Ebrahim Raisi and Iran’s future strategy - GulfToday

Ebrahim Raisi and Iran’s future strategy

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Ebrahim Raisi. File

Iran’s former chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, begins his first term as the Islamic Republic’s president in a weak position although he has the support of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the clerical establishment, parliament and the Revolutionary Guard. The conservatives, headed by Khamenei, were determined to get their man into office this time around after eight years of a moderate presidency. The object of the conservatives was to secure all the levers of power. This is a risky game. Clerics and generals no longer have anyone to blame for predictable failures but themselves. They will be held accountable by an increasingly alienated populace.

On the domestic front, Raisi does not enjoy the support of the majority of Iranians.

An ultraorthodox, mid-level Shia cleric who has long been Khamenei’s acolyte, Raisi won 62 per cent of the vote which should have given him a popular mandate. However, the election was rigged in his favour by the Guardian Council, the body which vets candidates, by disqualifying his chief rivals. As a result, Iranians had little confidence in the election: 52 per cent boycotted, making the turnout the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, and 13 per cent invalidated their ballots.

By contrast, in the last two elections, Iranians gave a solid mandate to Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. In 2013, when 71 per cent voted, he won a landslide victory by taking 50.1 per cent of the vote in the first round while his closest competitor, Bagher Ghalifaf, a conservative, secured only 16.6 per cent. In 2017, when turnout was 73 per cent, Rouhani did even better by taking 57 per cent of the vote against Raisi’s 38 per cent.

During those elections, moderate Rouhani was in a stronger situation to win the presidency than any conservative because Iran was in a better situation. Iranian morale was boosted by the negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme with the promise of lifting sanctions which were crippling the economy. These negotiations bore fruit in 2015, with the signing of the deal and in early 2016 with its implementation. Foreign governments, firms and individuals promptly lined up to invest in and trade with Iran, oil exports grew and revenues increased and the economy grew by 12.5 per cent.

Despite Iranian bureaucratic obstacles to foreign economic involvement, mismanagement and corruption, Iran made gains with exports and imports of essential items and consumer goods. The outlook was positive.

However, with the election of anti-Iran Donald Trump to the US presidency in November 2016, Iranian growth slowed and the economy began to contract after he abandoned the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposed sanctions and adopted a campaign of “maximum pressure” which accelerated deterioration. Oil sales and revenues were sharply reduced, Iran’s currency lost about 70 per cent of its value, decreasing imports of vital goods, particularly, medicines, and unemployment rose, prompting widespread protests in 2019 and a crackdown on dissent. During 2020 alone, the economy shrank by 5 per cent.

Then came COVID-19. The first cases were reported in December 2019. By February-March 2020 the virus had taken hold in the holy city of Qom and spread from there by pilgrims and travellers.  Parliamentary elections on February 21st and Nawruz, the Persian new year on March 20th, served as super-spreaders in a country where the health system had deteriorated and supplies for testing and treatment were not available, forcing the government to try to curb infections by imposing lockdowns and social distancing. The number of cases in Iran is currently more than 4 million with more than 93,000 deaths, although these figures are disputed as too low by expatriate opponents of the government. This month, Iranian hospitals have been severely stressed due to the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

Finally, when running for the US presidency, candidate Joe Biden boldly said he would return the US to the nuclear deal, creating the impression that this would be an early priority once he moved into the White House. Biden did not meet this expectation. Instead, his negotiators demanded Iran to return to compliance before the US, which had violated the deal by pulling out of it, and demanding follow-on talks on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and involvement in Arab affairs. Biden eventually dropped the first condition but stuck to the second, which was rejected by Rouhani as well as the conservatives. The talks dragged on through six sessions in Vienna without results, giving the conservative hardliners the opportunity to promote Raisi for the presidency. Rouhani might well have been replaced by another moderate in an election reflecting the will of the Iranian people if Biden had acted swiftly and decisively by rejoining the deal and had begun easing sanctions.

In addition to the deteriorating circumstances in Iran over the past eight years, Raisi has to bear the burden of his own record. He served on a commission which condemned to death thousands of political prisoners in 1988. While he has denied he played a part in authorising executions, his role could be aired in the coming trial in Sweden of assistant prosecutor Hamid Nouri. He is charged with committing crimes against humanity when Marxists, Communists, and Mujahedin e-Khalq members were killed in the wake of the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

Raisi has proclaimed reviving Iran’s economy is his first and most important task and has made it clear that this depends on the US returning to the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. If Washington fails to do this, Raisi and the hardliners will blame Iran’s economic woes on the US.

This will provide Raisi and the hardliners with an excuse to avoid tackling endemic mismanagement and corruption. They have contributed to Iran’s economic crisis which has been deepened by punitive US sanctions.

Meanwhile, the drone attack on an Israeli-managed oil tanker and the short-lived hijacking pf a UAE vessel, incidents blamed on Iran by Western powers and Israel, have sharpened tensions in the already tense Gulf. Such events could multiply if there is no return to the nuclear deal and sanctions relief for Iran, risking escalation in this volatile region. Israel and Washington’s hawks are ready, waiting and itching for a chance to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities whatever the consequences for the Gulf.

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