MS Risk Blog

A Tale of 2 Middle East Powers: Presidential Edition

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Next month, two of Middle East’s powers will hold presidential elections: the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Israel. On 25 May 2021, Iran approved 7 candidates for its 18 June presidential elections. The selections were whittled down from 590 registered candidates by Iran’s 12-member Council of Guardians – an appointed legislative committee that answers to the head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Israel, on 22 May, it was announced only 2 candidates had successfully gained the 10 members of Knesset (MK) signatures to run for president. Both countries are bitter rivals, already embattled in an ongoing conflict for regional supremacy – in terms of who has the most influence, and who can possess a nuclear deterrent. There exists the peripheral question about whether the next president of either country would impact the ongoing conflict or regional matters. This analysis profiles the main candidates, their career backgrounds – using such information to forecast how their presidency could impact regional events.

Starting with Iran, notably 5 of the 7 candidates are principalist (conservative) in some form or another – with the other 2 being a moderate and reformist respectively featuring alongside them. The candidate in the dominant position is Sayyid Ebrahim Raisi – current Chief Justice of Iran a notable member of the powerful, deliberative judicial body, the Assembly of Experts. Raisi has a very full portfolio of career positions in the Iranian political establishment, and has an Islamic jurist background. He is also believed to be the favourite of the Supreme Leader. He first ran for president in 2017, coming second to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. Should Iran elect him to be president, there is a good chance he will be staunchly loyal to the Supreme Leader’s vision of Iran – which is notably in stark opposition to cooperation with the West, and is openly hostile to Israel. Therefore a Raisi presidency could trigger a move away from the Iran deal, towards isolationism and complete nuclear autonomy. Further, with Israel, it is possible he could be the president that goes to war with Israel.

Another candidate with close ties to the Supreme Leader is Saeed Jalili – former nuclear negotiator, former deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs, and former chair of Iran’s security cabinet, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Jalili preciously ran for president in 2013 – placing third. Possessing an important and contemporary portfolio, he would certainly professes the credentials for being president at this point of Iranian national life – especially with regards to the Iran deal, and the current Vienna negotiations meant to facilitate indirect dialogue between Tehran and Washington. However, it is his close connection to the Supreme Leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, which makes him most a standout candidate. Notably, Mojtaba is a hardliner with influence in such circles, and is believed to exercise much influence over his father.

Moreover, Mojtaba reportedly possesses extensive financial assets, and has close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – Iran’s foremost military faction who guard the regime. The IRGC has massive sway in Iranian society, and therefore should Jalili elected, such degrees of separation could give the IRGC the greenlight to expand its military operations abroad. This could be cause for concern for Iran’s enemies in the region – namely the Arab Gulf states with links to Israel. Such predictions however could be far-fetched, as Mojtaba’s is the one possessing such influence, and not Jalili himself. However, Jalili’s former role as SNSC chair suggests he indeed does have sway with the Iranian security establishment. This suggests any foreign policy under a Jalili presidency could be quite hawkish, and offensive in nature – with more active Iranian fronts in the region (namely Syria, Lebanon, and perhaps the Palestinian Territories).

In contrast to the principalist candidates, interestingly reformist candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh has an outside chance of winning. Former Vice President of Iran and a former provincial governor of Isfahan Province, Mehralizadeh does possess a senior political portfolio. Further, his running for presidency in 2005 puts an interesting tinge on his odds. That year he was disqualified from running by the COG, only to then be reinstated by the Supreme Leader’s direct intervention. This shows his closeness to the most important figure of Iran. Also, reformist outlook and his vice presidential experience would allow for the maintenance of Rouhani’s pragmatic policies. The ramifications of this could be a renewed push towards cooperating with the West vis-à-vis the nuclear deal, and could also give the United States a person they could work with in the area of sanctions.

