Changing of the guard: Iran’s new president

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Ebrahim Raisi’s ascension to the presidency on August 3rd indicates the growing strength of hardliners in the upper echelons of the Iranian state, marking a shift away from the reformist tendencies of his predecessor Hassan Rouhani. 

President Raisi is a high-profile figure in Iran, serving in several key positions and having run for the presidency before in 2013. His record will prove worrying to many. He was one of four judges who oversaw the execution of 5,000 members of Iranian opposition groups in 1988 and was involved in the violent crackdown of the ‘Green Movement’ protests in 2009. He is currently under US sanctions for such a human rights record. However, Sajjad Safaei, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, argues that he cannot be viewed in the binary, having also overseen sweeping reforms of the judiciary that commuted sentences for drug offences, saving many from prison and even the death penalty. 

Mr Raisi’s election will not fundamentally change Iran’s foreign policy

What is for certain is that his election was not the democratic will of the Iranian electorate, but rather a carefully planned coronation, with any serious contenders barred from running. As such, turnout was at a record low in modern Iranian history (49%), with many liberals and moderates boycotting the poll.

An Iranian president has limited personal impact on foreign policy, which is instead formulated in a complex system of competing power structures. This explains why talks which led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an Obama-era agreement, scrapped by President Trump, which curbed Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in return for sanctions relief, were able to begin under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As such, the impact of the recent presidential transition on the JCPOA should not be overblown. 

Nonetheless, Mr Raisi appears supportive of talks to restore the JCPOA, as does Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, who gets final votes on such agreements. However, major impediments remain. President Biden has signalled that his intention is to make the JCPOA ‘longer and stronger’. This may involve extending sunset clauses, as well as tackling ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional influence, the latter two being issues that the Iranian regime is reluctant to address. Such issues are often raised by Republican senators, who will be needed to provide the two-thirds of votes needed in the US Senate to make a treaty binding.

The major question hanging over the Iranian state is the condition of the ailing Ayatollah

As for the wider Middle East, Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, predicts that Mr Raisi’s election will not fundamentally change Iran’s foreign policy, which remains premised on opposition to the US and Israel, and supportive of proxies in failing states in the region. However, it has the potential to foster important changes. Firstly, there’s a risk that Mr Raisi’s hard-line approach could deteriorate relations with Saudi Arabia, collapsing backchannel talks, as well as relations with Israel. Such deterioration could risk intensifying proxy wars in Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Iran will become easier to vilify for the anti-Iran axis, as was the case under former President Ahmadinejad, whose diatribes against Israel provided useful anti-Iran talking points.

The major question hanging over the Iranian state is the condition of the ailing Ayatollah. Ali Khamenei is currently 82 and is thought to be suffering from prostate cancer. A transition during the Raisi presidency looks likely. Many believe Mr Raisi to be the frontrunner to succeed him, seen as a protege who shares his hard-line positions and a belief in a ‘resistance economy’ reliant on internal markets and trade with close neighbours and China. However, others believe his coronation as president undermines such a change, given that a president’s popularity tends to be crushed whilst in office, with the supreme leader protecting their own position by blaming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) for repression and the president for economic woes. Mr Raisi is already deeply unpopular. As such, the future of Iran’s leadership and foreign and domestic policy is still clouded in some uncertainty.

Image: Mohammed Reza Abbasi via Creative Commons.

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