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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

Iran Elections

Saturday 20 May 2017, by Harish Chandola

Once again the hardliners and moderates are confronting each other in the coming Iranian elections on May 19. There are over 100 candidates in the field. The moderates are led by Ebrahim Raeisi and the religious conser-vatives are likely to be led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former President. The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had tried to prevent a contest by asking Ahma-dinejad not to take part in it. In the 2013 elections, a moderate, Rohani, had been elected the President, defeating the hardliners.

Ebrahim Raeisi, a moderate, is the new head of Iran’s most important and rich shrine, Imam Reza in Mashhad, and besides the shrine owns motor car factories. He is the protégé of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. This may result in a split in the vote of the hardliners and keep the reformists’ vote together. After Iran’s nuclear deal with six major powers, concluded in 2015, the reformists’ re-election appears assured. But the fruits of lifting the UN sanctions on Iran, in curbing its nuclear programme, have been slow in coming. The hope of investments coming in has not been fulfilled. Instead, US President Donald Trump has been critical of Iran, tightening his country’s sanctions and continuing to prevent it from trading in dollars.

Khamenei’s faction dominates the elections and appears to have the power to approve candi-dates for the election. It controls the army, Revolutionary Guards, judiciary and the state television. Its masked men have been targeting the social media, arresting demonstrators and making it difficult for hardliners to carry on their election activity. The phone app., telegram and uncensored Persian news channels—which had helped the reformers in the last parliamentary vote—do not seem to be in favour of hardline candidates.

The recent mild economic improvement may have given support to Iran’s Western engagement a boost and checked the hardliners from conducting a campaign for their success.

Whatever be the election results, Iran’s presence and influence in Iraq has been growing steadily. So has it in Syria. Iran has 95 military advisers in Iraq. The Americans still have some 5800 soldiers there, four big military bases, they control its skies and are more powerful. But the Iranians have penetrated almost every organ of the Iraqi state. Their forces in Iraq are five times that of the US. Its very large Quds Force, the foreign element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, of over 100,000 men, commanded by General Suleimani, has most of its men in Iraq since 1979. More than 20 per cent of Iraqis are Shi’a and have their allegiance to the Ayatollahs, religious leaders based in Iran. The Iraqis have one Grand Ayatollah of their own, in Ali Sistani of the city of Najaf, but he is old and after him the Iraqi Shi’as are likely to follow Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The involvement of Iran in Iraq has been decades long. After Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, its Shi’a religious leaders have been recruiting people of their faith, expelled by Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein. After the Iraq-Iran war, these returned to their homes in southern Iraq. Their men now patrol the Baghdad streets as the religious police. Some Iraqi militias even have political representatives in the country’s Parliament.

They have in Iraq well-armed Hashad brigades, which play a major role in fighting and have ousted the Islamic State forces from Mosul. Last year, Iranians were asking for a visa-free entry into Iraq for its pilgrims to the Iraqi religious city of Najaf, which was not allowed. After his visit to Washington in March, the Iraqi President, Abadi, has been trying his country to take a more Arab position from a pro-Iranian one taking root. There was talk of reducing the size of the more than 100,000-strong pro-Iranian Hashad brigades. That did not happen. Attempts were made to strengthen Iraq’s pro-Arab position.The Saudi Arab Foreign Minister visited Iraq after 27 years and Saudi planes started flying pilgrims to the religious city of Najaf.

To maintain its position in Iraq, Iran then sent a new Ambassador to it, who is a friend of Gen Suleimani, the commander of the well-armed, large and powerful Iranian Quds Force.

But the feeling in the country is while the Iraqi Government is pro-American, most of its people are pro-Iran. Some Iraqis think that Iran is the ultimate guarantor of Iraq’s stability and not the United States. Quite a bit of anti-American propaganda goes on among the Iraqi armed forces.

The author is a veteran journalist with wide knowledge of developments in West Asia and the Arab world.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62