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In May people of Iran elect their president. The incumbent President Hasan Ruhani is reported to run for the second term that is permitted under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. The question is what will the electorate say?
The "A&F Kazakhstan" interviews Sanat KUSHKUMBAEV, Deputy Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, Doctor of Political Science.
Things are Moving
- Sanat Kairlslyamovich, we follow the events in Iran that is our neighbor in the Caspian region and a guarantor of peace in Syria. Today, the focus is on the upcoming elections. What will Ruhani include in his manifesto? What are his achievements? What are the things he could not deliver?
- Lifting the sanctions was the key pre-election promise of Rukhani. Probably, some expected too much, but gradual changes for better are visible even today. Iran is no longer listed among the notorious "axis of evil". The label attached by the USA and tacitly agreed by many others was especially resented by the Iranians. Now the dialogue between Iran and the West has begun although it proceeds not as smoothly as some might have hoped.
- It should be noted that after four years in the office, President Ruhani is increasingly criticized by more conservative Iranians. However, the fact that the supreme ruler and spiritual leader of Iran Ali Khamenei refrained from any critical comments on the foreign policy helped Iran to avoid any political upheavals during the entire first presidential term of Ruhani. It is necessary to remind the reader that the president in Iran is the second important figure while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the true head of the state. The link "supreme leader - president" has proved strong, hence Ruhani’s second term bid. Ali Khamenei urged the Iranians to unite, to make the right choice. As for economic reforms, the progress is rather slow. Iran is a huge country that is still rather conservative especially in the rural areas and smaller towns. Four year are not enough to get the desired outcomes. The societal inertia is still a significant factor.
"International Brigades": Made in Iran
- Once we, who lived in the USSR, were proud of the "international aid" rendered to Asia and Africa, and then to Afghanistan. How it all ended we remember very well. Today, the Iranian "guards of the Revolution" are fighting the ISIS in Syria and helping the Hussites in Yemen. Yet, “small victorious wars” tend to empty budgets and cause too many human losses.
-This is a sensitive issue for Iran. Nevertheless, it simply cannot abandon the Shiite brothers in Yemen and its allies in Syria. In general, people support their government here. As for the situation in Yemen, the official position is that Tehran only supplies weapons and military equipment to the rebels. There are no hard evidence of otherwise; the armed conflicts today are increasingly "hybrid" in their nature.
-Yes, Iran and America clashed directly in Yemen, unlike Syria, where they are seemingly on the same side. I have to ask about Trump who made several anti-Iranian statements. Will he try to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, especially since the US Congress’ support is very likely? How did Ruhani and his administration response?
- I would say that the response was rather harsh but not rude. Iran left some room for maneuver. However, Teheran did not expect much from the new US administration, unlike Russia by the way. Even before the elections, Ruhani said that the positions of the Democrats and Republicans on Iran were quite similar. Once again, he was proven to be right; the pressure, mistrust and even blackmail tactics remain the tools of the US foreign policy course towards Iran.
- Iran is the key participant in the negotiations on Syria. Is there any risk that the negotiations will be broken due to the US position?
- The talks in Astana and Geneva are a long-term endeavor and I hope that reason and pragmatism will prevail. People are tired of fighting. The fact that talks are being conducted is already a good news. Astana managed to seat at one table the people who, otherwise, would fire their arms at each other.
- Ruhani managed to gain only 51% of votes; this is a very narrow margin. The nation is obviously divided. Do you think he will be able to convince more voters this time?
- This is quite a complicated question. There is visible demand for more rapid economic changes, but Iran too could not escape the negative consequences of the world crisis. Frankly, the economic situation in not in favor of the president. There is some frustration and Ruhani's rivals will try to play this card.
- Did the Iranians manage to unfreeze all their assets abroad?
-Yes, they did in the most cases and President Ruhani may be directly credited for that. However, there are a number of mutual claims of the Americans and Iranians against each other. There is very much to do for the Iranian lawyers, diplomats and financiers. In the East, nothing goes fast. Yet, some progress has been achieved. It is better to have a conversation. It would much worse if the crowd of "revolutionary" youth captured the US diplomats or the US commandoes landed in the desert to free the hostages as it already happened in the history of the relations between Iran and the United States. To jaw jaw is always better then to war war.
- Kazakhstan, Russia and China adhered to the UN sanctions rather reluctantly. I believe that the Iranians appreciate this. Therefore, I would like to ask about the trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and Iran.
- 10 years ago the volume of trade reached 2.5 billion US dollars. Due to the global crisis exacerbated by the sanctions in 2013, the figures were only 600 million. In 2014, the situation improved with 900 million before decreasing again in 2015 to 700 million. Since 2016, there has been slight but constant growth from 750 million. Experts in Astana and Tehran estimate the potential growth of 4 billion provided the agreements signed are performed in good faith by the two parties. Moreover, during Ruhani’s term of office, the Iranian railway was connected with the route along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea.
However, there are still a number of problematic issues. Goods shall be transported in both directions, producers shall be convinced that that the land delivery is more profitable and reliable. There is still strong competition with the sea routes. Each mode of transportation has its advantages and disadvantages. Some years ago, the agreements were concluded on the SWAP-transportation; Kazakhstan and Russia delivered raw materials to the Iranian ports on the Caspian cost so that Iran would ship roughly the same amount to the ports of the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, these were interrupted by the sanctions and turned rather difficult to resume. Yet, negotiations are being held. For example, Iran may buy our metals, grain and flour. Kazakhstan may import from Iran machinery, dried fruits, fruits and vegetables, some consumer goods. Iran’s experience in oil and gas industries may be applied in the joint ventures in Kazakhstan with mutual benefit.
Loses to be Count
- We interviewed you in 2013 and you told us about the first year of President Ruhani. You then cited some foreign experts whose estimations of Iran's losses from the sanctions varied from 30 million to 10 billion. Is there any more accurate data? I am asking because this is the issue that would be one of the key items of the elections comparing agenda.
- It is very difficult to say, both our and Iranian sources say that the direct and indirect loses could be twice as much as they used to be estimated rather conservatively some years earlier.
-What would you say about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to rum for the presidency of Iran for the second time? He is known as conservative and hawkish especially towards the USA and Israel. Will he be able to split the votes in Iran?
- I do not think so. We must bear in mind that Ahmadinejad’s candidature was not approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is the true ruler of Iran. It was not that Ahmadinejad was officially banned but “strongly discouraged” from participation and the news was leaked to the national press. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad has numerous supporters who share his hawkishness towards the West. Moreover, one shall remember the peculiarities of the electoral system in Iran; after registration, the would=be presidents are to be scrutinized by the Council of Constitutional Guards - a kind of the Constitutional Court - and only then officially listed as candidates. Thus, we are to see whether Ahmadinejad will be able to pass the procedure.
Interviewed by Yuri KIRINITSINOV