Posturing Iran under a Raisi Presidency

Middle Eastern politics takes another stride as Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi won the country’s presidential election held on 18th June earlier this month, after the remaining candidates in the race conceded electoral defeat. The newly elected president of Iran is a conservative judge, was the front-runner heading into the vote. The 60-year-old cleric holds nascent political experience but has a long career in the judicial system, which has earned him a reputation as a hard-liner with little patience for political dissent. The credentials of Raisi, being closed to the religious circles-ultra-conservatives, having ties with hardliners and IRGC, and finally being close to the Supreme Leader himself, was deemed the favorite even before elections. His success in this election also paved the way for his ascendency to the successorship of the current leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei. However, the low turnout highlighted that his popularity is widely contested among the people of Iran, making him the weakest president-elect for the past 40 years.

In voting turn out, Raisi received 17.9 million votes or about 62% of the ballots cast. It is pertinent to mention that Raisi lost the last election to former Iranian President Rouhani back in the year 2017, before being appointed to head Iran’s judiciary two years later. As for as overall voters turnout is concerned, 28.6 million voters took part in the election, that is the lowest turnout of 48% ever in Iranian electoral history. The last presidential election in 2017 had a turnout of 73%. He was followed by former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, the only moderate in the race, with at least 2.4 million votes, and conservative lawmaker Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi with more than one million votes.

In retrospect, Iran’s parliamentary elections of 2020 had set the political progression of Iranian politics for the coming years, especially for the recent presidential elections of 2021. The seat of the presidency plays a crucial role in the hierarchy of the Iranian state. Being the second most important position after the Supreme Leader, the President of Iran executes the authority over the republican sector of the Iranian state (the other one is the theocratic sector). Last year’s parliamentary elections with the lowest turnout of 42% since the revolution, were dominated by the hardliner politicians of the larger principalist faction. The triumph of hardliners not only announced the diminishing role of the moderate-reformist nexus but also reflected the militarization of Iranian politics. Unlike the traditional dominance of conservatives of the principalist faction, the victory of IRGC-linked politicians (hardliners) provided the arena for the IRGC to bolster its influence in Iranian politics.

Iran’s clerical-led establishment has traditionally touted a high voter turnout as evidence of its popularity, but this year the spokesman for the election watchdog said a potentially low turnout would not harm the system’s legitimacy. A high turnout has historically boosted the chances of non-conservative candidates, as reformists are more likely to stay home in protest against the political establishment and its restrictions on the electoral process. The consensus candidate for Iran’s hard-liners, President Raisi has close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a decade’s long relationship with the supreme leader, Khamenei.

In his victory speech, President-elect Ebrahim Raisi staked out a hard-liner position in his first remarks since his election victory, rejecting the possibility of meeting with US President Joe Biden. And while saying his foreign policy priority would be improving ties with Iran’s Gulf neighbors, also hinted that he is not willing to negotiate over Tehran’s ballistic missiles or support for regional militia. President Raisi has provided few details about his political platform, be it on the economy, domestic policy, or foreign affairs. While he does not oppose Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, his administration is expected to pivot Iran’s foreign policy toward Russia and China at the expense of diplomacy with the West, a stance the supreme leader has long favored.

On the other hand, the Gulf States have said it would be dangerous to separate the nuclear pact from Tehran’s missile program and “destabilizing” behavior in the Middle East. As a reality check, the comments by Raisi offered a blunt preview of how Iran might deal with the wider world in the next four years as it enters a new stage in negotiations to resurrect its now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with global powers. Concerning the talks over Iran’s nuclear deal, Raisi promised to rescue the accord to secure relief from US sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy. But he ruled out any limits to Iran’s missile capabilities and support for regional militias — among other issues viewed by Washington as shortcomings of the landmark deal that the Biden administration wants to be addressed. Furthermore, he also stated that Iran’s foreign policy would not be limited to the nuclear deal, adding that “all US sanctions must be lifted and verified by Tehran.”

It is pertinent to mention that, negotiations have been underway in Vienna since April to work out how Iran and the US can both return to compliance with the nuclear pact, which Washington abandoned in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump before re-imposing sanctions on Iran. Raisi’s positions seem to reflect the common understanding of the Iranian leadership that a return to the nuclear deal in exchange for the lifting of sanctions is required to enable economic growth. Moreover, as president, he will probably have an even greater interest in improving the economic situation, which has always been a major factor in the success or failure of any Iranian president.

