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In-Depth | The Middle East Conundrum: What Rouhani's exit, Netanyahu's likely ouster mean for Iran, Israel, US and Palestine

In-Depth | The Middle East Conundrum: What Rouhani's exit, Netanyahu's likely ouster mean for Iran, Israel, US and Palestine

In Iran, the eight years of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani — marked by his reformist approach — comes to an end. On the other hand, Israel witnessed the formation of an alliance — of extremes — to oust corruption-accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Here’s what the simultaneous change in political leaderships means for the key stakeholders in the region.

The politics of Middle East would not remain the same by the end of June. The Knesset, or the Israeli Parliament, is expected take a final call by then on the Left-to-Right coalition that seeks to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister since the past 12 years. And on June 18, Israel's arch-foe Iran would mark the end of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani's era.

Few West Asia analysts would have predicted a simultaneous political rejig in Iran and Israel — the two countries that have for years appeared to be on the brink of a military confrontation.

Although Tehran's ultimate authority — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — would remain untouched, the polls in Iran are expected to realign the country's domestic political grounds — with hardliners finally expected to clinch the presidential seat after a gap of eight years.

Pre-election surveys and analysis show Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi — the "most hardline candidate" in fray — leading the presidential race.

In Israel, the proposed new government would be headed by Netanyahu's ally-turned-rival Naftali Bennett, the chief of far-right, pro-settler Yamina (Rightwards) party. He has paired up with centrist Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and seven other political groups.

These developments, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic and worldwide economic slowdown, is being keenly tracked by an array of world leaders — particularly in the United States, which would not prefer to see a destabilised West Asia at a time when it aims to pullback its troops from Afghanistan.

As the Middle East conundrum deepens, here is a look at what exactly is happening in Iran and Israel, and how the leadership rejig would affect the region's key stakeholders.

'Ultraconservative' Ebrahim Raisi endorsed by Supreme Leader Khamenei?

On May 25, Iran's all-powerful Grand Council barred popular centrist candidate and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani from entering the presidential race. This, claimed western media outlets including The New York Times, almost sealed the contest in favour Ebrahim Raisi — the 'ultraconservative' current chief of judiciary who unsuccessfully contested against Rouhani in 2017.

Notably, the Grand Council has permitted only seven out of the 592 aspiring candidates to enter the presidential contest. Five of the seven are hardliners — with Raisi, whom critics accuse of being involved in a "long history of human rights abuses", being considered as the "most hardline candidate" among them.

Among those who were vetted out by the Guardian Council include former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's incumbent First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

"The disqualification of many qualified people [is] a serious threat to public participation and fair competition among political tendencies, especially reformists," Jahangari, a close ally of Rouhani, said while registering his dissent before the local media.

Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran on May 16, 2017. (Image: TIMA via Reuters) Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran on May 16, 2017. (Image: TIMA via Reuters)

Although Khamenei has not officially endorsed Raisi — doing so would hurt his claim of being non-partisan — experts feel that the Supreme Leader is firm on seeing him as the next president.

"Raisi is a stalwart hardliner from the conservative establishment and the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Khamenei," said Dr Sujata Ashwarya, Associate Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University, while speaking to Moneycontrol.

"The more hardliner the candidate, the closer he is to Khamenei, because Iran’s Supreme Leader represents the quintessence of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which is hard-line adherence to the purported ideals of the Islamic Republic," Ashwarya explained.

Analysts claim that the elections in Iran, which were never considered as completely democratic due to the state's hybrid political system marred with theocracy and autocracy, have now also lost the minor semblance of a genuine electoral exercise.

"We are witnessing an unabashed attack on any semblance of republican principles in favor of the absolute power of the Supreme Leader," NYT quoted Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, as saying.

Are the Iranian polls a no contest?

The vetting out of centrist and reformist candidates have left a large section of voters disenchanted, despite their angst over a prolonged economic slowdown and the prevalence of stagflation.

The lack of employment, the growing costs and an economic depression caused by the crippling sanctions were reasons enough for the country's vast young population to vote for a change. However, the seven candidates in the fray have failed to enthuse voters who were rooting for a change.

