Those who came to vote for Raisi voted for the future supreme leader, writes Valdai Club expert Lana Ravandi-Fadai. This has a precedent in the history of Iran, when in 1989 Ali Khamenei, having been the third president of Iran, became Rahbar. Raisi meets the requirements for becoming the country’s spiritual leader: Could this election be part of preparations for a successor?
On June 18, presidential elections were held in Iran. This event passed relatively unnoticed in the West, especially in the United States, against a background of domestic political and social upheaval, gender and race “reckonings,” the pandemic, assorted scandals, and general media white noise. But the election is well worth our attention. The new President, Ebrahim Raisi, presides over a country now dominated by ultra-conservative political forces, making for a situation significantly different from that of his predecessor. Raisi himself is a representative of radical conservative circles.
Two scenarios have begun to take shape in terms of what Iran will do (it is not yet clear what the Biden administration plans to do): one of limited reconciliation and one of confrontation. According to the first, there will be a return to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement known as the “Join Comprehensive Plan of Action,” and the establishment of relations with other countries of the Persian Gulf. Raisi repeated statements by Khamenei and other officials, including former moderate President Hassan Rouhani, that the JCPOA should be fully restored, although for Iran the lifting, or at least walking back of US sanctions is a prerequisite rather than a result of this. Because of Iran’s stark economic situation the JCPOA and the lifting of international sanctions must be the highest priority of Raisi’s foreign policy: alleviating Iran’s economic problems is in many ways the key to resolving its domestic political problems.
Just as Rouhani did, Raisi will place an emphasis on improving Iran’s relations with the Gulf States. At press conference on June 21, Raisi elaborated on the recent talks with Saudi Arabia, setting a constructive tone for further efforts, although clearly this goal is complicated by Iran’s support of Shiite groups and its missile program. The new President categorically ruled out any concessions on Iranian ballistic missiles. This position reflects a long-standing consensus in the Iranian government on security issues: that military strength is the most important tool to deter Iran’s regional opponents, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia.
What will distinguish the government of Raisi from that of Rouhani? Raisi is a protégé of Khamenei, a representative of the ultra-conservative camp; he is fully supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). The conservative Majlis and the judiciary are now under conservative control. Conservatives in Iran today now dominate in all institutions of power. Thus, conditions are much different, much more monolithic, than those Rouhani worked in. The Raisi team will have a freer hand. It’s important to keep in mind that after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and new sanctions were imposed, Iran actively pursued better economic ties with a number of Middle Eastern countries and Turkey, and there was progress on this front. All the same, the moderate line of Rouhani’s team and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did not bring about tangible benefits. The administration was squeezed from both sides. On the one hand, according to Zarif, it was mainly military structures that determined and implemented Iran’s policy. The Foreign Ministry was isolated and restrained. On the other, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and the EU not only failed to offer effective resistance to Trump’s high-pressure politics but also accused Iran of playing a destabilizing role in the region, while at the very same time, many would argue, contributing to destabilization in the region through weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which did little to ease the catastrophic situation in Yemen. So, if Raisi manages to breathe life back into the JCPOA, which should lead to the lifting of international sanctions, then it may be easier for Iran to restore relations with the Persian Gulf countries.
The second scenario sees Raisi’s policy taking an offensive character. Raisi has already sharply criticized the actions of the United States and Europe, stating that Iranian foreign policy is not limited to its nuclear program. Depending on the true nature of this rhetoric, this could indeed lead to increased instability in the region. Another question is how much America really wants to conduct a constructive dialogue with Iran. Biden has condemned Trump’s policy towards Iran but seems in no hurry to restore the JCPOA and has carried out airstrikes against pro-Iranian groups in Syria and Iraq, ratcheting up the pressure and further straining relations with Iran. Of course, this could be for show, a preliminary move to strengthen his bargaining position (with the American electorate as well as the Iranians). And perhaps the Iranians are playing a similar game through their proxy groups in different countries. It is not yet clear. Either way, the main priority of Raisi’s domestic policy will be to increase the living standard of the population, boost incomes, try to get out of the crisis — and this is a very difficult task. Even if the sanctions are lifted, no shortage of problems awaits.
At his first press conference, Raisi showed that he seemed ready for a dialogue with the West. But this is not Rouhani. He is not ready to meet with Biden, but he does want peaceful coexistence; and if the United States begins to lift sanctions and return to the nuclear deal, naturally Iran will again comply with its terms, a mutually beneficial situation.
As for the United States, it is now deeply immersed in domestic politics, engulfed in a feverish partisan divide played out daily, almost hysterically in the press, with a nod here and there toward China and Russia as threats. Relatively little has been said or written about Raisi’s victory. None of the European leaders congratulated Raisi. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrel, mentioned the election result only briefly in his remarks at the start of the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on June 21. He expressed hope that the new Iranian administration would be committed to reviving the JCPOA. Borrel stressed that this was a primary goal of EU relations with Iran. As one European Parliamentarian put it, European diplomats are likely to miss Zarif and his team.
Almost 18 million people voted for Ibrahim Raisi. He was mainly supported by such cities as Qom and Mashhad. In Tehran, the turnout was low. The powers-that-be worked hard to ensure his victory. Popular candidates such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Eshaq Jahangiri were not allowed to participate in the elections. Prior to the elections, Ali Larijani was suspended, and not because he would have immediately become president, but because a second round was feared. And if a second round had taken place, Larijani would have had a good chance. Therefore, people who preferred another candidate simply did not come to the polls. My suspicion is that those who came to vote for Raisi voted for the future supreme leader. This has a precedent in the history of Iran, when in 1989 Ali Khamenei, having been the third president of Iran, became Rahbar. Raisi meets the requirements for becoming the country’s spiritual leader: Could this election be part of preparations for a successor?
Interestingly, during the election campaign, Raisi headquarters contacted not a few politicians in the opposition (such as Ahmad Zeidabadi, who spent 7 years in prison) and asked them to submit proposals for bringing the country out of crisis. Was this mere populism? It remains unclear, but Raisi’s team promised further cooperation in case of an election victory. Restarting the JCPOA is of the utmost importance now, and cadres from the previous administration have proven negotiating skills that certainly wouldn’t hurt its chances. It’s possible some reformist politicians will continue to work under Raisi — Aragchi, to name one. A year ago, the ultra-conservatives chose the slogan “ashti-ye melyal,” or “National reconciliation.” Let’s hope they stick to it.