Elections next door

June 27, 2021

Potent international challenges and testing regional issues await Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi

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Iran elected its eighth president on June 18 in the 13th quadrennial presidential election held since the founding of the Islamic Republic après the 1979 revolution. Sayyid Ebrahim Raisol-Sadati, popularly known as Ebrahim Raisi, bagged 17,926,345 votes – 61.96 percent of the total votes polled.

For the 2021 elections, Iran had 59,310,307 registered eligible voters, out of which 28,933,004 participated in the electoral process, meaning over half the eligible voters stayed away from the exercise. The 20 percent drop in the polled votes since the last election is not only very significant, it also raises the valid question: why an overwhelming percentage of an otherwise politically alive nation chose to stay away from electing its new leader?

The turnout has never been this low since the overthrow of the monarchy. The numbers also reveal another important fact: with only 30 percent of the total electoral roll in his box, Raisi does not represent 70 percent of Iran’s eligible voters, making him a leader backed by a national minority. Supporters of the regime can offer a few plausible reasons for the low turnout but a massive 20 percent drop in four years is a reflection of the future direction of the Iranian politics.

So, Raisi has a massive task already awaiting him: bringing public trust back into politics and delivering on promises made during the campaign. Importantly, he will have to deal with potent international challenges and testing regional issues.

Who is the president-elect?

Until his victory last week, Raisi was little known outside Iran despite being part of the power structure in the country for years and for trying his luck at the presidency in 2017. Most recently, he had headed Iran’s judiciary as the chief justice. Born in Mashhad, educated in religious seminaries, employed by the revolutionary regime and an active member of the Combatant Clergy Association, Raisi was marked for prominence in the revolutionary Iran. He has had a long career in Iran’s judicial system, starting from prosecutorial assignments to becoming the deputy chief justice in 2004, subsequently progressing to be the attorney general in 2014 and then winning the coveted position of the chief justice in 2019. By becoming the head of the judiciary, Raisi became a pillar of the power troika that functions under the Rahbar-i-Moazzam, the supreme leader. He is also a member of Majlis-i-Khobregan-Rahbari (Assembly of Experts) – a “deliberative body empowered to appoint the supreme leader”. To be on the body, one has to be vetted by the powerful Shura-i-Neghahban (Guardian Council) – the council that is entrusted with interpreting the Constitution, supervising elections and approving candidates for the experts’ assembly, the president and the parliament.

Having a president and a parliament sounds suitably representative in any political system, but for all practical purposes Iran is run by the supreme leader. Succeeding the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after his demise, Ali Khamenei has been the country’s supreme leader for the last 32 years. He sits atop the country’s political and religious hierarchy. The executive (president), the Majlis (parliament) and the judiciary perform a subservient role. Raisi is known for being a Khamenei protégé.

Cognoscenti of the Iran’s post-Islamic Revolution political system wonder if any other candidate but Raisi could have won the election with him running, too. Practicing the Twelver Shia tradition, the Guardian Council is composed of 12 members – six faqihs (clerics excelling in Islamic jurisprudence) selected by the supreme leader and six specialist jurists elected by the Majlis (parliament) from amongst the Muslim jurists nominated by the chief justice. Raisi was the chief justice.

In 2017, Raisi bagged around 38 percent of the votes polled, losing to incumbent Hassan Rouhani. The grapevine suggested that Ali Khamenei was ruminating about his successor for some time now. Since six of the eight Iranian presidents have served the maximum constitutional time allowed – Abolhassan Banisadr and Mohammad Ali Rajai being the two exceptions - it was believed that Rouhani’s successor would serve two terms, too. As Khamenei is now an octogenarian and Raisi has emerged as the most potent political character with requisite religious tutoring, he could be the next supreme leader. But that is still far into the future and one of the unexpected travellers journeying on the same road could spring a surprise.

Writing for Foreign Affairs, Ali Vaez pointed to possible palace intrigues already in motion. Whether Khamenei wants Raisi to perform as a pliable president and wait around to take over the supreme leader’s slot once the incumbent passes on wishes to set him up to fail by removing the protective parasol and exposing Raisi to face myriad internal crises and external confrontations. In a recent interview with CNN, Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at John Hopkins University’s School of Advance International Studies (SAIS), called Raisi a man “who is got to where he is by being a yes man. He is not a man of substance. He is not a statesman with a great deal of international or economic experience”.

Iranian politics is defined by a curious interplay of conservatives and reformists ever since 1979 with the former glued to the spirit and objectives of the revolution and the latter desiring an easing of the revolutionary grip a little for avoiding unnecessarily suffocating Western pressures emanating from Washington. Iran and its politics remain a subject of intense international interest nonetheless.

A full platter of challenges awaits Raisi when he walks into the Presidential Office in early August. At the top of the list to test his leadership acumen is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly called the Iran nuclear deal, reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany along with the European Union on July 14, 2015.

Borrowing a phrase from the 19th Century Austrian minister to France, Klemens von Metternich, who famously commented on the European revolutions of his time by saying that “when France sneezes Europe catches cold”, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the London University’s School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), recently wrote that when Iranians elect a new leader, the world watches. He says Raisi would not have made it to the presidential office if it were not for the disqualification of some of the candidates by the Guardian Council.

