In less than two weeks, our neighbor to the west – Iran – will be holding its thirteenth presidential election. While Iran is often overlooked by the general Pakistani mind, there is reason for us to be keeping eye on in for the upcoming election. Foremost amongst these is the on-going US pull-out from Afghanistan. Since Iran remains an important regional player, its internal politics might find reflection in Afghanistan. Second, a new US president is in office and is seeking to preside over several important policy and geopolitical changes that will likely have a direct implication for Pakistan. This includes a deepened US involvement in a post-Abraham Accords Middle East. Simply put, things are moving rapidly in our immediate neighborhood. As part of it, what happens in Iran over the next couple of weeks will shape future regional peace, stability and prospects for greater economic integration – in all of which, Pakistan has a stake. Third, recently Iran has signed a 25 year CPEC-like agreement with China and has come forward as another country interwoven with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As a part of the BRI itself, it should matter to Pakistan as to what happens in Iran. Particularly, this should matter to Pakistan because Iran’s inclusion in the BRI has opened up myriad possibilities for economic cooperation between the two neighbors as well as avenues for both to come together as collaborative regional allies. Lastly, this presidential election might be the last election with Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Ali Khamenei, at the helm of affairs. Or, put another way, we might just be looking at a generations-spanning shift coming in slow-motion that would ultimately lead to rise to power of a completely new Supreme Leader, the single most important person (as well as, office) in Iran. Here, the current Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Khamenei, is now 82 years old. The few news that do trickle out of the sanctioned, closed-up Iran have begun to suggest that the Ayotallah’s health has been waning. Some moves by key players within Iran, such as by the apex constitutional body called the “Guardian Council”, responsible for correct interpretation of Iranian constitution and overseeing its electoral processes, or, the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as several notable political actors, seem to suggest that succession might just be in play now. At any rate, even if it’s not, barring the first two presidents of the country, all subsequent ones have enjoyed two, four-year, back-to-back terms. This means that whoever wins the upcoming election will likely be around whenever the next Supreme Leader is chosen. Therefore, the results of the upcoming election will shape an extremely consequential ‘transition’ in Pakistan’s western neighbor. This alone should be sufficient cause for Pakistan to look on with interest. Thus, with that said, let us come to the elections. So far, Iran’s powerful “Guardian Council” has received and vetted dozens of nominations for presidential candidature. Ultimately, it has approved seven persons for the contest. The campaign season is now in full swing and the first televised presidential debate happened just yesterday, on June 05th. Two more debates are coming up – on Tuesday, June 08th and Saturday, June 12th. The nation goes to the polls the following week, with voting expected on June 18th. For now, a man named Ebrahim Raisi, the current Chief Justice of Iran, seems to be in the lead and is widely tipped as favorite to win. His six competitors include four “hardliners” – a quintessentially western conception that seeks to identify people who would oppose American, European and, of course, Israeli interests in Iran and the Middle East. Two remaining are seen as “moderates” – i.e. more likely to work with western nations – but are also viewed as being unlikely to win. Mr. Raisi himself is believed to be a “hardliner”, though not the “most hardline” of this camp. Despite the off-chance that the elections might result in a surprise upset (i.e. one of the low-influence “moderates” may win), it should come as quite clear that one or another “hardliner” will likely rise to the presidential office – Mr. Raisi or otherwise. Does this matter? Yes. Generally speaking, a “hardliner” should be expected to drive a hard bargain with the US over the so-called “Iran nuclear deal” (or, JCPOA for short). In particular, a “hardliner” may seek for the US to “blink first” – that is to say, lift sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy before the Iranians return to compliance with the 2015 JCPOA and, stop and rollback their uranium enrichment activities at their nuclear plants. So far, the US has shown unwillingness to oblige Iran and has continued to press it to rollback its nuclear program before it can lift its sanctions. In this context, tensions have continued to simmer between the two countries, leading to prospect of continuing regional instability. If this situation persists, a “hardliner” is more likely to simply walk away from nuclear talks altogether and continue to advance Iran’s nuclear program. If such a scenario develops, we can expect tensions to rise and instability to grow as the US might respond by escalating its military posturing in the Persian Gulf. At the extreme, we can even expect Israel to launch unilateral military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Indeed, Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as others, have