Unlike the previous elections, this presidential election of Iran is probably the watershed moment in the history of the Islamic Republic. As the second phase of the revolution is unfolding according to the statements of Khamenei, and the region is witnessing the transformation in Arab-Israel relations, the Iranian state is anticipated to be more confrontationist in its foreign policy and hardliner domestically. The increasing pressure of the West over the Iranian economy, attacks on Iranian nuclear sites, and the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani have also provided the impetus for IRGC to domestically stabilize the political environment in which the opposition could be easily side-lined. As the parliament is already under the influence of IRGC-affiliated candidates, especially the speaker Baqir Qalibaf who have links with the IRGC, and now the president who is also closely associated with the Revolutionary Guards and being unpopular, would depend upon the support of the establishment, Iran’s transformation from the theocratic republic to quasi autocratic state is highly probable.

Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating stance in talks to revive the nuclear deal as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policy. Moreover, the new president Raisi alleged that the US had violated the deal and the EU had failed to fulfill its commitments. There is no doubt that Raisi’s victory puts hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at 60 % its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

The economy has always played a key role in the Iranian elections and it is high on the agenda of every candidate. Due to the precarious economic situation, Iran is now in one of its most critical phases since the 1979 revolution. The impact of sanctions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has caused one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history, with the inflation rate reaching 50%.

The presidential elections occurred at a critical juncture as Iran and six major powers are in talks to revive their 2015 nuclear deal. Donald Trump, The US president at the time, abandoned the deal in 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s oil income. However, with Iran’s ruling clerics aware their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardships, Raisi’s win will not disrupt Iran’s effort to revive the pact and break free of tough US oil and financial sanctions. Seeking to win over voters preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues, Raisi has promised to create millions of jobs and tackle inflation, without offering a detailed political or economic program. Iran’s foreign policy is determined by Mr. Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, not by the government. However, the president can set the tone of Iran’s international relations and help influence the supreme leader. He sits on the Supreme National Security Council, to which he also appoints some members. Individual members of a government can also establish good working relations with foreign officials, as was the case with departing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Raisi is expected to pivot more toward China and Russia, at the expense of improving ties with Washington. All matters of national security are also determined by the supreme leader, who endorsed the Rouhani government’s negotiations with six world powers that led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

In recent years and especially since the onset of the year 2020, Iran has been struggling both internally and regionally to overcome economic, security, and strategic challenges. Under these circumstances, the domestic and regional impact of the Iranian presidential elections would be immense. Furthermore, the implication of this presidential election is directly related to the office of the Supreme Leader. As the IRGC-favoured candidate has won, it would most likely be the prelude of electing a hardliner yet a relatively weak cleric as the next leader who would rely on IRGC to consolidate his position in the system. Especially in the foreign policy domain, Iran is expected to become more confrontationist and assertive towards the Western interests in the region. The foreign policy of Iran under Raisi is expected to be xenophobic against the West. Unlike the popular opinion which suggests that US-Iran relations could see a boost in post-Vienna negotiations over the JCPOA, it is noteworthy that the election of ultra-nationalist Neftali Bennet in Israel and the ultraconservative Raeesi in Iran would lead to further confrontation between the two regional rivals. Given the US unwavering support to Israel, it is unlikely that the US would concede to foster better ties with Iran and vice versa.

