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Raisi’s election creates opportunities and pitfalls for Iran’s Islamic Republic

Biden and his allies in Western Europe will have to rethink an Iran strategy that is only beginning to emerge.

Analysis | Middle East

In the weeks leading up to Iran’s June 18 presidential elections, one joke making the rounds was that Ebrahim Raisi, then a candidate and now the winner, was running against six alternative spellings of his name. But with his victory, Raisi had the last laugh. That his election was marked by the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic (48.4 percent) will probably not trouble Raisi. He can point to the 17.9 million Iranians who did vote for him, although they represented a little over 30 percent of all eligible voters. With the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in August he will step into the presidency as part of a hard-line regime that seems determined to consolidate full mastery over the entire political terrain.

Still, Raisi’s victory will present two key challenges. First, it could signal a transformation of Iran’s very political system. That system has hinged on the managed inclusion of diverse factions. The elimination of most of these factions—signaled by the Guardian Council’s decision to ban veteran conservative Ali Larijani from running—could deprive the regime of a tool that was essential to sustaining Iran’s distinctive version of “electoral autocracy.” Second, Raisi’s election will probably be followed by the departure or purge of key players in the foreign policy elite, starting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. While ultimately directed by the Supreme Leader and his most trusted allies, Iran’s diplomacy has benefited from the ability of Zarif and other veteran diplomats to strike a balance between engaging a wide number of countries and sustaining the support of Khamenei and the clerical and security establishments. Raisi’s election might enhance the regime’s capacity to work with its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, or Yemen or even to pursue engagement with Arab Gulf states. But the regime’s wider room for maneuver, especially in the West, could be narrowed after Zarif and other moderates are pushed out of the diplomatic arena.

Raisi’s election might enhance the regime’s capacity to work with its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, or Yemen or even to pursue engagement with Arab Gulf states.

Raisi is clearly not worried about these headaches. Indeed, his assertion that he will not meet with President Joe Biden and that Tehran will not follow up talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with talks on missiles, or on its support for militia groups, suggests that Iran’s foreign policy is going to take a fully hard-line turn. Faced by a new Iranian president who has been sanctioned by the United States and accused by human rights groups of crimes against humanity, Biden and his allies in Western Europe—even if they do secure an agreement on the JCPOA—will have to rethink an Iran strategy that is only beginning to emerge.

From Islamic Republic to Islamic State?

Two closely linked views of Iran’s politics appear to be shaping the online commentary prompted by Raisi’s election. The first is that Iran’s electoral system is little more than a “sham” that is designed to provide political cover for the exercise of political power by a hard-line elite. It is certainly true that the system gives the Supreme Leader and his allies ultimate power. Yet it is far from window dressing. Indeed, as the case with other electoral autocracies, it has allowed for a measure of state-controlled competition that gave elites with varied ideologies and agendas some space to articulate views and speak for different social, economic, geographic, and ethno-religious constituencies. Thus, it is a double-edged sword: it has the potential to create space for elites to mobilize backing for policies that hard-liners might view as subversive in the context of the Islamic Republic and its ruling doctrine.

Any bid to reduce the president merely to an ideological appendage of the Supreme Leader could also undermine a system that depended in part on that leader’s role as arbiter (and manipulator) of conflicting factions.

The second is that the office of president has long played an important role in this system. The only nationally elected figure (in contrast to the Supreme Leader, who is selected by his fellow clerics), the president could claim a measure of popular support. Tensions between the president and the Supreme Leader were therefore built into the system. Still, any bid to reduce the president merely to an ideological appendage of the Supreme Leader could also undermine a system that depended in part on that leader’s role as arbiter (and manipulator) of conflicting factions. A significant attempt to sap electoral politics—and the presidency—of every last vestige of competition could weaken one of the very mechanisms that have been essential to reproducing the ruling system. In this sense, while Raisi’s victory has strengthened the hard-liners (who already control the Majlis and the judiciary), it could also narrow the regime’s room for political maneuver in ways that could eventually prove destabilizing.

This risk is not only, or principally, about the threat of declining legitimacy. In fact, the regime has survived for decades despite the fact that a significant part of the populace—perhaps a majority—did not view it as legitimate. The problem in Iran is thus not a simple matter of the “people versus the system”; rather, the fundamental threat is a deep ideological divide. Iran’s dual executive gave the regime a very flawed means of managing this polarization. But now the gap between state and society—and society and society—might rapidly expand as Raisi and Khamenei, with the full backing of the security apparatus, impose their will in ways that could further weaken or destroy the dilapidated roads and bridges that had kept the system from fragmenting and polarizing. In short, a transition from Islamic Republic to Islamic State could be a risky venture.

The gap between state and society—and society and society—might rapidly expand as Raisi and Khamenei, with the full backing of the security apparatus, impose their will in ways that could further weaken or destroy the dilapidated and fragmented political system.

Electoral struggles reveal anxiety at the very top

This double menace of further polarization and fragmentation may help to explain why, in the lead-up to the June 18 poll, many different groups and leaders questioned the Guardian Council’s decision to narrow the electoral field from 592 candidates to seven, and finally to just four, with Raisi as the clear favorite. Predictably, some of this criticism came from the reformist leaders. The latter also drew support from the Qom-based Association of Seminary Researchers and Lecturers, which complained that by disqualifying former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, along with former Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, the Guardian Council was establishing rule by a single faction. This warning gained the blessing of Mohammad-Javad Hojjati-Kermani, an outspoken cleric and a former friend of Khamenei. The Council’s actions, he asserted, would deepen the public’s unhappiness with the political system, a situation that was already “very dangerous and getting more dangerous by the day.”