severally expressed their intent to do so, arguing that Iran’s nuclear program posits an existential threat to Israel. If an Israeli strike comes through, we will be looking at a nasty new conflict, perhaps all-out war, right at our doorstep. Next, a “hardliner” can be seen as more likely to engage in “proxy wars” across the Middle East in an effort to counter American influence. This includes Yemen just across the Arabian Sea from Pakistan. At any rate, if a future “hardline” president ups the ante on “proxy wars”, the US, its allies, and, once again, Israel are likely to respond with similar measures. This would increase regional turmoil. More ominously, however, several Arab countries have longstanding rivalries with Iran. If Iran escalates its influence campaigns, it is not unimaginable that its rival Arab countries will also dive into the fray. They have already fought Iran within these proxy wars for years. Yet, in more recent months, these Middle Eastern conflicts seemed to be simmering down. A return to older levels of conflict, or, more so, to escalated levels of proxy wars, cannot augur well for Pakistan. In the shape of regional and economic instability (such as oil price shocks). But also in the shape of Pakistan being asked to “pick a side” and, subsequently, be drawn in. Notably, all of Iran’s Arab rivals are, actually, old regional friends of Pakistan. Their relationships with Iran have, in the past, served as points of contention between them and Pakistan. Thus, it is important that tensions maintain their downward trajectory in the Middle East so that Pakistan can continue to play neighbor to Iran, and not be seen in the country as being on the opposite side. So far, the current Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Khamenei, has displayed a remarkable level of patience, perseverance and political maturity. He has worked to patiently draw Iran away from regional confrontations and disengage, allowing for regional tensions to begin a cool down. He has quietly pushed the current Rouhani administration in Iran to continue to engage with important regional players, save the US, over the nuclear deal. He has sought to tamper the rhetoric of more belligerent opponents of the 2015 deal. In fact, just before the presidential debate, he advised the candidates to focus the debate on economy. This can be seen as his effort to insulate the ongoing nuclear talks from the eccentricities of charged domestic politics and its rhetoric. Finally, he has met provocations (including assassinations and nuclear sabotage!) coming from Iran’s key detractors, especially Israel, with an unusual calm and fortitude, refusing to “take the bait”, disallowing a more aggressive Iranian response, and preventing Iran’s slide into a conflict. Will such a measured approach to global politics continue with a new president in power or will a new president adopt a combative foreign policy and turn all of the above considerations into reality? More so, will the Ayotallah and a new president, together, manage to forge a transition that takes Iran forward from the place it is in today, in an equally measured and sagacious way? The answers will have to depend on who wins. Mr. Raeesi is tipped as favorite, in part, because he is believed to be favored by the Ayotallah. Irrespective of how true that is, it is more likely that a candidate favored by the Ayotallah will stay the course than one who is not. Anyway, we will have to wait and see – which is why this election is so important. With that said, I will take you back to the Ayotallah’s advice to the presidential candidates just before the first debate. He had told them to focus on the economy – and they did. Now, that they did, allows us to come to the most optimistic takeaway from the entire electoral exercise in Iran: Without fail, all the “hardliners”, including the front-running Mr. Raeesi, continually referred to a “resistance economy”. This term is a quintessentially Iranian conception that refers to both an economy that is no longer heavily integrated with that of the US and Western Europe as well as the process of ensuring that this “decoupling” happens. Put simply, a “resistance economy”, in the Iranian view, is one integrated with economies of its neighbors and friendly regional players, such as Russia and China. For now, this ideas seems to have the Supreme Leader’s approval as well as that of the wider Iranian “establishment”. Here, then, is the cue for Pakistan. Going forward, irrespective of who actually wins, Iran will be looking to deepen regional economic cooperation and integrate more deeply with Russian and Chinese trade initiatives. Most important for us, this means deepening Iranian engagement with the BRI. While the Iranians will be seeking regional cooperation and integration out of a need to decouple their economy from the west and insulate it from the same, for us in Pakistan this should come as an increasingly important opportunity to “go west”, open trade and meaningfully link our CPEC with Iran’s new Chinese equivalent. If we can do that, and if we can support Iran through its upcoming “transition”, we can reasonably begin to forge a new relationship with Iran based on economic ties, cooperation and, even, collaboration. Of the three, purely from a strategic point of view, the last is the most important. If Pakistan and Iran develop a collaborative approach to regional issues, we can even begin to hope to shape an Afghanistan that is peaceful, stable and a good neighbor to both countries.