The Iranian Agenda

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani standing under a portrait of previous ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

On May 20, 2017 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won his reelection campaign. Rouhani, a “moderate,” defeated conservative challenger Ebrahim Raisi with 57% of the vote. High turnout rates amongst Iran’s growing urban youth served to propel Rouhani to victory. All of this is a part of a greater trend within Iran that supports working with outside states and becoming a more secular society. Rouhani, with support from the Ayatollah, was the key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the United States, and the European Union, among other states. The deal represented Iran’s determination to develop trade partnerships and extend its influence in the world after sanctions imposed for Iran’s nuclear programs and human rights abuses have crippled Iran’s economy

To understand the current state of Iranian politics, one must look back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution where Islamic Revolutionaries ousted the Shah and implemented a Shia Muslim Government ruled by the Supreme Leader, or Ayatollah, and a clergy known as the Guardian Council. A parliament and president were also put into power; however, the Supreme Leader has broad powers over the armed forces and the nation’s finances. Iran is one of the few Shia Muslim majority countries in the world, and because of this, it is often at odds with its Sunni Muslim majority neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. The two vie for control and influence within the Middle East and their neighbors. This is played out in the form of proxy wars between the Saudis and Iranians.

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An Iranian school girl holds her national flag as she walks past an anti-U.S. mural.

They are seen in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen. Currently, Iraq is governed by a Shia government that was propped up after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran also supports the Shia Assad regime in Syria, forming the “Shia Crescent” of Iranian influence in the region. Iran is involved in the Yemen civil war, backing the Houthi rebels who are primed to take power from the U.S. and Saudi Arabian-backed government. Iran also props up rebel groups that are viewed as terrorists by the United Nations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine. Iran’s alliance with these groups is a direct result of its conflict with Israel. Iran does not consider Israel an official state despite its United Nations status. Both countries have made inflammatory remarks about the other, especially during former Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s time in office. Despite both nations stating that they would not like to attack each other, Iran has openly supported Hamas and has denied the existence of the Holocaust. Iran also began to develop nuclear weapons, with former President Ahmadinejad threatening to destroy Israel. This is coupled with the fact that Iran continues to test ballistic missiles which are inscribed with the writing, “death to Israel.”

Iran’s intentions to challenge the United States’ sphere of influence over the Middle East, paradoxically, came with increased efforts to establish economic relations with Western nations. The nuclear deal reinvigorated its cash-strapped economy by lifting many sanctions, allowing Iran to sell oil to European countries. This has allowed for increased trade between Iran and its European trading partners. The European Union, still reeling from its debt crisis, has said that it would like to become Iran’s largest trading partner, hoping to increase its partnership in energy, transportation, and most importantly, international banks. While the EU is steadfastly committed to trading with Iran, the United States is obviously wary of the idea. Under the Obama administration, Washington made efforts to improve relations with Iran, but stopped short of establishing formal relations. Under the new Trump administration, formal relations between the two countries appears even less likely, as Trump recently declared them a force of “evil.” Ideally, Iran would like to have its U.S. imposed sanctions lifted and resume trade with the world’s largest and most powerful economy. A vigorous Iranian economy will help Iran further improve quality of life for their citizens, and also allow Iran to continue its goal of expanding its influence over the Middle East. However, as long as Iran continues to threaten Israel and defy United States’ interests in the Middle East, the U.S. is unlikely to resume economic relations.

Iran is currently a significant regional presence, but is determined to cement itself as the dominant player in the Middle East. However, Iran will not be able to defeat the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Experts argue that Iran must establish diplomatic relationships with those countries, which can only be done if Iran makes inroads towards suppressing the radical elements within their government. In recent days, videos of Rouhani emerged, depicting his Islamist morals and desire to kill dissidents of Iran. This counters his moderate image, and likely puts an end to any potential relationship with a Trump administration. Nonetheless, Rouhani’s win is representative of the growing influence of a younger, more secular population, whose power will only continue to grow.