In Iran’s recently concluded presidential election, its clerical political system led by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ensured the victory of a predetermined conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. Iran’s judiciary and legislature were already controlled by the conservatives. With the victory of Raisi, the executive too has come under their control. This consolidation has come at a high cost – further erosion of the legitimacy of the ruling elites. The voter turnout was below 49 per cent, the lowest in the history of Iran’s presidential elections as many reformist candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council, the body tasked with vetting the candidates.
This presidential election was engineered to ensure that Raisi occupies the office of presidency during the time of likely succession of the Supreme Leader who is now aged 82 years. Therefore, many other prominent conservative figures as well as the members of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were also barred. The whole scheme was geared towards preserving the basic essence of the Islamic Republic in which Raisi has been chosen to play a prominent role. Consequently, Raisi’s victory is poised to have deeper implications on Iran’s domestic politics and society, and how he acts in future will also determine the shape of the Islamic Republic.
Consolidation at Home
Due to his political and social views, Ebrahim Raisi is considered as a hardliner and his human rights record has resulted in the US sanctions on him. He has been elected at a time when the Islamic Republic is on the verge of implosion due to its shattered economy and consequent widespread discontent, often resulting in popular protests. The most recent popular protest was witnessed in November 2019 which was brutally supressed. In the silencing of the internal dissents, a supportive role is often played by Iran’s judiciary, an institution to which Raisi has been wedded for large part of Islamic Republic’s four decades’ history. With Raisi’s elevation to the post of president, such political dissents could be less likely out of the fear of sheer consequences. In case they do occur, it is also feared that they are likely to be crushed more severely than before due to the conservatives’ dominance over the entire system in Iran.
Khamenei’s reaction to the leaked audio tape of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif illustrates that regardless of a person’s standing, any pointing of fingers on the basic functioning of this system would not be tolerated. Zarif, a moderate, was seen as a potential presidential candidate but could not even register to contest. This leak, along with the way Ali Larijani, a prominent conservative candidate, was disqualified, shows the close connivance of Iran’s intelligence and the ‘deep state’ in ensuring Raisi’s victory. The two candidates who could pose most serious challenges to Raisi, were routed even before the contest began. Soon after Raisi’s victory, large number of the former and current diplomats of Iran wrote to him expressing their support in his foreign policy and subsequently Raisi formally met all his six election rivals. Ebrahim Raisi commands a persona that appears to be larger than that of a traditional Iranian president.
While the election of Ebrahim Raisi and consequent consolidation of power by conservatives is likely to result in Iran’s policies that will ensure more control at home, this has also infused more rigidities in Iran’s foreign policy. Although Raisi will assume president’s office on 3rd August, the adverse effect of his election on Iran’s foreign relations have already been getting visible. To begin with, the US sanction on Ebrahim Raisi was bound to create challenges for President Joe Biden in his efforts to have reconciliation with Iran because he has also promised renewed emphasis on human rights in the US foreign policy. Thus, just a day after Raisi’s victory, the 6th round of Vienna talks was abruptly halted. A day later, in his first press conference after victory, Raisi rejected any possibility of meeting with the US President Joe Biden or negotiating either Iran’s missile programme or its regional proxies. Two days later, the US seized dozens of Iranian websites and, on the same day, Iranian lawmakers called for banning any negotiations between the officials of Iran and the US.
Subsequently, on 25 June, the US threatened to pull out of the Vienna talks if Iran did not extend its temporary “technical understanding” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Two days later, Iran declared that it will never hand over the video recordings of the past four months of its nuclear activities to the IAEA. On the same day, on 27 June, President Joe Biden ordered military strikes on Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria whereas IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salaami announced that Iran possesses drones with long range of 7,000 kilometres.
As Iran further drifts away from the conciliatory reach of President Biden, the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is bringing his country closer to the Biden administration as compared to his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. Regardless, Israel’s policy on Iran under Bennett is the same as that of Netanyahu. While President Biden had rebuffed Netanyahu, he has shown ample indication of engaging deeper with Israel under its new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who, just like Netanyahu, has expressed Israel’s serious reservations on the nuclear deal. Amidst all this, on 23 June, Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency announced that an attack on one of its nuclear facilities was foiled.
The Optimal Way
Notwithstanding the consolidation of domestic power, Iran’s clerical rulers still need to run the state, for which they need money, which is hard to get for the oil-based economy of Iran due to the continued US sanctions. The money can come only when Iran has better relations with the outside world, for which its nuclear issue must be resolved. A careful look reveals that the primary reason of Iran’s economic woes is its antagonistic relation with the US and for any breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations that needs to be changed fundamentally. For this to happen, the US would need to recognise Iran as an important regional power and Iran would need to reciprocate by abstaining from its destabilising activities in the region. A simultaneous change of hearts is necessary by both sides. However, the fact that Ebrahim Raisi’s ideologies are in complete alignment with Khamenei, it may prove difficult in bringing out any change in Iran’s traditional posturing towards the US. The result of all this will be Iran’s continued isolation from the West and its further tilt towards China, with which it has already evolved “a partnership more pointedly opposed to the US-led international order.”
Ayatollah Khamenei may be basing his calculation on the US’ desire of gradually pulling out of the Middle East, in which the US may need Iran more than the other way round. However, the falsification of this assumption would cause the continuation and further intensification of Iran’s problems. And if the people’s discontent reaches the critical point, this may also shorten the life span of the Islamic Republic, an edifice which was built on the central idea of the welfare of the people.