7 SEPTEMBER—Iran has a new president, and new leadership altogether. The Islamic Republic’s presidential elections on 18 June brought Sayyed Ebrahim Raeisi, the hardline cleric and judiciary chief, to power. Raeisi had lost the previous presidential contest, in 2017, which returned Hassan Rouhani for a second term in a landslide result.
How will Raeisi govern? In which direction will he take the Islamic Republic? What will be Tehran’s policies, domestically and on the foreign side? What about the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs, which Rouhani signed with six foreign powers in 2015? These are our questions. They are tough ones.
It had been clear for at least a year prior to the June polls that the hardliners were determined to take over Iran’s presidency, using any and all means at their disposal. This became clear after the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets the candidates for Iran’s national elections, disqualified all 14 of the candidates from amongst the ranks of the Reformists and their allies, prompting them to boycott the elections.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading reformist figure who spent seven years in jail for his opposition to the hardliners, called the elections entesabat-e mohandesishodeh, “engineered appointments.” The Iranian people seemed to agree. Only 49 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots; 8 percent of those were declared invalid. This was the lowest turnout in the 42–year history of the Islamic Republic.
Born in 1960, Raeisi is considered a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his secretive son Mojtaba Khamenei, who has considerable influence behind the scenes. Most of Raeisi’s career had been in the judiciary, which he joined when he was only 20 years old. He went on to earn a reputation as a hardline judge and prosecutor. In his speech when he took the oath of office on 5 August, Raeisi declared that his task and that of the Iranian nation is to defend the rights of the “oppressed everywhere in the world.” Next to this, however, Raeisi has a long record of playing a leading role in the political repression that the hardliners have used for nearly four decades to put down the opposition.
Claiming to defend the rights of others, limiting the rights of Iranians: This binary is to be watched as the character of the Raeisi administration emerges.
In 1988, when the war with Iraq was winding down, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, wanted to decide the fate of thousands of political prisoners. He appointed a group of his loyalists to address the problem, and Raeisi was one of the four appointees. At least 2,800 prisoners, and probably as many as 4000, were executed during the summer of 1988. The opposition refers to those appointees as the “death council.” Grand Ayatollah Hossein–Ali Montazeri, who at that time was Khomeini’s chief deputy but was fiercely opposed to the executions, referred to the group as “history’s criminals.”
Raeisi has denied being a member of that group, but in an audio tape of a conversation between Ayatollah Montazeri and members of the group, recorded on 15 August 1988 and released by the Ayatollah’s son, Ahmad, in August 2016, Raeisi is clearly mentioned. Raeisi has never explained why he was mentioned and was in the meeting.
After Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed the Supreme Leader in 1989, he began purging the judiciary of Khomeini’s loyalists, who were considered Islamic leftists, and appointed his own men from the ranks of the rightwing. Raeisi was appointed the Tehran prosecutor in 1989 and served until 1994. In 1990 and 1991, during Raeisi’s term, the judiciary arrested and prosecuted leading nationalist-religious figures who had played important roles in the 1979 Revolution.
In June 2009, after disputed presidential elections, Iran’s Green Movement staged huge rallies to protest the outcome, which returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term. More than a hundred people were killed during the demonstrations. During protests that lasted more than a year, Raeisi was the principal deputy of the judiciary chief. He declaredin an interview at the time that the demonstrators should be executed; in the aftermath he played an important role in the crackdown on the movement.
In addition to his other duties, in 2012 Raeisi was appointed the prosecutor for the “Special Court for the Clergy”—an unconstitutional and extrajudicial court. Over the years, the court has prosecuted dissident clerics who are opposed to Khamenei’s rule.
This is Raeisi’s record. What can we expect from the Raeisi presidency?
His administration faces a high mountain of problems, domestically and in foreign policy. The economy is in terrible condition, caused by chronic corruption, mismanagement, and, most important, the crushing sanctions the United States has imposed over many years. At the same time, Iran has been besieged by severe drought for the past several years, which recently prompted unrest in the oil province of Khuzestan. It also faces pollution and contamination of its soil, its water resources, and its air, which has worsened over the past several decades. U.S. sanctions have compounded these problems. Along with the rest of the world, Iran has also been struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic; a large number of Iranians have lost their lives to it.
