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Pragmatism on the rise in Iran: Why the EU should look to Mohsen Rezaee

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate, conservative former chief of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai, hold posters bearing his portrait during a campaign rally on June 10, 2013 in downtown Tehran, Iran [Majid Saeedi/Getty Images]
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate, conservative former chief of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai, hold posters bearing his portrait during a campaign rally on June 10, 2013 in downtown Tehran, Iran [Majid Saeedi/Getty Images]

The eyes and ears of much of the world have shifted to Iran's tumultuous political climate, as the country's 18 June presidential elections loom ever closer. While many in the West perceive Iranian politics as a monolith of extremism and militant leaning Islam, the truth is in fact much more complicated.

From the early days of the Revolution, severe tensions have played out between the "Principlists" often known as political conservatives, and a more pragmatic camp of Iranian policymakers. Nothing underscores this reality more than the spectrum of presidential candidates on the slate for the June polls.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Moscow, Russia on January 26, 2021 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout - Anadolu Agency]

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Moscow, Russia on January 26, 2021 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout – Anadolu Agency]

There are several intriguing presidential hopefuls currently campaigning. The list includes Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a well-known figure in the West, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Ghalibaf a longtime officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who led the Corps' Air Force in the late 1990s before switching to politics, and former IRGC General Mohsen Rezaee, who is a prominent MP and the secretary of the regime's Expediency and Discernment Council.

For many observers (and governments) in the West, the most obvious choice is Foreign Minister Zarif long associated with the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or as it is commonly known, the Iran nuclear deal. That agreement penned in 2015 is widely perceived by European states as a major diplomatic victory – and one that must be reinstated in the wake of then US President Donald Trump's decision to nix the deal in 2018.

Even though Zarif has yet to make his candidacy official, he has already garnered quite a bit of political capital. Over the years, Zarif has carefully crafted his image as a pragmatic diplomat, one with the necessary skills and experience to engage the West and the broader international community. This persona of the foreign minister was accentuated even more with the emergence of leaked audio containing an interview of Zarif by an Iranian journalist. In the conversation, Zarif bemoaned the fact that IRGC and other influential radicals affiliated with the Corps have usurped nearly all the power in determining foreign policy. While Zarif has since issued a public apology for statements he made during the interview, many assert the senior minister likely leaked the audio on purpose as an attempt to make his more moderate positions known to the public at the height of the electoral season.

READ: Iran blames US navy for 'warning shots' fired in Strait of Hormuz

Despite being a workable choice as far as Europe is concerned, Zarif's chances of being elected are, it seems, quite low due to the fact that he simply does not have much public support. Furthermore, his less than a smooth relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (made clear by the public reprimand Zarif recently received from the Ayatollah), pretty much reduces the foreign minister's chances of victory to zero.

The one candidate who is looking increasingly more like a viable option for voters is Rezaee, a man with a rather unique political track record.

On the one hand, Rezaee lies firmly within the conservative camp. For decades he has been a close regime insider, embodying, as it is known in Iran, the "Revolution Generation", believing and representing the Revolution's values and vision. On the other, Rezaee has for long been known for his pragmatist approach. While serving as a commander in the Iran-Iraq War, he advocated for diplomacy to resolve the conflict, making enemies with IRGC radicals who believed the only legitimate path was active conflict. Rezaee has repeatedly shunned hardline politicians over the years as he did during the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the early 2000s. More recently, Rezaee has taken a more practical stance on resolving the nuclear deal with the United States and Europe, shunning the direction of many of his colleagues whom he sees as tainted by ideological considerations. Rezaee has stated explicitly that in his view, Iran needs to be guided by the principle of measured progress with the West.

READ: US patrol boat fires warning shots at Iranian Republican Guard vessels

As far as long-term ties with the European community, Rezaee is adamant that Iran must work toward solidifying working relationships and mutually beneficial partnerships. In his recent announcement formalising his candidacy, Rezaee told listeners that "Iran seeks the establishment, stability, and consolidation of successes."

It is important to note that Rezaee is seeming able to gain the cooperation of senior regime members, including the Supreme Leader. As head of the Expediency Discernment Council, Rezaee is responsible for drawing up policies for approval by Khamenei. When Rezaee speaks of engaging with the EU and the international community more broadly, he is almost certainly doing so with the blessing of the Ayatollah.

Next month's election is taking place at a critical intersection for the Iranian regime. It has the potential to bring about real change for the Iranian people. After years of protracted tensions with the Islamic Republic, candidates like Rezaee present the best option for real and sustained progress.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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