On June 18, Iran will hold its thirteenth presidential elections. By August 2021, it will have a new president and a new government in place.
It is widely expected that the conservative head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, will emerge victorious. Most of the other conservative candidates, including such perennial candidates as Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, and Saeid Jalili, Iran’s one-time nuclear negotiator, are seen merely as window-dressing in order to give the impression of a competitive election.
Most reformist and moderate figures, including former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which vets the presidential candidates, despite his impeccable Islamist credentials. The reformists are represented by the relatively unknown Mohsen Mehralizadeh and the moderates by Abdul Nasser Hemmati , the former head of Iran’s central bank.
The lack of ideological diversity of the approved candidates has led to widespread expectations that popular participation in this year’s election could be as low as 40 percent. If those expectations prove true, the winner may face challenges establishing his popular legitimacy.
Does it matter who is president?
In view of the fact that real power in Iran over the last two decades has become increasingly concentrated in the office of the Supreme Leader and in the IRGC, whose mission is to defend the Islamic system and its ideals against all domestic and foreign challenges, the following question arises: Does whoever occupies the presidency really matter since key security and foreign policy decisions are made by the Leader, and he is the one who sets the limits within which other officials can operate?
Those presidents, like Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who tried to move the country in directions opposed by the Leader ended up becoming persona non grata in their own country. President Hassan Rouhani, too, after his policy of accommodation with the West failed to pay off when U.S. President Donald Trump ceased Washington’s participation in the multilateral nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has become the target of vile attacks by the conservative hardliners.
However, the limited power of Iran’s presidents does not mean that the presidency is of no consequence. It matters for several reasons: First, the personality of the president could facilitate diplomacy or hinder it. President Khatami’s affable personality and his good manners contributed to Iran’s diplomatic advances, however limited they turned out to be. By contrast, former President Mahmood Ahmadinejad ‘s demagogic and unguarded behavior and belligerent rhetoric during his tenure from 2005 to 2013 made any dealings between Iran and the United States virtually impossible. It was only towards the end of his presidency in 2012 that Iran resumed talks on its nuclear dossier. Second, while unable to challenge the Supreme Leader, the president can influence his decisions, especially if he enjoys the Leader’s trust.
In short, whoever wins the presidency on June 18 in Iran matters for the future of its relations with the rest of the world.
What to expect from a Raisi presidency?
Barring some unexpected surprise, Ibrahim Raisi is likely to emerge as Iran’s new president. Once in power, he will pursue a conservative social policy and promote the so-called resistance economy that will attempt to maximize Iran’s internal capabilities rather than prioritize foreign investment and technology. In other words, he will apply the same policies that Khatami and Rouhani tried to change but were stymied by conservatives and the West’s rather cool and disappointing responses.
Raisi’s statements on the economy in the presidential debateshave been general, and he has offered no specific plans on how he intends to revive Iran’s economy. Like other conservative candidates, he has minimized the impact of U.S. economic sanctions and even of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he has blamed the government’s inefficient management for Iran’s current situation. He has also hardly made any reference to the impact of Iran’s dwindling financial resources on its ability to revitalize its economy and how he intends to obtain such resources. Yet, even a resistance economy needs investment funds either from within the country or from abroad.
More seriously, like other conservative candidates, he has ignored the impact of Iran’s foreign policy decisions and its reluctance to join the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF — an intergovernmental body that sets international standards for combating money laundering and the financing of terrorist groups — on its current economic predicament. Although he has not said so directly, Raisi shares the view of other conservative candidates that the Rouhani administration was wrong to pin its hopes for economic revival on agreements with the West, such as the JCPOA.
Raisi has admitted that Iran needs to reach accommodation with other states. He has even said that, when and if necessary, he would be willing to negotiate. But he has not said which countries he would be inclined to negotiate with over which specific issues, which begs the question of whether he would seriously reengage with Washington over its return to full compliance with the JCPOA.
Based on Raisi’s background and his statements, his presidency is unlikely to bring about drastic changes in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. While socially conservative, for example, Raisi is unlikely to try to reimpose former restrictions on the behavior or appearance of women, such as a stricter observance of the Islamic veil. Raisi has also supported, at least rhetorically, women’s participation in politics and government. Even the conservatives know that too much pressure on social behavior could undermine the regime, especially at a time of economic hardship.
In foreign policy, too, sudden changes and adventurist actions are unlikely unless unexpected developments offer opportunities for Iran to enhance its regional position and influence.
Raisi is also unlikely to deliberately provoke the United States because, at least at the moment, the Supreme Leader is not looking for confrontation. He will likely continue trying to revive the nuclear deal and the policy of engagement with Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, should the latter be willing to do so. He will shore up Iran’s relations with Syria and Iraq and will continue Rouhani’s policy of expanding economic relations with neighboring states.
And since good relations with Russia and China have the Supreme Leader’s seal of approval, Raisi will nurture these ties. In short, despite his ideological leanings, in practice, Raeisi’s policies will most likely be similar to those pursued by Rouhani.
Moreover, Raisi has ambitions to replace Khamenei as the next Leader. Therefore, while consolidating his conservative base, he will be careful to faithfully follow Khamenei but also not overly antagonize other political forces, so as not to jeopardize his chances of succession.
A reformist surprise?
If, by some miracle, Raisi loses and a reformist/moderate like Hemmati wins, it would also be a mistake to expect much change, especially in foreign policy. Hemmati was outspoken about the negative consequences of Iran’s foreign policy on its economic fortunes. He insisted that Iran’s economic advancement would not be possible without improvement in its external relations , including with the United States. He also said that if Washington sends positive signals, he would be willing to meet with President Joe Biden. But, as the Supreme Leader made clear recently, foreign policy is not made in the foreign ministry or in the president’s office.
Thus, Hemmati would not be any more successful than Khatami or Rouhani in trying to resolve Iran’s difficulties with the United States or other Western states. Progress on this front will depend on the Supreme Leader’s assessments and decisions, irrespective of who is president.
But the most alarming consequence of the highly engineered nature of Iran’s current presidential election and the anticipated low turnout is that they will make positive and gradual change within Iran more difficult. The inability to make major course corrections will only exacerbate Iran’s many problems, thus increasing the risk of upheaval.
Such a prospect augurs ill for Iran, the region, and those states with stakes in the region.