According to a survey conducted in May-end by Iranian Student Polling Agency, only 37 percent voters were interested to register their mandate — which would be 7 percent lower than the previous presidential polls.

An election with barely more than a one-third of the electorate casting their ballot would hit the credibility of Iranian regime, and tarnish its claim of being a "democracy".

Across social media, Iranian youth have ran high-octane campaigns with '#BoycottIranShamElections' and the Persian equivalent of 'No Way I Vote'. The call issued by former president Ahmadinejad to boycott the polls has further bolstered their campaign.

According to experts, however, only a larger turnout could provide a chance to Raisi's only reformist rival — Abdolnaser Hemmati, who served as the head of the Iranian Central Bank until recently.

Hemmati was earlier a member of Kargozaran, or the 'Executives of Construction Party' — a ‘centrist-reformist’ political front associated with former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s earliest reformists.

However, the Iranian Reformists — the country's main politically-Centre party — which backed Rouhani in the past two polls has no candidate in this election. This has allowed critics of the Iranian regime, particularly those based on the other side of the Persian Gulf, to call the presidential polls a "sham" and a "no contest".

"It is the ruling elite, mostly hard-line clerics, that continues to hold tight control of the system, despite the claim that the Islamic republic is a democratic state," stated an editorial in the UAE-based Gulf News, adding that the "Supreme Leader seems to have decided it was not the time for even an appearance of a fair and transparent election".

A poster of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi is seen on a street in Tehran, Iran (Image: Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters) A poster of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi is seen on a street in Tehran, Iran (Image: Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Israel: A 'watershed' moment?

The formation of a rainbow coalition in Israel to oust Netanyahu, which includes parties from the Left of the ideological spectrum to the Right, and also includes an Arab Muslim party, is considered by some geopolitical observers as a "watershed moment" in the country's 73-year-old history.

The new proposed government — co-led by Lapid and Bennett with the latter named as prime minister-designate — would comprise of a diverse array of partners ranging from hardliners and dovish Labour and Meretz, to the Islamic party, United Arab List (also known as Ra’am).

The presence of Ra'am in the coalition marks the first time Palestinians have been included in a proposed ruling coalition of the Israeli state.

"The proposed ruling coalition led by Bennet is historic in every way and it exemplifies what a democratic binational state might look like materially, with Israel becoming a state for all of its people (both Jewish and Palestinian citizens) rather than a state for the Jewish people, and the Palestinian minority gaining representation in government coalitions," Ashwarya said.

Despite this being optimistically considered as a watershed moment, there is little doubt among experts that this new coalition will be a "cauldron of infighting and turbulence", with Left and Right cobbled together in the so-called unity government. The foremost challenge before this coalition is to prevent a breakdown before undergoing the floor test in the Knesset.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett smiles as he speaks to Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, during a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on June 2, 2021. (Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun) Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett smiles as he speaks to Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, during a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on June 2, 2021. (Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

Palestine sees hope in Netanyahu's likely exit?

Palestinian officials have so far indicated that they are indifferent to the leadership rejig in Israel, which comes days after the spree of bombardments in the Gaza Strip.

"He (Bennett) will make sure to express how extreme he is in the government," Bassem Al-Salhi, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), told Reuters, suggesting that the prime minister-designate was no less extreme than Netanyahu.

The cold response shown by Al-Salhi may be justified to a large extent. Bennett, far from pinning the blame on Netanyahu for the recent flare-up in Gaza, told the Israeli media that Palestinians are largely responsible for the historical conflict.

"The truth must be told: the national struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is not over territory. The Palestinians do not recognise our very existence here, and it would appear that this will be the case for some time," he told Israel's Channel 12 TV station.

Bennett has long been a votary of annexing vast portions of the West Bank — the region which Palestine seeks as part of its sovereign state.

According to former UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is known for his critical views against the Israeli establishment, the Bennett-led government would not depart from the alleged anti-Palestine policies adopted by its predecessor.

"Nothing suggests Naftali Bennett would support an end to the occupation, the siege and the settlements which have been condemned by the UN," Corbyn said.

Experts, however, still consider the new Israeli government to be regulated by the presence of diverse ideological partners in the ruling coalition.

