be looked at again more closely. Of course this reflects the view one sees from Trump, not to mention the Saudis and Israelis whom Trump is currently visiting. Trump ran hard against the agreement, calling it “the worse deal ever made.” But while supposedly reviewing it, he has not yet abrogated it, even as the US continues to maintain some economic sanctions on Iran that were on before for its violations of human rights and support of terrorism. The Saudis and Israelis both opposed the nuclear deal, although when it gets down to it, neither are really pushing for undoing it.

OTOH, the Saudis do seem to be pushing an aggressive anti-Iranian stance, which they hope Trump will support. Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, supposedly the power of the moment, just called for starting a “war in Iran” itself, claiming that Iran wants to start one in their nation. The two have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen for some time, with the Saudis not doing very well there against the Zaydi Shi’a Houthis, who control northern Yemen. Trump has upped support for their efforts, although with little to show for it. But MBS, as he is known, is war whooping it up and is the main person behind the wonderful welcome Trump is getting in Saudi Arabia, where they are also signing the big arms deal that ProGrowthLiberal has just posted on here on Econospeak. I note that this is really not a big deal as the US has long sold large amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia, although this looks like a bigger deal than some other ones in the past.

Anyway, the Iran election seems to have had a positive outcome for world peace, although I doubt we are going to see either Trump or bin Salman or Netanyahu say so publicly in the midst of their denunciations of Iranian policy, some of which can be criticized. But when Trump denounces Islamic terrorism in his about-to-happen speech in Saudi Arabia to an assembled group of Muslim leaders, which include no Shi’a ones, I doubt he is going to mention Saudi support of radical madrassaa and many Wah’habist groups in Syria and Pakistan and elsewhere who have engaged in plenty of terrorism over a long period of time. The Saudis are now opposing al Qaeda et al, but they seem to be relatively recent converts to this fights, and have supported radical Sunni groups in many countries when those were fighting Shi’a ones. The US really does not need to get suckered into one side of an intra-Muslim sectarian war, but the Saudis seem to be hoping that they can do just that with Trump, especially given that some of his supposedly “adult” national security advisers such as DefSec “Mad Dog” Mattis, have long sided with the neocon hardline anti-Iran folks in Washington..

Barkley Rosser