Iran last Friday elected its eighth president since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ended the Pahlavi dynasty. As expected, Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the judiciary since 2019, is expected to succeed President Hassan Rouhani on August 3. Given Iran’s complex governance structure of a theocracy with a partial elective democracy, elections are predetermined, albeit sometimes surprisingly. competitive. This time, a low turnout of less than 50% after the voting deadline was extended, showed that even by Iranian standards, the no-contest did not generate interest.
At the top of the Iranian governance structure is the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 82, in power since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. He is the commander-in-chief of all armed forces and security services, appoints heads of radio and television networks and the judiciary, and half of the 12 members of the Council of Guardians (GC). CG members need parliamentary approval and, in turn, review nominations for all elected positions – a 290-member parliament, an 88-member expert assembly, and the president. In addition, the GC also reviews any legislation to ensure its compliance with Sharia law. In the event of disagreement, the matter is referred to the Timely Council composed of 45 members, chosen by the Supreme Leader. The main task of the Assembly of Experts is to approve the new Supreme Leader.
While the Supreme Leader is there for life (or until he chooses to retire), the President is limited to two four-year terms, defining where the balance of power lies between them. Speculation over the appointment of a new Supreme Leader in the years to come has made this election critical as Khamenei must ensure a smooth transition while ensuring the preservation of his legacy.
Raisi, a hard-line supporter, owes much of his career progression to the Supreme Leader and is also seen as a potential successor. By the way, Khamenei was also president from 1981 to 1989 and shortly before Khomeini’s death he anointed Khamenei as his successor.
Born in 1960, Raisi was a theology student in the holy city of Qom and joined the anti-Shah movement as a teenager. After the Islamic Revolution, he embarked on a legal career as a prosecutor and in the 1980s moved to Tehran. After eight years of Iran-Iraq war, thousands of political prisoners (declared anti-national and supporters of Saddam Hussein) were sentenced to death by a committee of four members including Raisi. Later, he was Deputy Head of the Judiciary (2004-14) and Attorney General. In 2017, he was a finalist when Rouhani won his second term in an election with a turnout of 73%, and later appointed Chief Justice.
In 2019, the United States (United States) and European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on Raisi because of his human rights record, for the executions of the 1980s and the deadly crackdown on protesters. anti-government, in 2009 and 2019.
Raisi’s victory was made clear on May 25 when the GC disqualified powerful contenders such as former President Ali Larijani and current Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri, setting the stage for him. Many civil society leaders launched boycott calls that reduced the turnout to less than 49%, and a record 3.7 million votes cast were blank and void. As one Iranian explained, “How do you pick an orange when all that’s on offer is five bananas?” The Conservatives enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament after the 2020 election.
Rouhani’s eight-year tenure was dominated by the nuclear issue and relations with the United States. Talks began in 2013, but it was Rouhani’s moderate credentials and the diplomatic skills of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that helped move forward. The secret talks with the United States in Oman proved invaluable and in July 2015 the nuclear deal was concluded between Iran and the P5 + 1 (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, Germany and EU). Iran has accepted certain constraints on its nuclear program, in particular uranium enrichment activities, in exchange for sanctions relief.
The sanctions-hit Iranian economy grew 12% in 2016 only to start contracting after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and adopted a “maximum pressure” policy to force Iran to return to the negotiating table. Iran has responded with a policy of “maximum resistance”. The economy has been in recession for three years now, amid rising unemployment and inflation to 40%. Since 2019, Iran has started stepping up some nuclear activities, while stressing that its actions are reversible if sanctions relief is restored, balancing hard-line supporters at home while putting pressure on the EU.
With Joe Biden in the White House, the prospects for relaunching the nuclear deal have improved. Six rounds of talks in Vienna recorded limited progress. However, Rouhani’s hands were tied. Only six weeks from the end of Rohani’s mandate, Khamenei wanted an agreement, even partial, to be concluded only after the elections. Rouhani will be responsible for any default while all relief credit will go to Raisi.
Given the situation, the United States has played the game, but the hard negotiations are starting now. It will only offer partial relief in exchange for some Iranian retreat, refraining from engaging the new regime in Tehran. With hardliners now dominant, the United States expects the internal wrangling to end.
Meanwhile, last month’s talks between the Saudis and Iranians in Iraq raised hopes of movement on Yemen. A changing of the guard in Israel could offer respite in Lebanon and Gaza. The sands of West Asia may be shifting, albeit slightly.
Rakesh Sood is a retired diplomat and currently Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. Opinions expressed are personal