Flames and smoke rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israel-Palestinian violence, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021 (Image: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa) Flames and smoke rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israel-Palestinian violence, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021 (Image: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Bennett’s agenda, which includes increased settlement construction and partial annexation of the occupied West Bank, would be opposed by the Ra’am. As a result, any attempt to implement such an agenda is likely to result in the disintegration of the coalition.

"Above all, the recent May 2021 Gaza War has shifted the international narrative in favour of the Palestinians, particularly in the United States, along with some harsh criticisms of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories. Even within Israel, such shifts are visible, with liberal Jews expressing strong support for Palestinians both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories. No Israeli government is about to risk an escalation of hostility toward the Palestinians," Ashwarya said.

For the current coalition’s right wing, a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas is an appealing prospect, particularly because it contributes to the consolidation of the split between the West Bank (Palestinian Authority) and Gaza, weakening the case for Palestinian statehood, according to the professor.

"Netanyahu avoided this path because any negotiation with Palestinians of any political persuasion was anathema to him. Will Bennett negotiate with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority? The answer appears to be no, but can anything of the sort be ruled out? Again, the answer is no," she further added.

Israel-Iran 'shadow war'

Irrespective of the change in leadership, geopolitical observers claim that hostility between Israel and Iran would continue.

"With regards to Israel, I don't believe there would be any change in Iran's stance against that regime. It is an apartheid state and no election is going to change its nature," Vira Ameyli, an Iranian PhD candidate at Oxford University, told Moneycontrol.

The "shadow war" between the two countries, analysts claim, would continue till Israel ensures that Iran is not in a position to develop its nuclear arsenal.

Over the past two years, the covert attacks on Iranian security personnel, vessels and nuclear facilities have increased. Although Israel has not claimed responsibility, analysts unanimously pin the blame on Tel Aviv for the attacks.

Among the most provocative clandestine assaults was the assassination of Iranian nuclear programme founder Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. This was followed by an explosion at Iran's nuclear facility in Natanz in April this year.

Iran, on the other hand, is strengthening militias which are constantly at loggerheads with the Israeli regime. The country has been supporting the Shia militant group Hezbollah, which is positioned to combat Israel at the Lebanon border, and is also funding the Hamas which was recently involved in a two-week military confrontation with Israel in Gaza.

After the ceasefire was announced in Gaza, senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh went on record to thank "the Islamic Republic of Iran; who did not hold back with money, weapons and technical support."

Khamenei also did not refrain from publicising the military aid. In a statement issued on May 21, he said, "Muslim states must sincerely support the Palestinian people, through military...or financial support...or in rebuilding Gaza's infrastructure."

With its support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and president Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, Iran looks at strengthening what it defines as the 'Axis of Resistance'. Whether a hardliner or a reformist is elected in the June 18 polls, the current level of support for these groups will remain, experts say.

Flags of Israel and Iran (Image by icedmocha via Shutterstock) Flags of Israel and Iran (Image by icedmocha via Shutterstock)

Fate of 2015 nuclear deal

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also referred to as the 2015 nuclear deal, was inked between Iran and the P5+1 (China France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States).

The deal was jeopardised in 2017 after the then US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled his country out of the pact. His regime re-imposed sanctions on Iran, thereby crippling its economy. In response, Tehran violated its end of the deal and began to enrich uranium — signalling its intent to develop nuclear weapons.

After Joe Biden took over as the US President, feelers were sent to the Iranian regime, which culminated in the talks between the two sides in Vienna. If the deal is revived, the sanctions against Iran would be lifted, likely in lieu of the country re-committing itself to the 2015 deal.

The election of a hardliner candidate is unlikely to derail Iranian participation in the Vienna talks, given that Ayatollah Khamenei supports it, experts point out.

"Despite his image as a figure above factional politics, Khamenei is an astute politician who recognises that Iran’s persistent economic crisis and social problems have long undermined the clerical regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Iranians have repeatedly risked open protests to express their dissatisfaction with the Islamic regime," Ashwarya said.

"The Vienna talks and potential sanctions relief serve to calm people’s nerves while also holding out the prospect of a better economic future without jeopardising the Islamic regime’s ideology or existence," she added.