For most Iranians, the main concern is economic hardship. American sanctions imposed since 2018 worsened an already serious economic crisis. Inflation and unemployment are rampant and the local currency, the Rial, has plummeted in value, battering local households. Many Iranians said they would either vote for the candidate with the best solution to the economic crisis or refuse to vote because no candidate has a convincing response to it. To revive the economy hit hard by sanctions since former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the damage later compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. There were initially high hopes for an influx of foreign investment after Iran’s 2015 accord with world powers, in which it pledged not to build or acquire nuclear weapons -a goal it has always denied pursuing. But those hopes were dashed when Trump in the year 2018 withdrew from the deal and launched or re-imposed crippling sanctions as part of a sweeping “maximum pressure “campaign. Iran lost billions in crucial oil revenues and was locked out of the international financial system. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says GDP fell by more than 6% in both the year 2018 and 2019 respectively, and only returned to modest growth last year. Unemployment has risen, the Rial currency has collapsed, and prices have soared amid inflation which the IMF projects at 39% for this year. The new president will have to find a new way to ensure a minimum of improvement in the economic living conditions of the population by managing the level of hostility with the administration of US President Joe Biden. Herein, the pandemic crisis has ensued a colossal blow to Iran, When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Iran quickly became the region’s worst-hit country. According to official figures widely believed to underestimate the real toll, some three million people have been infected, of whom more than 81,000 have died. Iran has fallen behind in its vaccination campaign, partly because of US sanctions. An easing of sanctions, as well as the possible short-term release of one or more Iranian-designed vaccines, could help the effort. The first major decision will be how to proceed with nuclear diplomacy. The result of negotiations with the US and five other world powers will directly impact the next president’s economic agenda. To revamp its economy, Iran needs sanctions relief for its banking and oil sectors. President will need to deal with is the de-politicization of society. Politicized citizens make calculations and organize themselves into factions to pursue their interests. But a depoliticized population can be a liability for the system because mobs are more likely to form when things go wrong. In the year 2019, protests erupted over economic grievances. The spark was an overnight announcement of a gas price hike. Angry demonstrators burned banks, government buildings, and gas stations. Security forces reportedly killed hundreds of demonstrators and detained thousands.

Under a Raisi presidency, tensions with the West would likely continue to simmer, but the process of diplomatic normalization with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great regional rival, should continue, according to several experts. Another top issue is foreign relations and national security. The vote took place amid heightened regional tensions, particularly with Israel, which Tehran accuses of conducting attacks on its nuclear facilities and a high-profile assassination of a top nuclear scientist last year. Israel has refused to comment on the allegations. Meanwhile, Iran and the US are currently trying to agree on terms via indirect talks in Vienna to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal. Many Iranians had hoped the agreement would bring some level of economic prosperity and international business opportunities. Longer-term, a Raisi presidency will likely pose challenges to Western diplomacy and could complicate President Biden’s goal of negotiating a more comprehensive security agreement with Iran. The U.S. wants curbs on Iran’s conventional missile arsenal and seeks to roll back the footprint of Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, both of which threaten Israel and, according to Washington, foment unrest in the region. Iran has so far refused to discuss these issues with the US.

Iranians concerned about the state of human rights in the country also worry that a victory for Raisi would worsen conditions for political dissidents and activists, and lead to further curbs on freedom of speech. The victory of Joe Biden in the year 2020 the US presidential election raised the prospect of reviving diplomatic negotiations with Iran after tensions between the two countries soared under his predecessor Donald Trump. Although most hardliners within Iran’s political establishment regard talks with the US as pointless, reformists and centrists are in favor.

The latter two also support joining international anti-money laundering organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), reconciliation with regional rival Saudi Arabia, and reducing rhetorical aggression towards Iran’s arch-foe Israel. Such measures would significantly reduce friction in the region and also create an opportunity to revive Iran’s ailing economy. However, as the overall policies of the Islamic Republic, including its foreign policy, are determined by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, those who intend to boycott the upcoming election believe whoever is the next president has little power to change the status quo without his consent. And even then, normalizing relations with the US or recognizing Israel as a state is currently unthinkable.

To conclude, Iranian elections does not change its overarching strategy abruptly, not even following the identity of a newly elected president. What ultimately determines Iran’s approach to key issues is how the broader theocratic Iranian leadership defines Iran’s national interests. Assuming that Iran is indeed seeking to revive the nuclear deal—albeit on its terms—it can be assessed that it is not only the US that seeks to put Iran “back in the box,” but also the Iranian leadership who is interested in putting the nuclear file back in the box for the next few years to address other major challenges, particularly the economic crisis and preparing for the post-Khamenei era. The potential for Iran-Saudi rapprochement comes as the US reduces its presence in the troubled region and has ended its support for the war in Yemen.

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About Mushahid Hussain Naqvi 15 Articles
The author is the Digital Editor at The Asian Telegraph and sub-Editor at Melange International Magazine and Research Associate at COPAIR with academic expertise in International Relations.