Iran’s Presidential Election Will Surprise America’s So-Called Iran “Experts”


Yesterday, we published our assessment of Iran’s 2013 presidential campaign and what it portends for the Islamic Republic’s political life in the Huffington Post, see here.  We also append our article below.  We encourage readers to leave comments on the Huffington Post site as well as here.  

Iran’s Presidential Election Will Surprise America’s So-Called Iran “Experts”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

This year’s Iranian presidential election is likely to produce a strong political figure who will have a significant impact on the Islamic Republic’s foreign and domestic policies, helping to ensure Iran’s continued internal development and bolstering its regional importance.  Yet every four years, a combustible mix of pro-Israel advocates, Iranian expatriates, Western Iran “experts,” and their fellow travelers in the media try to use Iranian presidential elections as a frame for persuading Westerners that the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate system so despised by its people as to be at imminent risk of overthrow.         

Iran’s election processes, pundits tell us, will be manipulated to produce a winner chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei—a “selection rather than an election”—consolidating Khamenei’s dictatorial hold over Iranian politics.  Either Iranians will be sufficiently outraged to rise up against the system, commentators intone, or the world will have to deal with increasingly authoritarian—and dangerous—clerical-military rule in Tehran.      

But this year’s presidential campaign, like its predecessors, challenges Westerners’ deep attachment to myths of the Islamic Republic’s illegitimacy and fragility.  The eight candidates initially approved by the Guardian Council represented a broad spectrum of conservative and reformist views.  While one conservative and the most clear-cut reformist—neither of whom attracted much support—have withdrawn, they did so not from intimidation but to prevent conservative and reformist votes from being dissipated across too many candidates from each camp. 

Contrary to an engineered selection, Iran is in the final days of a real contest.  Candidates have had broad and regular access to national media, (including the broadcasting of extended videos about each candidate prepared by their campaigns), have advertised and held campaign events, and have participated in three nationally televised (and widely watched) debates. 

High-quality surveys by both Western and Iranian pollsters show that the campaign is having a powerful effect on the eventual outcome.  Western pundits and journalists have regularly identified nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate and the clearfrontrunner.”  But high-quality polls have never identified Jalili as the clear front-runner.  As election day looms, moreover, polls conducted after the final debate show Jalili losing ground to three rivals:  Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezae, and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani (the only cleric on the ballot). 

The data strongly suggest that no candidate will win a majority of votes cast on June 14—meaning there will almost certainly be a second-round runoff on June 21 between the first round’s two best performers.  Among the four leading candidates—Jalili, Qalibaf, Rezae, and Rohani—Qalibaf seems best positioned to make a runoff; more voters now say they will cast first-round votes for him than for anyone else.  As Jalili, Rezae, and Rohani compete, effectively, for the second runoff spot, all three have substantial organizational networks.  But Rezae and Rohani emerged from the debates with rising popular support; Jalili did not.  And Rohani is working to mobilize reformist and centrist voters behind him; former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (arguably the quintessential Iranian centrist) and Mohammad Khatami (the Islamic Republic’s only reformist president) have both endorsed him.  Neither Jalili’s runoff spot nor his second-round victory is anywhere close to a “sure thing.” 

More broadly, all four serious contenders have long records of service to the Islamic Republic.  Their dedication to the Iranian Revolution and the political order it created is beyond question.  Yet each advocates a distinctive presidential agenda and leadership style to advance the Islamic Republic’s domestic and international interests over the next several years.  The relevant question is not whether the Islamic Republic meets Western preferences for selecting political candidates—clearly it doesn’t—but whether most Iranians believe they have meaningful choice in this year’s election.  On this point, polls suggest that first-round turnout will be around 70 percent—not as high as 2009’s extraordinary 85 percent, but respectably high compared to previous presidential elections.  Whichever candidate ultimately emerges as Iran’s next president, it will be because he earned the requisite degree of electoral support, not because he was “anointed.”     

And whether the next Iranian president is named Jalili, Qalibaf, Rezae, or Rohani, he will almost certainly prove to be a highly consequential figure in the Islamic Republic’s political history.  The Islamic Republic’s last four presidents—Seyed Ali Khamenei (now Supreme Leader), Rafsanjani, Khatami, and outgoing incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—were all accomplished figures in office, winning re-election and substantially affecting both domestic and foreign policies.  Yet all four also had to deal with—and were, at times, deeply frustrated by—other power centers in the Islamic Republic’s constitutional order, including the Supreme Leader and the popularly elected parliament. 

This dynamic will continue into Iran’s next presidency.  Since succeeding Imam Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, as Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has ascribed high priority to maintaining balance in the system—balance among ideological factions and among constitutionally defined power centers.  As Leader, Khamenei allowed Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad to pursue large parts of their self-defined and very different presidential agendas; but he also restrained them when he judged that their initiatives might weaken the Islamic Republic’s identity and long-term security.  Khamenei will continue playing this role after Iran’s newly elected president replaces the term-limited Ahmadinejad in August. 

