Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

7 – 14 June 2013

The polls on the eve of the Iranian Presidential elections (14 June) mark some important shifts in the positioning of the leading candidates:  Rohani, who stands at the head of a broad coalition that includes Rafsanjani and his allies, as well as broadly holding the Reformists in tow, has continued to gain momentum.  He clearly has been benefitting from the more unified alliance, and seems to be picking up backing from a faction within the Principalist camp (possibly amounting to 10-20% of that camp). His polling stands at 32%, but it is likely that he will pick up even more support as the ‘undecideds’ finally go to the polls – his vote may reach 38%.  Ghalibaf, the leading Principalist and Mayor of Tehran, has, by contrast, been losing momentum, and now stands at 23% in the latest poll. He perhaps has suffered from having been the lead candidate, and the first out from the start gate (and therefore the main target of all the other aspirants); but also more significantly, he has been weakened by a lack of unity in the Principalist and Conservative camp. Whereas the Reformist candidates gracefully ‘gave way’, and gave Rohani their endorsement, the same has not been true for the other main coalition (with the notable exception of Haddad Adel, who made his potential willingness to step aside in favour of a stronger Principalist candidate, clear from the outset). These shifts in poll support should be understood to derive mainly from the fact that candidates have enjoyed broad and regular access to national media, including the broadcasting of extended videos about each candidate, prepared by their campaign teams, and have participated in three nationally televised (and widely watched) debates.  Some candidates have done well in this aspect, and some have shown perceived weaknesses in their television presentations. The first and second candidates in terms of polling will go through to a second round of voting on the 21st June. The turnout estimate has already risen from 71% last week, to 75% on the eve of elections (with 9% undecided). It would not be surprising if turnout were to reach close to 80% by the end of today’s voting.

These are yesterday (Thursday's) poll figures:

Rohani 32%

Ghalibaf 23%

Jalili 14%

Rezaee 12%

Velayati 9%

Gharazi 1%

Undecided 9%

Turnout 75%

Were the second round to be a runoff between Rohani and Ghalibaf, what is likely to distinguish and separate the two – if either were to become President?  In a nutshell, very little in the foundations of foreign policy. Both men are close to the Supreme Leader, and both are ‘centrists’.  There will be no maneuvering against the Supreme Leader: in short, Rohani is no Mousawi (the former Green Movement contender), and Ghalibaf is no Ahmadinejad (the then-Principalist candidate). Neither candidate should be understood to be angling for an opening to the West (neither spoke favourably about the West in their campaigning), but nonetheless we can expect a change of style in foreign policy. It is likely that whichever candidate wins, there will be an effort to create a more favourable foreign environment globally for Iran. The impact of this approach will probably become more evident in the region (in spite of escalating tensions over Syria) and in Asia – rather than in the West.

As the conflict in Syria seems to be moving towards a military moment of climax in terms of ‘facts on the ground’, this past week has been marked (as CF forecast) by a deepening of the schism dividing the region and its respective allies.  The angry, emotional, sectarian reaction (calls for jihad against the Shi’i in all its forms coming from Sheikh Qaradawi - increasingly seen as a spokesperson for Qatar - and quickly echoed by the Mufti of Saudi Arabia), deepens the polarisation in the region.  It is an either ‘with us or against us’ positioning in the region now. Kuwait has begun expelling its Shi’i residents, Gulf states have instituted economic sanctions against the Shi’i – whether not they are in any way connected to events in the region or not – and the GCC has labelled Hizbullah as a ‘terrorist group’ and has begun putting sanctions on businesses associated with the party.

As they advance on Aleppo, the Syrian army are mirroring the tactics of Qusayr around the city (clearing the surrounding villages and hinterland, and beginning the severance of supply lines to the insurgent groups inside the city) in preparation for an eventual attack.  There is evidence of some external escalation already provided to the insurgents ahead of this struggle for Aleppo and Idlib (wire-guided anti tank missiles and, possibly man-pad anti-aircraft missiles), but despite the rhetoric coming out of the US and its allies, Washington has not actually crossed any ‘red line’. It is clear from the statement from the US deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, that there will be no qualitative escalation in the weapons supplied to the insurgents, and there will be no no-fly zones (both of which were being solicited from the US, by France and Britain, and Gulf countries). As CF has written previously, the insurgents' military weakness is not due to a short of weapons (although they will become short of ammunition, as and when, their supply lines are squeezed). And in another sense, weapons supplies to the opposition are already hitting up against the glass-ceiling of what is viable: that is, what can be deployed without risk of their being used against civilian aircraft, or turned against Israel or the West.

Russia too is stepping up its potential engagement: It seems that Russia would prefer that the fight against the Sunni jihadists be waged on the frontline of Syria, rather than to have the conflict creep back along a slow burning fuse through the Caucus and Central Asia into Russia itself. It is proposing Russian troops for the UN separation force in the Golan (UNSTO), and apparently discussing the possibility of invoking CTSO to create a joint anti-terrorism peace-keeping force capable of fighting radical Islamist movements in the region. Russian-American relations seem set to deteriorate not only on account over differences on Syria, but more substantially by Obama's uncompromising rebuff of Moscow's attempt to renegotiate US-NATO's missile defense architectures.

Overall, this deepening schism places the West in a dilemma: Were it to accommodate to the angry, sectarian reaction of the Gulf, it plainly risks being pulled into a deepening and highly emotive fault line running through the region – a fault line moreover, which is not at all clear cut.  There is a substantial population of Shi’i within Gulf states, just as there is a substantial number of Sunnis who live in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Gulf also stands at a crucial juncture - with the Emir of Qatar attempting to dispossess his powerful PM of power, and to hand full powers to a favourite, but very young son, over the heads of several more qualified family members (Qatar has a history of displacing its incumbent rulers, rather than of smooth successions). And the Saudi king seems to be doing somethingrather similar, with his own son – and again with others in the family believing they have a prior claim to the throne too. The faultline is thus quite messy in many ways.  But much more significantly strategically, were western states to go along with this sectarian Gulf heightened reaction, the West risks inevitably finding itself evermore closely tied, directly or indirectly, with elements adhering to an al-Qae’da style zeitgeist.  The contradiction to such a western posture can only become more apparent, and be more questioned both in Europe and the US.  Iran seems unlikely to wish to respond with a tit-for-tat reaction to Gulf expulsions of the Shi’i from the Gulf.   Iran (and Hizbullah) will not have any interest to escalate sectarian tension, and – at this regionally defining moment – will have foreseen the prospect of a Sunni psychological backwash that defeat in Qusayr (and possibly in Aleppo) will be seen to represent (see this previous Weekly Comment in which we pointed out this probability).  A question mark will remain concerning Israel:  Its Prime Minister was berating the Foreign and Defence committee of Israel’s parliament this week concerning the existential threat to Israel posed by the prospect of S-300 surface-to-air missiles reaching Syria (if they have not already arrived, that is).  Other voices, however, argue that Israel can afford to stand aside, and enjoy watching the region tearing itself to pieces: as Alex Fishman, a leading Israeli defense commentator, writes:

"Every day, between 400 and 500 people are killed in the countries around us … For two years the Arab world has been burning and consuming itself without external intervention, and this is a story that could last for many years to come.

So why should we, merely because of a few restless generals and a bellicose prime minister, give them a pretext to unite around the only common denominator that they have - hatred of Israel?  Let them commit suicide in peace.  The weapons to Lebanon are dangerous, but they do not pose an existential threat.  This is not the Iranian bomb".