Vali Nasr agrees: “The election of Raisi as president of Iran has completed a hard-line conservative sweep of all key political institutions in the country. He won handily in last week’s election, but his victory came after the Guardian Council… blatantly gerrymandered the race by eliminating all notable moderate and reformist contenders”.

Ejaz Hussain, a London-based analyst in South-Asian and Middle-Eastern security, however, offers another perspective. “Raisi was neither contesting an election in the US, Britain or France, nor were his voters Americans, British or French. So, it is ludicrous to expect either from Raisi or his electors to follow the Western electoral systems or emulate the Western models of democracy”.

Hussain argues that the Western media is never short of words like fundamentalist, hardliner, extremist, radical and Islamist when describing the Iranian leadership. “But one thing the Iranian political leadership has proved in the past four decades is that they do not compromise on guarding, protecting and serving their national interests - whether their economy, national security, foreign affairs or their Islamic-moral values. The Western political leaders like Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau strongly defended their national interests in the 47th G-7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, UK. They did again whilst attending the 31st NATO Summit in Brussels. No one calls them hardliners, fundamentalists or radicals – for defending their moral, economic and military agendas”.

A full platter of challenges awaits President-elect Raisi when he walks into the Presidential Office in early August. At the top of the list to test his leadership acumen is the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), popularly called the Iran nuclear deal, reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany along with the European Union on July 14, 2015. Years of detailed and micro-managed diplomatic achievement was stashed away when the United States decided to walk out from the deal under President Trump.

Returning to Vienna would be an interesting spectre. It shows that the parties, barring the US, still want a deal with Iran. It seems that the JCPOA is now a problem for the US, UK and their camp followers - not Iran. Hussain suggests that the Iranians today are in a stronger bargaining position to deal with the Western mandarins of nuclear non-proliferation, the FMCT, the CTBT, the MTCR and other issues pertaining to nuclear disarmament. It remains to be seen if Raisi brings anything fresh to the table or stays content with holding the supreme leader’s hand and walking a couple of steps behind.

Regionally, Iran will remain engaged in the complicated politics of the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia nervously expressing a desire to talk to Iran, issues in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine will provide Raisi a healthy menu. Israel has just undergone a significant political change that saw ultra-hardline Zionist Benjamin Netanyahu depart after being the longest ruling prime minister. It is too early to say how a week coalition government of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid behaves towards Iran or the Palestinians. Early indications are not very promising as Israel continued bombing Gaza by violating the truce reached during the last days of Netanyahu administration.

In Iran’s east, the US is pulling out of Afghanistan after fighting and losing its longest war. Washington is not happy. Situation on the ground points to a gathering storm as Taliban run over district after district claiming whatever semblance of administration sold to the world by US-backed Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban now control border with Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan. The US will not like the Taliban to take over Kabul and is trying to stay in the region by seeking military bases or air corridors to reach Afghanistan. Iran has historically accommodated the American plans and presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Raisi’s administration is likely to continue with the same policy. But military bases close to its borders could change the attitude in Tehran.

Raisi will have to walk a tight rope domestically as well. His ascension to power has not gone well with many segments of the society and societal notables, let alone with the hundreds of political aspirants who have been effectively culled by the Guardian Council. They will keep a close watch and could react if and when Raisi is seen to be faltering. An unstable economy, questionable human rights and painfully obvious gender equality would continue to make international headlines. The economy will be Raisi’s biggest challenge. Iran has suffered due to crippling international sanctions mandated by the United States and supported by US allies. He will have to deliver on promises made during the electoral campaign. He sounded intriguingly like Prime Minister Imran Khan when he promised to build four million affordable houses for the under-privileged segments of society.

All is not doom and gloom. Iran’s burgeoning relationship with China and Russia will provide much needed succour if US-led West allowed Iran a breathing space. The recently announced package by President Xi could herald dramatic change in Iran provided Tehran manages to pull the plans through. Similar projects in the neighborhood have been effectively hampered by US pressure. Iran may act differently. If Washington believes in Huntington’s civilisational clash mural, China’s President Xi is out to rewrite the civilisational compact by getting close to the inheritors of the Persian, the Greek and the Roman civilisations. The present Chinese leadership is effectively challenging Francis Fukuyama’s famous End of History thesis by having intelligently shifted to the market economy. Beijing may be continuing with the authoritarian governance model but their miraculous economic performance is about to attract countries, like Iran, who also take pride in practicing “our own models of democracy”.

And since democracy has been dealt mortal blows by the fountainheads of democracy, revolutionary Iran might find it easier to carry on like it has done for four decades. The death and destruction propelled by the US and its allies in North Africa, Middle East and South Asia have forced regional actors to think about their future international engagement anew.

In a world where Western powers have sold democracy as a “best” system for governance but practiced worst forms of dictatorship in the international arena, Iran could find its feet again if all goes well in Vienna. Admitting that while completing a hardline conservative sweep of all key political institutions in the country, Vali Nasr wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that Raisi may be the best hope for the West for a deal with Iran. “Hardliners will never accept an agreement signed by a moderate but they’ll fall into line if it comes from one of their own.”

The writer works with the Jang Group of Publications

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