On the other hand, arguably there exists another candidate who could potentially be more instrumental in the lifting of Iranian sanctions: Abdolnasser Hemmati – Governor of Iran’s Central Bank. Hemmati is the moderate candidate, and his economic background makes him somewhat more pragmatic. He has been very vocal about the negative impact of economic sanctions on Iran – including its impact on Iran’s ability to fight Coronavirus, and the devaluation of its currency compared to other foreign ones. Further, Hemmati is a close friend of President Rouhani, therefore a Hemmati presidency is likely to promote the Iran nuclear deal and dialogue with the U.S. in the area of sanctions.

Summarising, the conservative slant is of importance, as it makes it highly Iran’s next president will take a hard-line stance to such matters as Iranian nuclear aspirations, U.S. sanctions, and the conflict with Israel. Principalist dominance also suggests the Supreme Leader of Iran and the wider Iranian political establishment is looking to purge the more pragmatic and moderate approach of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. This is perhaps a consequence as such factors as the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s economy; developments with its nuclear programme, and the flexing of its military might in the region. Therefore, expect to see a more combative Iranian posture in Iran should one of those candidates prevail on 18 June.

For Israel, 2 candidates have passed the 10 MK threshold for the presidential elections. Unlike Iran, Israel’s president is a largely ceremonial figure in Israeli national life, and is not voted in by plebiscite – on the contrary, they are selected from within parliament. However, presidents do have an influence on Israeli political life – including foreign policy, but also as a voice of reason for the government. Most of Israel’s presidents have been political moderates. Currently, the front-running candidate is Isaac Herzog – former Avodah (Labor) politician and current Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Herzog is the son of Israel’s 6th president, Chaim Herzog. He has a law background, and in his army career he served as a major officer in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps.

Herzog is a popular man, and a unifier – he received 27 signatures from the Knesset to kickstart his candidacy, when he needed only 10. Of those 27 seats, they came from MKs from across the political spectrum: from the left and centrist parties, to the right-wing, nationalist and religious parties. Politically speaking, as Avodah leader he prioritise security policy, and is in favour of the 2-state solution – the latter a position he pledged to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Such past precedents suggest a Herzog presidency would steer Israel towards improved relations with the Palestinians, and bring a diplomatic edge to Israel’s foreign policy – perhaps driving further normalisation with the Arab and Islamic world. Further, Herzog has in the past been interested in the political styles of former U.S. president Barack Obama and N.Y. Mayor Bill de Blasio. Therefore, such ideological links could indicate a potential reciprocation with the policies of U.S. president Joe Biden (who was Vice President under Obama). Thus a Herzog presidency could peripherally impact developments with the Iran deal.

Meanwhile, the other candidate Miriam Peretz, who received 11 signatures, differs somewhat from Herzog and other past presidential candidates. First of all she is a woman, and secondly a political outsider – an educator and orator by profession. Peretz became a public figure from the deaths of both her sons whilst actively fighting in Israel’s wars against Lebanese militias and Hamas respectively. She also is a recipient of an Israel prize honour. She is also ideologically slanted to the right – having been a resident of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and having been courted in the past by right-wing and centre-right parties. Thus much of her support comes from the Israeli right.

The above information suggests a Peretz presidency will be unique – likely being less moderate and more hard-line. Moreover, potentially a right-leaning candidate with a personal stake in Israel’s conflicts and territorial disputes could perhaps birth a president that is somewhat unfriendly towards the Palestinians, but perhaps also to Iran – the latter of which backs and funds Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah. Further, her Moroccan-Sephardi Jewish heritage could be an interesting factor that could shape Israel’s relationship with its Arab and Muslim neighbours: on the one hand, an Arabic speaker could build bridges with the Muslim world, but on the other hand, Sephardi-Mizrahi Israelis have often been the most vocal against Arab relations due to oppressive familial experiences in the Middle Eastern and North African Jewish diaspora. But even still, Peretz’s personal pain of losing 2 sons to war could influence her presidency to be one that first and foremost promotes peace with its neighbours.