Parliament will also continue constraining presidential prerogative.  Under speaker Ali Larijani, parliament pushed back with increasing intensity against a range of presidential initiatives and interests during Ahmadinejad’s second term.  For pro-Ahmadinejad Iranians, this was unfortunate; for Ahmadinejad opponents—especially among conservatives—it was gratifying.  The more important point is that this is how the Islamic Republic is designed to function—and almost certainly will function after the next president takes office. 

Americans and most other Westerners have never been able to take the Islamic Republic seriously as a system—one reason successive U.S. administrations have, for three decades, bought into perennially mistaken, agenda-driven claims of the Islamic Republic’s vulnerability and impending collapse.  Westerners must tune out constant efforts to demonize Iran’s revolutionary order if they are to look soberly at the reality of Iranian politics.  For only then will they be able to see the Islamic Republic as a polity with which their own governments can (and should) come to terms.       

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


America’s Failed Syria Strategy: Flynt Leverett on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story



Appearing on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas last week, see here, or on the video above, Flynt laid out how badly the Obama administration’s Syria strategy has failed.  Asked what would be a “good outcome” for the administration, Flynt recounts,     

“My wife, Hillary, and I have been saying for more than two years now, from the get go, that U.S. support for the Syrian opposition was about two things.  One was to use the opposition to bring down the Assad government, to (in their calculation) damage Iran’s regional positionSecondly, it was about coopting the Arab Awakening:  to show that after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, a near-miss in Bahrain, that it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes that subordinated their foreign policies to the United States that were at risk from the Arab Awakening—that you could also bring down a regime that had a clear commitment to foreign policy independence. 

That project of using the opposition for those purposes has failedFor the Administration to get to a ‘good outcome,’ it is going to have to admit that project has failed, stop trying to leverage regime change in Syria through the opposition, and get serious about a diplomatic process aimed at a power-sharing agreement between the Assad government—with Bashar al-Assad still as head of state—and the opposition.  That’s the only way out of this—but the administration is going to have to retreat from some very foolish positions it’s taken in order to get there.”    

Challenging a call for greater military support for Syrian oppositionists (including a U.S.-led no-fly zone) from former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg, Flynt asks, “What is the legal basis for the United States to impose a no-fly zone?  What’s the legal basis for it?  The Security Council is not going to approve it.  You will have no legal basis for doing it.  It’s an aggressive war.”  Moreover, Flynt underscores,

There’s no hard evidence [Ambassador Soderberg] can point to, no hard data—no polling data, no other kind of evidence—that the Syrian opposition commands the support of a majority of SyriansThere is objective data—polling data and other evidence—that the Assad government retains the support of significant parts of Syrian societyThere is no reason to believe, other than wishful thinking, that [Assad’s] downfall is inevitable.  In fact, I think he’s winning this struggle.” 

Amplifying his analysis of Assad’s popular base, Flynt explains, “[Assad] is still seen as the best choice available—the best plausible choice available—by very significant parts of Syrian society.  And people who support U.S. intervention in this conflict just blow past that reality.”  In an exchange with Soderberg, Flynt notes that it’s not just Alawis and Christians who are “nervous” about what the Assad government’s disappearance would mean for them:  “Sunnis who don’t want to live under al-Qa’ida are nervous, too.” 

Picking up on this last point, Flynt reviews the historically demonstrated risks of U.S. support to violent jihadi extremists: 

“We do this time and time again.  We work with the Saudis and others to fund jihadi groups, which then turn back and bite us.  We did it in Afghanistan and got al-Qa’ida and the Taliban as a result.  We did it in Libya and got a dead ambassador, three other murdered official Americans as a result.  And we’re doing it on a bigger scale here [in Syria].  When are we going to learn?” 

As to whether it’s possible for the United States to pursue an “all-of-the-above” strategy, in which it simultaneously “saves the Syrian people while also striking a blow against the Iranians,” Flynt says, 

“Strategy is always about choice.  This administration is pursuing a certain set of objectives, as I described, which has led it to support this opposition, led other U.S. partners to support this opposition.  The result is tens of thousands of dead Syrians.  If you want to make a choice to help Syrians, then you would get serious about getting to Geneva as fast as you can, getting the opposition to the table to negotiate in a serious way with the Syrian government, headed by President Assad.”

Looking at prospects for serious diplomacy on Syria, Flynt argues that Russia, Iran, and China have been “much more forthright and proactive than the United States and its partners” in seeking a political solution

“Iran, Russia, and other players that have, in popular parlance, been supporting the Assad government have been clear, from very early in this conflict, that they see a political settlement as the only way out of this.  What they have said all along, though, is that they will not let the United States dictate not just pre-conditions for a political settlement, but in effect ‘pre-results,’ by requiring at the beginning that Assad go.  And [with the U.S., along with some others,] saying that Iran can’t participate in the process—you can’t have a serious process without all the relevant players at the table.” 

