Iran: Political constraints leave Raisi little room to maneuver

With Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential election victory, Iran’s hard-liners now dominate all levers of power in the Islamic Republic. Whether this will lead to more confrontation with foreign powers remains to be seen.

A woman holds a picture of Iran's newly-elected president Ebrahim Raisi as supporters celebrate his victory in Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran on June 19, 2021

Raisi is notorious for his involvement as a prosecutor in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s

More than 59 million Iranians were eligible to vote at home and abroad in last week’s presidential election, but fewer than half of them cast their ballots. It was the lowest turnout for a presidential vote since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.   

Of the approximately 29 million votes cast, around 18 million, or about 60%, went to the ultraconservative cleric and judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. The absolute majority meant that Raisi was able to secure victory in the first round itself and there was no need for a second round.

Iranians’ disappointment with the lack of progress in both economic development and civil liberties under moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who took office as a reformer eight years ago, was reflected in the outcome of the vote.

Nasser Hemmati, a reformist former head of the nation’s Central Bank, wanted to continue Rouhani’s course, but received fewer than 2.5 million votes. In fact, the figure was even lower than the number of votes that were declared invalid — about 4 million ballots.

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Hard-liners in the driver’s seat, but split over way forward

Hard-liners in Iran now dominate all levers of power. They control the presidency now, after winning a majority in last year’s parliamentary elections, which also saw a low turnout of 42%.

“But by no means does this mean a complete consolidation of power for the hard-liners in Iran,” said Adnan Tabatabai, Iran expert and managing director of the Bonn-based research center Carpo.

The expert, who advises EU institutions, the German government and political foundations on Iran-related issues, added that the hard-liners as a group are not as united as they often appear.

“In the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council had allowed a very narrow field of candidates,” Tabatabai said. “But, shortly after parliament convened, new rifts suddenly opened up within the conservatives. Among the hard-liners, there are different factions vying for more power.” 

Hard-liners, for instance, haven’t been able to agree on the composition of the parliamentary presidium for a long time. They fight each other in various parliamentary committees and accuse each other of mismanagement and abuse of power.

Tabatabai expects the rivalries in the hard-liner camp to erupt after Raisi takes office in August and forms a government.

“But we can assume that Raisi will face less opposition when he begins his work on important foreign policy decisions,” Tabatabai said.  

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Continuity in nuclear negotiations and talks with Riyadh

Raisi belongs to the ultraconservative camp, which has harshly criticized Rouhani since the 2015 international nuclear deal between Iran and world powers began to unravel.

But, even though Raisi had sharply criticized the agreement, during the election campaign — like all other candidates — he stressed his intention to abide by the pact.

“He will need the restoration of the nuclear agreement so that sanctions can be removed and he can get something going economically in the short term. At the end of the day, that’s what people are most concerned about,” Tabatabai said.

The sixth round of talks in Vienna to save the nuclear agreement concluded on Sunday, with participants hoping to reach an agreement by the end of July.

What kind of regional policy Iran adopts under Raisi’s presidency would also play a critical role in determining the security situation in the Middle East, Tabatabai stressed.

“I would see the ongoing security talks between the Saudi and Iranian military apparatus as the most important thing,” he said.

“This means that in terms of regional policy, one also relies on a policy of detente, and I would also see this under President Raisi,” Tabatabai said. “Those who are leading these dialogues are coming from the Foreign Ministry and the security apparatus and nothing will change there even after a change of government.” 

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Appearances on the international stage more difficult

Ultimate power in Iran lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the presidency has significant influence to set direction on a wide range of issues, from economic policy to foreign affairs.

With regard to foreign affairs, a high level of diplomatic tact is required to execute policies, Tabatabai said. 

“And here one has to wait and see what team Ebrahim Raisi puts together,” the expert underlined.

Raisi’s team has so far lacked an experienced foreign policy expert like the current Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif. 

Still, it’s unlikely that Zarif will be allowed to continue in office under Raisi as hard-liners consider him too Western.

In her podcast on Iran, Iranian-American journalist and political analyst Negar Mortazavi expressed the view that Raisi’s presidency will “make diplomacy very difficult, especially between Iran and the West.”

Raisi is notorious for his involvement as a prosecutor in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s. And the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on him for his role in the human rights violations that happened in Iran during the nationwide anti-government protests in 2019.

“Raisi has a controversial record in Iran’s judiciary, with gross violations of human rights as a member of the death committee in the 1980s and as head of judiciary in the past four years,” Mortazavi said.

“He is already sanctioned by the United States, which would limit any potential direct links with American officials,” Mortavazi added. “He probably will not be able to travel to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which is something Iranian presidents have been doing regularly as part of their outreach to the West.”