In the domestic political arena, Raeisi faces ever-stronger popular resistance to the hardliners. In the last two important national elections, the 18 June presidential contest and the elections for the Majles, the legislature, nearly 18 months ago, most people stayed home, with the net percentage of the people casting their votes hovering around 40 percent to 42 percent. There were large demonstrations in November 2019 and January 2018, protesting the state of the economy, both of which ended in violent confrontations with security forces.
According to Amnesty international, at least 304 people lost their lives in the November 2019 demonstrations, while well-placed sources in Iran put the number at 366. (The number claimed by Reuters, 1,500, is certainly false, as it had been originally asserted by the MEK, the despised opposition cult in exile.) The middle class, the engine of reforms and democratic struggle, largely stayed out of the demonstrations, fearing that its participation may turn Iran into another Syria or Libya. But, unless their economic plight improves, it is not clear that the middle class will stay home in the future, refraining from protesting the policies of the state.
At the same time, Iran’s hardliners are not unified. There are deep fissures in their ranks that—despite their best efforts to hide them from the Iranian public and the Western press’s portrayal of conservatives as a monolithic wall—are discernible to anyone who looks. For example, some of the hardliners who support Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s former mayor, current Speaker of the Majles, and a retired brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IGRC, were hoping that he would run in the elections and be elected. He was, however, told behind the scenes that Raeisi is the choice of Ayatollah Khamenei and his son and he should not run. As a result, Ghalibaf’s supporters were critical of Raeisi during the run-up to the elections, and now that he has introduced his cabinet to the Majles to receive the customary vote of confidence, they have been criticized for not being rigorous enough in their pre-election preference for Ghalibaf.
The IRGC, which essentially represents Iran’s so-called “deep state,” has received its share of cabinet’s posts but apparently wants more. Ahmad Vahidi, an IRGC brigadier general and former commander of the Quds Force, will be interior minister and will appoint all governors-general in Iran’s 31 provinces; he will also supervise all the national elections. Rostam Ghasemi, another IRGC brigadier general, who was oil minister in the Ahmadinejad administration, will be minister of roads and urban development. Hossein Amir–Abdollahian, the new foreign minister, has deep ties with the IRGC, as do Ezzatollah Zarghami, the new minister of culture and tourism, and cleric Sayyed Ismail Khatib, the new minister of intelligence.
These appointments indicate that the new administration will continue opposing Israel and the presence of the United States forces in the Middle East, will not retreat easily from Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and, domestically, will continue the hardliners’ relentless pressure on the reformists and moderates who seek a more open society and a rapprochement with the U.S.
In the foreign policy arena, the first problem the Raeisi administration must address is whether the indirect, or perhaps direct, negotiations with the Biden administration about both countries making a full return to the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, should be handled by the foreign ministry, as it was during the Rouhani administration, or by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, which was in charge of the negotiations during the administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami, the noted reformist president from 1997 to 2005. The top candidate for the post of secretary-general of the council, Saeed Jalili, was chief nuclear negotiator in the Ahmadinejad administration and was viewed largely a total failure, while Amir–Abdollahian is close to the IRGC and other security organizations and, thus, can take their views into account.
This suggests it is likely that the foreign ministry will be in charge of the nuclear dossier, although this has yet to be determined. The foreign ministry has usually acted more pragmatically, as it has many career diplomats that have a more realistic view of the world, whereas the council is usually packed with the hardliners.
Raeisi has repeated multiple times that he favors pursuing the JCPOA negotiations and hopes to conclude them with the U.S., lifting all the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran. But this may prove more difficult than it appeared a few months ago, when the Rouhani administration was in power. Rouhani and the very competent Mohammad Javad Zarif, his FM, were willing to return to full compliance with Iran’s nuclear obligations in return for the Biden administration doing the same and lifting the economic sanctions. But Washington missed its golden opportunity, and now it has to deal with a new, hardline administration.
The Biden administration has proven unwilling to lift all the Trump-era sanctions against Iran. In addition it has insisted on inserting a clause in the agreement for returning to the JCPOA that commits Iran to negotiate its missile program and its support for its allies and proxies throughout the Middle East. Not only is this a totally unreasonable demand, as these issues are completely separate from Iran’s nuclear dossier; it also represents a trap for Iran: Even if the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA, it, or the next administration, can claim in the relatively near future that because Iran is unwilling to negotiate seriously, or negotiate at all, on the other two issues, the United States will reimpose its sanctions. In return, Iran has demanded that the U.S. guarantee that it will never leave the JCPOA again.
Amir–Abdollahian, who was born in 1964 and speaks Arabic fluently, is a career diplomat and also a hardliner. From 2011 to 2016 he was deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. But, in 2016, former FM Zarif fired him, apparently because Amir–Abdollahian’s disparaging remarks about Arab leaders had hurt already-tense relations between them and Iran.
Amir–Abdollahian, the new FM, does have experience negotiating with U.S. diplomats. In 2007 he was a member of a diplomatic team that met with Ryan Crocker, then U.S. ambassador toIraq, and his team, to discuss the situation there. Other members of Iran’s team included Hassan Kazemi Qomi, then ambassador to Iraq, and his eventual successor, Hassan Danai–Far, both of whom were senior Quds Force officers. It was then, and because Ami–Abdollahian served in Iran’s embassy in Baghdad for several years, that ties between him and the IRGC were forged.
Amir–Abdollahian will take a tough line against the Biden administration, but, provided the administration does not make new demands on Iran, such as the rumor that the U.S. wants Iran completely to abandon its uranium-enrichment program, reaching an agreement is possible. Both countries need the agreement—the U.S. as much as Iran. Iran needs sanctions relief to revive its economy. The Biden administration wants to focus on China, and it is aware that without returning to the nuclear agreement there will be no possibility of negotiating with Iran any other regional issue. Continuing the crippling sanctions, as it must also know, will further radicalize the hardliners.
With the Taliban toppling the U.S.–backed government of Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan, new problems have emerged for Iran and the Raeisi administration. This bilateral relationship has long been fraught with complications.
The Taliban, Hanafi Sunnis who have long opposed Shiites, especially those in Iran, sent a delegation to Tehran a few weeks ago to reassure Iran of their amicable intentions. But Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in 1998, after they killed eight Iranian diplomats and one journalist in Afghanistan. There is also a significant population of Hanafi Sunnis in Iran’s Baluchistan province, near the border with Afghanistan, and the extremists among them, who are just as militant as the Taliban, have been attacking government forces for at least 15 years, killing tens of soldiers and border guards.
In addition, since the 19th century, Iran and Afghanistan have had a major dispute over the distribution of water from the Helmand River (the Hirmand in Persian), which originates in Afghanistan and flows into Iran. This has intensified in recent years due to severe drought in both countries. The Taliban also surely remember that Iran provided significant help to the United States in 2001 to topple their government.
Thus, there is potential for an intensifying conflict. Add to this volatile situation the fact that both Saudi Arabia and the United States wish to create problems for Iran, and we can get an explosive situation that can easily lead to war.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have both expressed their desire for improving their relationship. In particular, the Saudis are eager to reduce tensions with Iran, given that their six-year military campaign and war crimes in Yemen have been an abject failure, even with the support of the United States, and their main foe in Yemen, the Houthis, have been supported to some extent by Iran. Negotiations between the two sides began several months ago in Baghdad, and have continued. Whether these contacts succeed remains to be seen, but given that Amir–Abdollahian’s expertise is in the Arab world and that he speaks Arabic fluently, success will not be out of reach.
Iran’s hardliners have advocated long-term strategic relations with China and Russia as a way protecting Iran against the United States. Although the Iranian people have long held relatively negative views of Russia, due to Russia’s interventions into Iran’s affairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the hardliners have pursued closer ties vigorously and, in fact, Iran and Russia are allies in Syria, protecting the government of Bashar al–Assad. Russian bombers used Iran’s airfields to bomb foreign fighters in Syria.
In addition, on 27 March Iran and China signed a 25–year strategic cooperation agreement that commits China to invest about $400 billion in Iran. Since the Trump administration left the JCPOA in May 2018 and imposed its crippling, “maximum pressure” sanctions, China has helped Iran to cope with these dire circumstances, buying Iran’s oil and providing other assistance, including medical supplies and vaccines to combat Covid–19. Vigorous pursuit of relations with China and Russia will thus be another of Amir–Abdollahian’s tasks.
Given the extremely volatile situation in the region, as well as the Islamic Republic’s internal situation, predicting how the Raeisi administration will address the mountain of problems that it faces is very difficult, if not impossible. But, given Raeisi’s and the hardliners’ long track record, his administration may ultimately make some concessions to the U.S. to receive sanction relief, while the domestic situation may deteriorate further before starting to get better. The 150–year struggle of the Iranian people for a democratic government and rule of law will continue for the foreseeable future.
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, analyzes and comments frequently on Iran’s political development, its nuclear program, and its foreign policy.