Public discourse since Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) returned from his drive-by photo op with Syrian “rebels”/kidnappers and the inability of the United States, Russia, and others to agree on the terms for a “Geneva II” conference suggest that the Obama administration remains very far from a real Syria strategy. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


John McCain and the Desperate Flailing of Syrian Oppositionists’ External Supporters

Much was made last week about the infiltration of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) into Syria for a brief photo op with various anti-Assad “rebels”—who, it turns out, have allegedly been involved in kidnapping Lebanese Shi’a pilgrims.  (Senator McCain claims that none of the individuals with whom he was photographed identified themselves by names of those accused of kidnapping Shi’a pilgrims; his spokesman says it would be “regrettable” if the Senator had been photographed with people accused of committing such acts.)   Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, another GOP Senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, noted acidly, “They say there are some pro-Western people and we’re going to vet them.  Well, apparently we’ve got a senator over there who got his picture taken with some kidnappers, so I don’t know how good a job we’re going to do vetting those who are going to get the arms.” 

In a blog post provocatively titled “Did John McCain Provide Material Support for Syrian Terrorists?”, see here, the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow wrote that a recent Supreme Court ruling (Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, issued in 2010) “upheld the [U.S.] government’s broad reading” of the statute that criminalizes “material support” for terrorism.  In this reading, “coordinated political advocacy”—that is, advocacy coordinated with groups engaged designated by Washington as terrorist organizations—counts as material supportThose engaged in such “coordinated political advocacy” can be federally prosecuted; if convicted, they might go to jail for ten years.      

In his post, Doug points to a number of cases where U.S. government’s expansive definition of material support for terrorism—now largely ratified by the Supreme Court—has produced disturbing legal outcomes.  He argues that “lawmakers who approved the law should be subject to the same legal risks.  Consider Sen. John McCain, who has been campaigning for war in Syria, just as he previously promoted war most everywhere else around the globe.” 

After examining press reports on Sen. McCain’s trip to Syria—and on the activities of some of the rebels McCain met there—Doug concludes that Sen. McCain “would seem to have provided ‘material support’ to terrorists.”  After all,

“Having his photo taken with Islamic extremists could reasonably be interpreted as an endorsement, which, based on past cases, could be seen as providing ‘material support’ for terrorism.  Presumably that isn’t what Sen. McCain intended.  But the law’s application is not based on intent. 

To be fair to the rest of us, the Justice Department should investigate…[A]s much as I oppose vague and ambiguous criminal enactments by the federal government, I would enjoy seeing Senator McCain in the dock,  It would be cosmic justice for his support of the catastrophic invasion in Iraq and endless occupation of Afghanistan.”  

After his drive-by photo op in “liberated” Syria, Sen. McCain apparently traveled to Yemen.  We were struck by the Yemen Post’s report on his visit, see here; we also append the story below:  

“According to several Yemeni-based local newspapers, US Senator John McCain, who briefly visited Yemen earlier this week to offer his support to the coalition government and discuss political and security developments is rumored to have directly urged President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi to facilitate the transfer of Jihadists to Syria. 
As the Free Syrian Army is struggling to secure its advances against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose lists of supporters while thin remains mighty in military might, Washington and its allies in the region are said to be looking at ways to swell the ranks of the opposition by allowing foreign fighters to enroll against Assad regime. 
In a move which analysts have already qualified as dangerous given the repercussions a similar policy led to in the 1980s, when Jihadists where send to fight off Russian troops in Afghanistan, security experts are worry al-Qaeda will use this opportunity to increase its recruitment pool while offering precious ground experience to its militants, which experience would be use later on against Yemen central government. 

A source told several newspapers, ‘Senator McCain’s visit was to drum up support for Jihadist groups fighting Bashar al-Assad regime.’

While the government has so far refused to comment on the issues, quite understandably since its military is still locked in an on-going military struggle against Islamic operatives in its southern provinces, all the while preparing for the return of some Gitmo terror prisoners.  Yemeni officials would have a difficult time reconciling the idea of Jihad in one place while fighting off the same rhetoric in its own backyard.” 

If true, the Yemen Post report could be construed as another piece of evidence against the apparently terrorist-supporting Sen. McCain.  For, according to this story, McCain lobbied the Yemeni government to send more jihadi fighters to Syria, in order to swell the ranks of groups engaged in terrorist activity—representatives of which the Arizona senator had met with immediately before traveling to Yemen

What all of this suggests is the mounting desperation that advocates of using Syrian oppositionists—whether Syrian or not—to overthrow the Assad government must now be feeling.  Their project has failed.  But, rather than accept this failure, many, like Sen. McCain, want the United States to double down on their unsuccessful pseudo-strategy—to provide still more support the opposition forces, and even to become directly involved militarily (through no-fly zones, etc.).

Fifty-two years ago, the United States foolishly tried to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government by invading Cuba with a force of anti-Castro rebels.  When that force, unsurprisingly, got into trouble almost immediately upon landing in Cuba, there were those who wanted President John F. Kennedy to order U.S. air support for the rebels.  While Kennedy made a huge blunder by proceeding with the invasion in the first place, he was at sufficiently astute at least not to compound his mistake by taking the United States into an overt, aggressive war against Cuba (certainly a covert campaign of aggression was already underway). 

Similarly, President Obama has made egregious blunders in his policy toward Syria since March 2011.  Let’s hope he doesn’t compound them by listening to John McCain and others desperate to hold on to delusions of American empire in the Middle East

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett