Ebrahim Raisi, a judge under US sanctions and a candidate endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader himself, won the Iranian Presidential elections on June 19 amidst record low turnout. 28.9 million ballots were counted, with Raisi securing 17.9 million, or 61.9 percent of the votes. Raisi’s win has been touted as a victory for the hardliners who have become more assertive during the “reformist” President Rouhani’s tenure following the collapse of the nuclear deal. With the shift from “reformist” Rouhani to “hardliner” Raisi, the question that must be considered is: What can be expected to change?
In 2017, 73.3 percent of eligible voters turned out during the elections. Back then, reformist President Rouhani defeated hardliner Ebrahim Raisi after securing 57.14 percent of the vote to Raisi’s 38.28 percent. At the time, Iranians were also presented with a more diverse choice of candidates.
This time around however, the candidate pool was badly lacking in choice. Heavyweight candidates were prevented from running by the Guardian Council which vets candidates and decides who can run for office. The Council, which consists of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and six prominent jurists, disqualified former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri.
Although a prominent conservative, Ahmadinejad openly opposed Khamenei in 2017 after the latter had warned him not to run for elections. Larijani, though also considered part of the conservative camp, had allied with “reformist” Rouhani in recent years. Jahangiri was seen as a candidate who might seek to build on Rouhani’s “reformist” legacy and the increasing challenge to the revolutionary guards.
The popular perception is that Khamenei engineered a clear path for his preferred candidate to win.
The popular perception, however, is that Khamenei engineered a clear path for his preferred candidate to win and has asserted his power and authority on an increasingly “ill-disciplined” crop of political actors.
With the absence of credible candidates and no real choice, turnout was always expected to be low with many voters believing the elections were a foregone conclusion long before the first ballot was cast.
Iran Nuclear Deal
The reality is that the issue of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program transcends the traditional conservative-reformist political divide. There is an almost unanimous consensus across Iran’s political spectrum on the necessity of a new agreement in order to secure economic relief from sanctions, and also to establish a framework of cooperation and co-existence of regional interests with the US. There is also an appreciation that the Biden administration is ready to offer sweeping concessions in order to secure the deal, even at the expense of the other Arab Gulf states.
The differences between the political actors in Iran is therefore not over the necessity of the deal, but rather who should get the credit for securing it. Khamenei was notably uncomfortable with the domestic and international praise that the two “reformists,” President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, received as they were hailed both domestically and internationally for brokering the original pact with the Obama administration. Rouhani’s negotiating success was seen as a dent on Khamenei’s influence and a sign of what could be achieved if the system moved away from the hardline politics of the revolutionary guards.
Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement appeared to vindicate the hardline elements in Iran.
Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, however, appeared to vindicate the hardline elements and decimated Rouhani and Zarif’s image as capable defenders of Iran’s interests. As the Trump administration went on to impose “maximum” pressure, and as Rouhani and Zarif desperately sought relief from a shell-shocked European Union that offered no serious redress or effective recourse, Khamenei recovered from the damage done to his power and influence.
This is one of the reasons why Khamenei was especially keen to lend his support and public backing to Ebrahim Raisi. As a close ally of Khamenei, and therefore far less inclined to antagonize him publicly in the manner that his predecessors Rouhani and Ahmadinejad have done, Khamenei will be able to attribute the success of the nuclear deal negotiations, and subsequent economic relief, to the “resistance” and policies of conservative elements. Thus, Khamenei will seek to present to the Iranian people that the “reformists” are an impractical alternative, and that the “conservatives” are the ones who rescued a deal that the reformists could not protect.
The second, and more important, reason why Khamenei threw his weight behind Ebrahim Raisi has to do with the awkward issue of succession. Khamenei is aging and the question of who will succeed him as Supreme Leader has become a topic of growing contention.
Khamenei is especially keen to ensure he is able to control the process at such a critical juncture in Iranian politics with as little opposition as the system allows. The Supreme leader has been very frustrated at having to wrestle with multiple Presidents, including Rouhani, and Ahmadinejad before him, as well as a restless and assertive Revolutionary Guard.
He has also been annoyed at the phenomenon of prominent conservatives pragmatically aligning themselves with “reformists” to appeal to those Iranians who blame Khamenei for the country’s woes. As he has been concerned with the vocal nature of such antagonism on key issues at a time of popular unrest over a dire economic situation and increasing calls for change.
Khamenei is therefore perceived to have orchestrated the elections such as to ensure a compliant President who will help facilitate a favorable succession process.
On the issue of the domestic economy, Raisi is expected to sign a new nuclear deal with the Biden administration at some point during his presidency. The expectation is that such a deal will result in the lifting of economic sanctions that will allow for much needed investment and financial relief that will improve living conditions for ordinary Iranians.
Raisi does not have many options with regards to the economic crisis compounded by the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aside from the prospective respite from a resumed nuclear deal, Raisi does not have many options with regards to the economic crisis compounded by the ravages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Public discontent is rife over the unusually overt nature of the political machinations that denied Iranians an array of electoral options whereby they might actually vote for change.
Moreover, where Trump’s antagonism helped unite Iranians against a common enemy, Biden’s approach has raised popular expectations on the Iranian regime to get a deal done.
Ebrahim Raisi will have no influence over the course of foreign policy, which is firmly in the remit of Khamenei and the revolutionary guards.
There is an understanding amongst Iranian policymakers that Biden is prepared to acknowledge the status quo in exchange for a framework of bilateral cooperation whereby each party will respect the regional interests of the other.
Washington has engaged Iran on Yemen, refrained from reinforcing Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s bid to rein in Iranian-backed militias, and given Gulf states reason to believe that there will be no serious consequences to reconciling with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia has begun to chase a rapprochement with Iran which has been perceived by Tehran as a sign that Riyadh is now in a panic over Biden’s strategy, as well as a sign of the extent to which Washington is prepared to ignore his Gulf allies and impose an unfavorable deal regardless of their grievances.
There is therefore no real incentive for there to be a change in foreign policy, or even a reason for Raisi to dissent.
A Make-or-Break Presidency
All things considered however, Raisi’s presidency is likely to turn out to be historic regardless of the lack of substantial changes in policy. After all, there are only two likely scenarios in which his presidency will broadly play out.
Raisi’s presidency is likely to turn out to be historic regardless of the lack of substantial changes in policy.
The first is that a nuclear deal is secured, and Iran is finally able to access the necessary economic relief and international investment it so badly needs. Raisi’s presidency would therefore go down as the turning point for Iran’s fortunes at a pivotal moment in Iran’s history.
The second, and darker scenario, is one in which Raisi signs a new nuclear agreement but Biden loses the 2024 US Presidential elections without having passed it through Congress. His successor (possibly Trump) decides to rescind the deal yet again, and Iran finds itself at a brutal crossroads after having been burnt twice. With no realistic recourse, Iran then has no reason to return to any talks and the international rules-based order becomes further undermined leading to significant ramifications not just for Iran, but globally.
In both scenarios, Raisi is expected to secure a nuclear pact. And, his presidency will be historic in terms of how Iran moves forward depending on whether any agreement survives beyond the 2024 US elections.