OSAMA AL-SHARIFJune 22, 2021
A few months ago, not many people outside Iran had heard of Ebrahim Raisi, the winner of Friday’s presidential election. But a flood of media profiles and background information had poured out even before his election victory was seen as a foregone conclusion. He was the hand-picked candidate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his path to the helm was made easier when the Guardian Council — Iran’s election watchdog — eliminated a number of so-called reformist and moderate candidates, including former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had criticized the election process.
The election saw a record low voter turnout, as a majority of Iranians, mostly youths, stayed at home in protest. Raisi, 60, has a notorious reputation, having been associated with the so-called “death committee” in the late 1980s that was responsible for the torture and execution of thousands of anti-regime activists. Since then, he has spent most of his professional life in the judiciary, and was appointed chief justice in 2019. Unlike his predecessor, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is an academic, a politician, a diplomat and a former member of the Assembly of Experts and the Supreme National Security Council, as well as an elected member of parliament, Raisi’s public resume is modest.
But Raisi’s loyalty to Khamenei and his close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) made him a safe choice — to the extent that he is now seen as a probable successor to the supreme leader. Describing him as a hard-liner is not enough. He is an extremist when it comes to his politics, especially vis-a-vis the US and Israel, but he is also a manipulator who has worked hard to accumulate power. With direct access to Khamenei, the IRGC and parliament, the conservative Raisi will emerge as one of the strongest presidents in recent Iranian history.
But what does Raisi’s election — he takes over in early August — mean for Iranians, the region and the world? As chief justice, Raisi tried to erase his reputation as a bloodthirsty jurist, issuing clemencies and pardoning indebted citizens. He has also presented himself as a fighter against corruption. His mission to improve the lives of Iranians will not be easy. The country is suffering as a result of US economic sanctions, and many are likely to remain even if the nuclear deal is revived. In fact, one of the main stumbling blocks in the Vienna talks has to do with sanctions against Khamenei himself. Ironically, Raisi too is under US and EU sanctions for his grave human rights violations.
While Raisi has committed himself to the nuclear deal, external critics accuse him of supporting the extremists’ goal of enabling Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Israel was quick to reiterate its objection to a nuclear deal with the “hangman’s regime.” The US was less critical; focusing instead on the dysfunctional Iranian democracy rather than on the man who won the election. In essence, Washington and its European allies want to conclude an agreement with Tehran before the swearing in of Raisi.
One reason for this has to do with Raisi’s choice for foreign minister, replacing the charismatic and competent Javad Zarif, who has been able to justify and defend Iran’s position on the nuclear deal ever since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
In his first press conference on Monday, Raisi tried to downplay the importance of the nuclear deal, saying that Iran’s foreign policy does not start or end with the agreement. He also said that Iran’s ballistic missile program was non-negotiable. But improving people’s lives and normalizing relations with Iran’s Gulf neighbors depends on reviving the nuclear deal in so many ways. Under Raisi, the region will witness important geopolitical shifts, signaled by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the limiting of its military presence in the Middle East.
With direct access to Khamenei, the IRGC and parliament, the conservative Raisi will emerge as one of the strongest presidents in recent Iranian history.
Under Rouhani and led by Zarif, Iran had begun a slow process of mending its ties with its neighbors. It remains to be seen if Raisi and his foreign policy chief will continue that process. Iran’s controversial regional agenda remains a major source of instability in the Middle East. Reviving the nuclear deal in Vienna must provide guarantees that Iran will respect the sovereignty and stability of its neighbors.
While Raisi’s special connection to the supreme leader, the IRGC and parliament puts him in a strong position to implement policy — unlike his predecessor — it remains to be seen if that will prove to be a liability or an asset. Iran’s regional and international isolation can end if the new leader in Tehran initiates a fresh phase in his country’s foreign policy agenda; one that presents Iran as a normal nation willing to coexist with its neighbors.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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