Iran 2013: IranPolitik’s look at Iranian politics in the year ahead

As we enter 2013 we can reflect on another tumultuous year in Iran’s domestic and foreign politics. Below we have summarized some of the biggest trends and events of 2012 and look ahead to the new year to understand both possible continuities and changes in Iranian domestic and foreign politics.

Iran 2012: A reflection

2012 was an eventful year in Iranian politics. On the foreign policy front, Iran continue to dominate international headlines as a result of three key interrelated issues. The first was the Iranian nuclear program which has been an increasingly majour issue since 2002 when the existence of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz was revealed. Between April and June 2012 Iran engaged in three rounds of talks with the P5+1, consisting of the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, in the cities of Istanbul (April), Baghdad (May), and Moscow (June). While these talks were perceived as a failure, they did create continuous high-level dialogue between the parties for the first time in years.

The other two key issues in Iranian foreign policy stem for the conflict over the nuclear program. The possibility of a military strike by the United States and/or Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities continued to be a majour issue, especially after the failure of nuclear talks. With the Israeli government fearing that Iran will soon cross the red line and obtain “nuclear capability”, highlighted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this Autumn, chatter regarding an Israeli strike has increased. We at IranPolitik asked whether the short Israel-Gaza conflict in November was in fact the opening stages of a larger Iran-Israel conflagration. Especially if P5+1 – Iran negotiations in 2013 fail, the prospect of war with Iran will once again dominate headlines. The specter of Syria also hangs over Iran and may add complications to Iran’s already tense ties with regional states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, as a result of the controversial Iranian nuclear program, Iran has increasingly been internationally isolated. In 2012 it was the target of international economic sanctions, with hard-hitting European Union crude oil and maritime insurance embargo coming into effect in July and SWIFT financial sanctions in March which further cut it off from the international financial system. Alongside the weakening of ties with the EU, Canada also cut ties with Iran while Iranian oil clients in South and East Asia reduced imports of Iranian crude. Though Iran did become more economically and diplomatically isolated in 2012, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran was a silver lining which allowed the Islamic Republic to highlight its strong ties in the Global South, and potentially improved ties with Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sanctions dominated headlines in Iranian domestic news, particularly in the second of half 2012. These sanctions, which hit the Iranian oil industry particularly hard, were thought to be behind the Iranian currency crisis which has caused the unofficial rate of the rial to fall precipitously, rippling out to the wider economy and aggravating an already bad economic situation. One problem has been the increased difficulty of importing goods, especially food and medicine, and the impediments created for Iranian universities. But as economist Radman Sam argued on IranPolitik, the negative side-effects of sanctions could also create opportunities for positive economic reform in Iran.

Even as international diplomatic and economic pressure created domestic problems for the Islamic Republic, the regime failed to come together in a substantial way as infighting between different branches of government, particularly the executive on one hand and the legislature and judiciary on the other, continued. The Iranian parliamentary elections, in which hardliners fared well, did little to change this dynamic. This was despite repeated calls for unity by Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

The human rights situation in Iran also showed signs of continuing troubling trends that followed the aftermath of the abortive 2009-2010 Green Movement demonstrations. From the mass arrest of labour activists (including labour leader Reza Shahabi) to the religious edict against musician Shahin Najafi to the death of blogger Sattar Beheshti in prison, Iranians continued to pay a high price for their efforts to gain greater human rights. In this regard, it was also a bad year for women in general, who now face new obstacles in pursuing higher education and no longer have access to the same level of family planning services as they did in the past. There was however one silver lining: Human rights as a norm seems to be gaining greater prominence in Iranian society. As a result of public and international pressure over the heart-wrenching cases of activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh and Sattar Beheshti, the Iranian government was forced on a number of occasions to backtrack or take actions to investigate abuses.

2012 was also an interesting year in terms of the Iran cyber front, with the completion of the first phase of the national information network (NIN) and cyber attacks on and from Iran. The Islamic Republic’s strategy toward cyberspace is to maximize its benefits while minimizing costs. This has meant using instruments like the NIN to increase surveillance of its citizens or the Iranian cyber army to launch anonymous cyber attacks, while using its cyber police to crack-down on online political dissent or its cyber censorship system to limit its citizens access to information and freedom of speech.

2013: Looking ahead

The new year promises to be equally or more interesting than the last. Here are a few of the issues IranPolitik will be paying special attention to.

The 2013 Iranian presidential election is just over the horizon in June, and despite serious questions regarding its democratic standards, it will be important in shaping the regime in the next four (and very likely eight) years and also sending a signal to the world about the intentions of the Islamic Republic. Starting with our next article, we will begin our coverage of this important topic under the “Iranian Election Watch 2013” label.

Another important subject in 2013, which will have implications for the election, will be the nuclear negotiations. Many consider this one of the last windows for peaceful negotiations before possible military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Economic sanctions (and the overall economic situation in Iran) are likely to be another hot topic in this regard. Will nuclear negotiations result in sanctions being lifted? If not, how will the regime manage sanctions?

These and other important questions, such as the human rights situation and state of cyberspace, will occupy our pages and social media alongside those of other majour publications. We look forward to bringing more independent and high-quality content as well as exciting writers in 2013!