Iranian Politics is Headed Down the Pakistan Way, But Can Be Stopped

If you look at what’s been happening in Iran lately, you’d likely think of politics in Pakistan. Pakistan’s ‘one step forward, two steps back’ style of politics is being emulated by Iran these days, where contentious missile tests followed historic election results earlier this month.

Earlier this month, Iranian voters dealt a symbolic blow to hard-line politics in the country by significantly reducing the share of seats that hard-line candidates held in the national legislature and the Assembly of Experts – the influential body that will choose the next Supreme Leader of Iran.

Democratic elections in Iran are far from aboveboard. Candidates are vetted by the clerical Guardian Council before they can begin campaigning. This year, as many as 5,200 applications were rejected – most of which came from reformist politicians. And since Iran’s political system doesn’t have a well-defined party system like most democracies, it is hard to tell whether an individual is pro-reform or pro-conservatism, until he begins legislating.

Yet, there is widespread consensus among most analysts that these elections were significant for their decisive repudiation of hard-line politics. Most of Rouhani’s moderate allies were voted in with a landslide, and many well-established hardliners were soundly defeated, among them Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the mentor of former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1990.

But only days after the elections, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – a military organization that is ideologically close to the country’s conservative clerics – announced multiple missile tests that drew sharp reactions from the West. The missile tests weren’t in contravention to last year’s nuclear deal (the deal was concerned only with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and not its conventional missiles), but they are certain to fly in the face of President Rouhani’s conciliatory approach to the West and his attempts to reintegrate Iran into the global economy.

So why did the Revolutionary Guards test-fire missiles only weeks after Rouhani’s diplomatic success? Pretty much for the same reason the Pakistani army violates the ceasefire along its border with India – to gain an upper-hand over its more liberal and dovish political rivals.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power in Islamabad in 2013, promising to mend his country’s broken ties with India. Yet, in his first year in office, the Indo-Pakistan border saw ceasefire violations almost treble, from 148 in 2013 to a whopping 430 in 2014, according to data tabled in the Rajya Sabha. Peace talks between New Delhi and Islamabad have been consistently sabotaged by army firing or terrorist attacks, such as the one in Pathankot this year, which came on the heels of Prime Minister Modi’s goodwill visit to Lahore.

Pakistani politics has often been dominated by the power struggle between the civilian leadership and the military establishment. Now, it seems like Iran is headed down the same path – only here, the struggle is between a new moderate political class and the old hard-line clergy. Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the West has consistently been opposed by hardliners, including the Revolutionary Guards who criticized last year’s nuclear deal. All these groups were alarmed when they saw young Iranians celebrate out on the streets following the deal’s conclusion.

The election results have only further tilted the balance in favor of Rouhani. Sanctions on the Iranian economy began to get lifted in January this year, and the fact that many of the President’s aides won in this month’s elections counts as vindication of his foreign policy. Hardliners now want to wrest the advantage back from Rouhani by creating an atmosphere of hostility, which would then allow them paint the West as foes (just as the Pakistani army does with India). And the missile tests (like Pakistan’s ceasefire violations) are part of the bait being thrown to Washington as provocation.

But where Iran is different from Pakistan is in public perception. Hard-line propaganda is far weaker within Iran today than army propaganda has been in Pakistan. While many in Pakistan still view India as a threat, thereby making the military popular, most young middle class Iranians don’t identify with the Green Revolution of 1979, which brought the clerical regime to power.

In a 2014 Pew survey, more than half of all Pakistanis listed India as a threat, over the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and 71% of them held an unfavorable view towards India. By contrast, in 2015, a majority of Iranians surveyed were supportive of nuclear negotiations with the West. On the night of the nuclear deal, reports said that some Iranians even took to the streets with American flags.

That is why further isolation of Iran would play into the hands of hard-line politics in that country. India has lately begun campaigning for the isolation of Pakistan within the global community, but now it’s time New Delhi also took up the case for Rouhani on the global stage and cautioned the West from falling for the hardliners’ bait. If the world engaged with Iran, it would strengthen the rise of moderate politics within Iran.

And a victory for the moderates in the long term tug-of-war of Iranian politics would prevent Iran from turning into another Pakistan, haunted by hardliner ideologues who care little for world peace or their own people. Further still, it would bring economic growth to Iran, as Iran’s moderate politicians are unanimously in favor of reintegrating their economy into that of the world’s. For India, this would mean not just import of oil, but also export of Indian products to a large middle class Iranian market.

If the latest elections are anything to go by, Iran’s middle class youth doesn’t seem to care much for chest-thumping jingoism. Instead, they hope that their leaders will be able to quickly reintegrate their economy into the international system, and make up for lost time in reaping the dividends of trade and globalization. New Delhi ought to be Rouhani’s advocate before Washington falls prey to antics from the hardliners.

(c) 2016, Swarajya