The elections in Iran have the potential to influence the nuclear deal with the West | Best countries
The Iranian Interior Ministry announced on June 19 that the winner was Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the Iranian judiciary and close ally of the Supreme Leader. He was almost certain of victory after the candidates who could seriously challenge him – including three reformers – were disqualified and prevented from voting.
But who is Ebrahim Raisi, and how will his presidency change Iran’s domestic and foreign policy? As an economist and close observer of Iran, I believe that we can answer these questions by researching its past.
Raisi is a loyal regime insider with a long career in the Iranian judiciary that goes back more than four decades.
He was only 19 years old when the 1979 Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah. As a young Islamic activist, he caught the attention of several leading revolutionary clergymen, including Ali Khamenei, who became Iran’s supreme leader a decade later.
Raisi was appointed attorney general of Kataj – a small town near Tehran – at the age of 20 and quickly rose to prominent positions. When Khamenei replaced Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989, Raisi was promoted to Tehran’s Attorney General.
This promotion reflected the high level of trust that Khamenei had in him. While serving in these positions, Raisi also attended seminars and religious studies under Khamenei and other influential religious leaders.
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Execution of dissidents and the fight against corruption
In the first decade of his career, Raisi sentenced a large number of dissidents and political opponents of the Islamic regime and sentenced many to death.
Critics of the regime and his political opponents have condemned his direct role in these executions, particularly the large number of political prisoners executed in 1988.
From 1994 to 2004, Raisi was the head of the Iranian General Inspectorate, which is responsible for preventing abuse of power and corruption in government institutions. In this position he developed a reputation as a crusader against government corruption. Even when he was named first assistant chief judge in 2004 and finally promoted to chief justice in March 2019, he continued his fight against corruption by prosecuting many government officials.
However, his critics argue that his fight against corruption has been highly politicized and selective. They claimed he was targeting people associated with his political rivals such as President Hassan Rouhani.
Raisi first ran for president in 2017, but was defeated by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is no longer running after two terms.
Raisi was the favorite candidate of the conservative right wing of the Islamic ruling elite in this year’s election and also enjoys the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has absolute power over all branches of government. Khamenei also directly appoints half of the twelve-member Guardian Council, which oversees all political elections and has the power to disqualify candidates without public declaration. Khamenei publicly advocated and defended the disqualifications.
Probably a return to the nuclear deal
One of the institutional weaknesses of the Iranian political system since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been the potential for tension and disagreement between the elected presidents and the supreme leader.
In other words, unlike in the US system of government, the powers of the Iranian President are extremely limited. For example, a reformist president might want to get more in touch with the West or stay out of a foreign conflict, but the top leader might overrule him or simply ignore him.
As a protégé and close ally of the Supreme Leader, Raisi is expected to support Khamenei’s policies in both domestic and foreign policy – which means more coordination between the various branches of government. Since the parliament is also dominated by Khamenei supporters, this also means that after eight years the Conservatives will again control all three branches of government.
This harmony means that Raisi will be much more effective as president as any policy he pursues will most likely have the support of the supreme leader.
And perhaps, ironically, his victory could pave the way for a compromising stance on the part of Iran in the negotiations currently ongoing in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, derailed in 2018 by former US President Donald Trump.
The reason for this unconventional prediction is that both reformist and conservative factions in Iran are fully aware that a new nuclear deal that could end severe economic sanctions against the country is hugely popular. The team that signs the agreement will be credited for ending the economic hardship the country is currently experiencing. For example, inflation is over 50%, exports have collapsed due to the sanctions and over 60% of the population is now in poverty, up from 48% two years ago.
With President von Raisi, the Conservatives and the Supreme Leader have greater incentives to reach an agreement with the United States to lift the sanctions, as they can no longer hold a reformist president responsible for economic hardships.
However, the success of this strategy is far from guaranteed.
Second, the growing alienation and frustration of large parts of the Iranian population – especially after reformists were banned from running for president – can still lead to mass unrest and political instability.
Supreme Leader Raisi?
Raisi’s victory could have an even bigger impact on Iranian politics in the long run because it could pave the way for him to become Iran’s next supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khamenei is over 80 years old and a successor to a new supreme leader is likely within the next four years. According to many regime insiders, Raisi became the most likely person to replace Khamenei by winning the presidential election.
When Raisi eventually becomes the supreme leader of Iran, he would have much more power to shape all kinds of politics. Given his background and values, he is likely to oppose political and social reforms and seek legitimacy for the Islamic regime by focusing on economic development, by focusing on economic growth, similar to the authoritarian regimes in Asia like China at the same time curtail political and social freedoms.
Raisi – and ultimately as its supreme leader – is unlikely to give up Iran’s anti-Western foreign policy, but he has the potential to bring tensions down to more manageable levels in order to improve the Iranian economy.
From my point of view, he seems to have recognized that the continuation of the current economic hardship represents the greatest threat to the Islamic regime in the long run.