These concerns were not limited to the regime’s critics; they issued from the very heart of the system. Days before the election, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli admitted that the “actual competition in the elections is not a very serious one … considering the actions of the Guardian Council.” Sadeq Larijani, himself a member the Guardian Council (and Ali Larijani’s brother), went further by attributing the Council’s actions to interference from the “security apparatus.” This criticism, however, did not stop three Tehran University centers controlled by the Basij (a mass mobilizing body closely tied to the IRGC) from warning that the Council’s disqualifications could harm the next president’s legitimacy. Notably, this article[i] also hinted that the Council’s decisions were not consistent with the priorities of Khamenei, thus signaling that its decisions might limit the Supreme Leader’s own room for maneuver. Indeed, it seems possible that Khamenei himself was concerned about the implications of the Council’s actions for the legitimacy of the system—and perhaps his own office. In the lead-up to the poll, he not only spurned requests from senior hard-liners to refrain from encouraging a large turnout, but he suggested that the Council might reconsider some of its disqualifications.

That the Guardian Council proceeded to ignore him speaks volumes about the ongoing (if as yet incomplete) transformation of the political system. The hard-liners’ paramount goal is to cement their control which, among other things, means setting the stage for the successor to Khamenei, who is now 82 years old. While speculation that they are grooming Raisi seems premature, the hard-liners were resolved to ensure that the new president would be an ally rather than a rival of the ruling powers. Therefore, they were not bothered by an electoral process that disregarded a major swath of the populace. What mattered most was that Raisi was embraced by the regime’s most loyal followers, who constitute a not inconsiderable plurality of the electorate.

Can Raisi change?

Still, it is possible that Raisi himself is less sanguine about the implications of the election for his own presidency. The 60-year-old cleric spent his career as a ruthless public prosecutor who was part of the “Death Committee” that, in 1988, oversaw the execution of thousands of political prisoners. Appointed by Khamenei as judiciary chief after he lost to Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election, he was not content with being known, in Rouhani’s words, as one whose politics “had known only executions and imprisonments for the past 38 years.” Thus, he set about building his own base, first by creating a constituency as custodian of a wealthy and very powerful religious endowment and, during his last years as judiciary chief, by advancing judicial reforms that reportedly brought him nationwide name recognition. Seeking to enhance his reputation as a kind of reinvented Raisi, during the campaign he not only literally changed his religious garb to suit both more conservative and reform minded audiences, but he made his promise to tackle corruption and poverty the mainstay of his bid for office. In this way, he tried to galvanize both lower- and middle-class Iranians, many of whom blamed Rouhani for Iran’s economic woes during the last years of his presidency.

Whether Raisi can deliver is another question. Like other would-be populists, he has a popular message but not much experience in managing national economic affairs.

Whether Raisi can deliver is another question. Like other would-be populists, he has a popular message but not much experience in managing national economic affairs. He certainly has none of the professional experience of Abdolnaser Hemmati, the former Central Bank governor whom he decisively defeated during the June 18 election. But Raisi must demonstrate progress if he is to widen his base, so it is hardly surprising that during the campaign, he declared his support for the negotiations in Vienna to renew the JCPOA. Like other hard-liners, Raisi wants a deal that ends the sanctions that have cut Iran off from oil markets, especially in the West. But he does not want to invite the policy of political engagement advocated by his rivals in the reformist camp. The challenge for Raisi and his domestic allies is to ensure that any agreement on the nuclear issue advances rather than threatens their political control.

Raisi’s victory puts Biden and Western leaders in a tough spot

Unlike the hard-liners, Rouhani has long argued that Iran must tackle the wider challenge of diplomatic engagement with the West and even the United States. Indeed, his foreign minister has bet his career on the proposition that a more expansive diplomacy presents an opportunity rather than a danger for Iran. Now Zarif has some two months left to reach a deal on the JCPOA, he may have to swallow a bitter pill. As several Iran watchers have noted, he may very well secure an agreement, but it is Raisi and his allies who will reap the credit and possible benefits. The larger challenge of defining the parameters of Iran’s diplomacy, however, will still await him. Raisi will have powerful allies including Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor to Khamenei who has played a key role in defining Iran’s foreign relations. If Zarif and other veteran foreign policy actors quit the scene, Raisi and his backers might miss the skill and experience that Zarif and his allies have brought to Iranian diplomacy, and in particular to Tehran’s relations with western leaders.

The same can be said for the Biden Administration, but to an even higher degree. With the departure of Rouhani and Zarif, the White House will have to grapple with an Iranian government that, as Raisi has stated, has no intention of following up the nuclear negotiations with talks on Iran’s ballistic missile system or its regional support for militia groups. Biden’s best political argument for cutting a deal with Iran, namely that it will be a prelude to a wider set of talks, may have been dealt a severe blow, as Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has noted. Other US friends in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, probably agree. But Iran’s recent outreach to the Gulf Arab states—epitomized by its talks with Riyadh—may very well be ramped up, as Raisi has promised. In short, Biden and his western allies now face a new set of challenges that will limit their room for maneuver. They will have to rethink their Iran policy as Raisi and his allies contend with the opportunities—and pitfalls—that their quest for political domination will surely create.

This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center DC.

Ebrahim Raisi in Golestan, 2019. (Fars News Agency via wikimedia commons).
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