•      Wed Jul 24 2024

Iran’s Election Could Bring Lasting Middle-East Peace

Voters register to cast their vote during the parliament elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

NEW HAVEN – French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament and call a snap election this Sunday will divert the world’s attention from another possible political earthquake. On Friday, Iranian voters will fill the vacancy left by President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash last month.

Even without the French vote, it would be tempting to trivialize the Iranian election’s significance. After all, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is a bitter opponent of the West, and Raisi, his loyal follower, won decisively in 2021. So, won’t Khamenei simply manipulate the upcoming vote in a way that will assure the victory of another extreme hardliner?

Not so fast. Iranian politics has taken a decisive turn in the three years between Raisi’s rise and fall. Under Iran’s constitution, candidates must be approved by the Council of Guardians, dominated by the clerical elite, before they can run for office. In 2021, Raisi owed his victory to the Council’s refusal to award a place on the ballot to any strong opponent of Khamenei’s militant anti-Westernism.

But escalating public protest forced the Council to allow a leading opponent of Khamenei to enter the race this time – under conditions that make it very likely that he will win and revolutionize policy in a pro-Western direction. As a consequence, if US President Joe Biden’s administration plays its cards right, the victory of an Iranian peacemaker could well permit – believe it or not – lasting peace in the Middle East.

Should that happen, rather than aiming for a fragile ceasefire agreement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken can begin constructing a multilateral arrangement in which the US and Iran serve as military guarantors of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

To see how, step back to 2021 and consider how the Guardians’ ban on serious opponents provoked widespread public alienation. Although Raisi won handily over rival hardliners, this was because most Iranians refused to vote. To be precise, only 49% of Iran’s 59 million voters went to the polls – down from 70% four years earlier.

That tacit boycott served as the foundation for grassroots activism. A turning point came in the fall of 2022, when a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested for failing to veil her face in public and died in police custody three days later. Her death provoked countrywide demonstrations, and the government responded with media blackouts, tear gas, and gunfire that killed hundreds of protesters over the next year. Despite the brutal repression, students and workers continued to engage in peaceful protest against Raisi’s extremism.

Raisi’s death triggered another cycle of protest. The opposition movement demanded that, in contrast to 2021, some of its own leaders be allowed to campaign for the presidency, and vowed that otherwise they would organize massive street demonstrations that would catapult the country to the brink of civil war.

The Guardians caved in to this demand. While they approved five hardliners to run in the election, they also allowed Masoud Pezeshkian to place his name on the ballot. Pezeshkian represents a stunning contrast to his rivals. Instead of seeking divine inspiration, he went to medical school, became a cardiac surgeon, and served as president of the University of Medical Sciences in Tabriz for five years. Between 2001 and 2005, he was Iran’s health minister, before turning to electoral politics, serving as the parliament’s first deputy speaker from 2016 to 2020.

Few Iranians have combined academic, bureaucratic, and political achievement in such a remarkable fashion. What is more, Pezeshkian responded to Amini’s brutal death in 2022 by immediately denouncing the police efforts “to implement religious faith through the use of force.” At the time, he could not know whether Raisi would respond by ordering his arrest – which is why many other Iranian elites held their tongues.

The Guardians’ decision to allow five hardliners to run will only improve Pezeshkian’s chances. In fact, with the religious vote fragmented, a champion of the Enlightenment could win a landslide victory.

If Pezeshkian wins, a dramatic shift in America’s long-standing view of Iran as its archenemy will be essential to respond constructively. Blinken, thankfully, is nimble enough for such an about-face. Moreover, his nonstop shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East means that he can readily reach out to potential Iranian negotiators.

No less important, Biden will be eager to take Blinken’s reports seriously, because the split in the American Jewish community and Arab-Americans’ growing opposition to his candidacy represent a major threat to his re-election. The threat will get even bigger after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington to address a joint session of Congress on July 24. By that point, Biden could be in a position to invite Netanyahu to join multilateral negotiations with Iran. Such a scenario could not only dramatically reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and a wider war in the Middle East, but also prepare the way for a two-state solution that would permit both Israel and Palestine to coexist in peace.

Raisi’s death represents a rare opportunity in which political leaders of long-standing rivals have powerful incentives to inaugurate a new era of diplomacy. But Biden must seize the moment. If he views Pezeshkian as an enemy, Khamenei will be able to sabotage the new president’s popular standing and convince voters to repudiate his Enlightenment vision the next time around.

This is not the first time in recent history that a few quick decisions in the White House determine the future of the Middle East. Some have led to years of bitter conflict. This one could mark out a pathway to peaceful coexistence for decades to come.

Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is the author of Revolutionary Constitutions: Charismatic Leadership and the Rule of Law (Harvard University Press, 2019), which includes an analysis of Iran’s political development throughout the past century.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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