"It makes no difference whether a hardliner wins the election as long as Khamenei agrees to the talks and there is no challenge to clerical supremacy. The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Council) fully supports Khamenei; I see no chinks in this armour. As a result, Khamenei continues to be the final arbiter of Iranian participation in the P5+1 and Iran's negotiations," the professor further said.

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of United States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria) A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of United States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria)

If a hardliner wins, the chances of political wrangling and internecine conflicts over a renegotiated nuclear deal would also be minimised, as Iran’s executive branch will be perfectly aligned with other state institutions such as the parliament, judiciary and the IRGC.

Israel, however, is expected to continue with its bid to derail the nuclear talks. Netanyahu on June 3 said he would take the risk of "friction" with the US in his attempt to stop the nuclear deal from being revived.

Even with a rejigged political leadership, Israel is not expected to show relent in its campaign against the JCPOA. Notably, the Bennett-Lapid coalition has announced that they would retain the country's incumbent Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

"Israel does not believe Iran will follow through on a deal limiting its nuclear capability and believes Iran will cheat at some point to become a nuclear power. In such a scenario, Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ and strategic superiority in the region would be permanently weakened, and no amount of international assurance could guarantee Israel’s security in perpetuity," Ashwarya opined.

US to rethink strategy in Middle East?

The United States is unlikely to change its long-term strategy in the Middle East due to the rise of Bennett and Raisi in Israel and Iran, respectively. Both the leaders, even if they are elevated to the political helm, would be considered by the US as peripheral and transitory figures in its strategy, analysts claimed.

According to Ashwarya, even if Bennett’s government survives and Raisi is elected, they are both right-wingers who the US views as destabilising international players.

"If at all, the US strategy would be to contain these players through a combination of carrot and stick tactics and by ignoring them," she added.

"They are not statesmen with a sizable popular base in their home countries whom the US would cultivate in order to reorganise the existing regional order: one is struggling to keep the government together, while the other lacks popular support. For all practical purposes, the United States’ current strategy in the region would continue," the expert further said.

US President Joe Biden and the United States flag in the background (Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria) US President Joe Biden and the United States flag in the background (Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria)

India's point of view

The relations with Iran would remain unchanged irrespective of the election outcome. A hardliner president may occasionally ruffle the feathers in New Delhi by repeating the Organisation of Islamic Conference's (OIC) line on Kashmir. However, the India-Iran trade ties were not hit when Khamenei himself had condemned the alleged "bullying and oppression of Kashmiri Muslims" in August 2019, when Article 370 — that provided semi-autonomous status to the region — was repealed.

In recent years, analysts say, some warmth in India-Iran relations has been lost. But that is being attributed by experts to Tehran's drift towards China.

On May 17, India lost the ONGC Videsh Ltd.-discovered Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf after Iran awarded a contract for developing the giant gas field to a local company.

Meanwhile, the ties with Israel — which have deepened over the past seven years — are also expected to remain largely unaffected by the change in Israeli leadership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi explains to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu how to spin cotton on a wheel watched by Netanyahu's wife Sara during their visit to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, India on January 17, 2018. (Image: Reuters/Amit Dave) Prime Minister Narendra Modi explains to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu how to spin cotton on a wheel watched by Netanyahu's wife Sara during their visit to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, India on January 17, 2018. (Image: Reuters/Amit Dave)

The India-Israel relations have come a long-way — from establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992 to India now being listed among only 14 countries that abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that called for a probe into the alleged war crimes in Gaza.

This shift in approach from India — which till the past decade was a strong supporter of Palestine — could be reflective of the change in country's polity, with the ideological standing apparently having shifted to the Centre-Right.

This ideological change may deepen the ties with Israel, as reflected in the past seven years, but may end up distancing away Palestine.

Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, marked his dissent over India abstaining from vote on the UNHRC resolution that called for a probe into Gaza violence. "India missed an opportunity to join the international community at this turning point, both crucial and long overdue, on the path to accountability, justice and peace," he said in a strongly-worded letter to his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar.

Graphic was made by Suneesh Kalarickal.

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