Amid strong speculation about Iran’s approach to a renewed deal with world powers over its nuclear program, the country elected its new president, Ebrahim Raisi. The new head of government will have the opportunity to revive the Iranian economy, improve diplomatic relations and strengthen geopolitical reach in the Middle East and beyond.
Governing is a priority, and the choices facing the new president could not be harsher or more consistent at this critical juncture.
How this die-hard conservative chooses his priorities and manages the potential benefits of the nuclear deal will go a long way in shaping the future of his country and the Middle East.
This is all the more important given that the presidential elections lacked basic democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Iranians, who did not show up to the polls after the regime manipulated the process in Raisi’s favor.
In fact, Raisi, 60, is set to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a like-minded but ill and aging octogenarian who by definition reigns supreme over the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran’s new president can choose to rule in one of three ways.
First, Raisi can prioritize investment and economic reform, sending a clear message that his government will use the economic benefits of a renewed nuclear deal, and the new international openings it offers, to improve living conditions for Iranians. ordinary people who have suffered greatly from decades of sanctions and isolation crises.
But to ensure economic transformation, the government will also need to undertake political reforms to improve the dismal credibility of the Islamic regime in the eyes of most of its own citizens. This month’s rigged elections undermined legitimacy and heightened tensions between the Islamic and Republican / Democratic components of the Islamic Republic.
By extension, such an approach would also mean a change in foreign policy, curbing Iran’s costly regional adventures in favor of healthier trade and cooperation with neighbors.
But no economic, political or strategic reform is possible without addressing the structural corruption and systematic mismanagement that are pervasive in the country, and without attacking influential clerical elites and Revolutionary Guards.
Would Raisi take the opportunity to chart a different course for Iran? Judging by his long and deep loyalty to the clerical regime, the answer is unequivocally no.
Still, I give this scenario a 0-5% chance of happening.
Second, Raisi could also choose to maintain the status quo by relying on revenues from rising oil prices and increased foreign investment, following the renewal of the nuclear deal. He could move slowly to reach out to Iran’s neighbors and European powers on the basis of “mutual respect and mutual benefit” – Tehran’s preferred diplomatic phrase.
Iran has greater influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen due to its exaggerated and destabilizing role there. It could turn the tide by helping to restore security, peace and stability to these troubled countries, thereby gaining a lot of goodwill and prestige.
It could even become a guarantor of regional security, as the United States reduces its military commitments in the region. The same goes for stabilizing and improving relations with its Gulf neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, which could be a win-win for the people on both sides. Certainly, Raisi’s government will not change Iran’s stance on Israel, nor will it boycott those who do.
An attempt to play a role in Afghanistan alongside Pakistan and Turkey will be a telling test for the new president’s intentions and goals, as NATO withdraws its troops from the country.
Relations with the United States will take longer to normalize after four decades of official mutual hostility. US sanctions against Raisi, imposed just two years ago for his alleged role in human rights abuses, will not help improve relations in the short term.
I give this more realistic scenario a 35% chance to play out.
Third, Iran’s new president may decide to double down on his hard-line conservative views and use the proceeds from rising oil prices and new investments to fund the jaded religious establishment and further strengthen the Revolutionary Guards, tasked with spreading the issue. Shia-Iranian influence throughout the region.
He could move to take advantage of the instability and precariousness that Arab neighbors continue to suffer to expand Iranian influence, in the same way that has been done in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
This means further strengthening the sectarian armed militias, which would lead to more covert operations and assassinations, exacerbating regional sectarianism, violence and instability. The lack of Arab strategic deterrence to discourage Tehran from pursuing its interests at the expense of its neighbors will undoubtedly prompt the new Iranian leadership to go on the offensive.
Likewise, the recently announced short-sighted alliance between a few small Gulf countries and Israel may well spur Tehran to act more aggressively against those who want to harm it.
The US military disengagement, though limited, and the reduction of its strategic commitments to “traditional allies,” could further encourage the new president to step up Iran’s power game to fill the void.
All other things being equal, I consider this rather pessimistic scenario to have a 65% chance of happening.
Having said that, it is important to remember that Iranian politics, like the politics of the region, is not static. West-East relations either. Further upheaval is likely in most countries in the region and could take Iran a heavy toll.
Likewise, a recalibration of interests and an overhaul of alliances could potentially change Iran’s calculation under Raisi’s leadership, urging it to adopt the second scenario, in the interests of its own interest, the national interest, and yes, regional interest.
He could also, miraculously, adopt the first more healthy and constructive scenario, setting an example for the region. No harm in dreaming.