After Ebrahim Raisi won the Iranian presidential election 2021, the reformist illusion, which the West subscribed to, seems to be over. It is because there was never a strong reform movement really existing in Iran that could challenge the supreme leader.
In fact, it was the greatest trick that the ultra-conservative clergy ever pulled off. Iranian politics has been filled with such illusions. In the past, when Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997 and elected again in 2001, his elections were hailed in Iran and the West as a victory for the reform movement, because he promised to transform the Islamic Republic into a fully democratic state, to ease the political, social and religious restrictions, and initiate modernising of the economy. He even called for improvement of relations with the neighbours, the far outside world, and attracting foreign investments. But his rule resulted in the same theocratic rule which had dominated Iran since 1979. The real centre of power, in Iran, was, and has always been, the supreme leader. Even selecting the cabinet ministry portfolios and proposing the budget is greatly influenced by the supreme leader. The alleged reformist camp existed not because of its strength or popular appeal, but because the supreme leader allowed it to exist.
After twenty-four years of Khatami’s election, the same supreme leader and his vast network of powerful entities, such as the Revolutionary Guards, continue to rule undisputed. Khatami and other ‘alleged reformists’ who were elected to Parliament, particularly Rouhani, were too weak to confront the policies of the supreme leader, the military, the Revolutionary Guards, and many unelected institutions that report to him. In a leaked conversation with an Iranian think tank, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif divulged that he had “zero” say in Iran’s foreign policy.
The putative ‘Iranian reformists’ have been too afraid to stand for what they claimed to believe in, which included a comprehensive republic system to represent the youth, who make up the majority of the population. However, these reformists stood passively while protests were crushed year after year. Rouhani, as a reformist, even tried the balancing act in his international diplomacy, but failed to fight rampant bureaucratic corruption at home.
Despite their failed leadership, the idea of reform is appealing, as majority of Iranians look for real reforms. But leaders who claimed to be reformists have not delivered on such ideas.
The US sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump, after he exited the nuclear deal in 2017, resulted in a ‘maximum pressure policy’ on Iran. It led to decline in oil exports from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018, to as low as an estimated 200,000 bpd in some months of 2020. The currency, the Rial, has lost seventy percent of its value since 2018. Inflation is at a record fifty percent high, and so is the poverty, while the middle class is plummeting. The situation is perhaps the worst since the revolution. Iranians have seen better days, even during the truculent war with Iraq during the 1980s. Relations with neighbouring countries are at their lowest, due to a hostile foreign policy, and Tehran’s interference in several Arab states such as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, under the command of the supreme leader, who has expanded Iran’s international reach via funding and development of militias, signify yet another monopoly of the Guardian Council.
Coming back to the 2021 election, Raisi won the mandate due to the Guardian Council’s vetting of potential candidates. The council had rejected almost all major reformists, leaving him the only prominent figure on the ballot. Just a few days ahead of the polls, conservative contenders Saeed Jalili and Alireza Zakani dropped out of the race, in favour of Raisi, ensuring that the contest was even less competitive, to pave the way for an absolute consolidation of power, in the hands of ultra-conservatives loyal to the supreme leader, hinting that Iran was on a march towards a one-state party. This had led to opposition activists calling for a boycott, which seemed to have impacted the voting, as the turnout was at an all-time low.
Raisi is even speculated to be next in line to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 82, and has held the position for 32 years. However, the new president is a controversial figure. He has been accused of serving a death commission that implemented Ayatollah Khomeini’s secret decree to execute thousands of political prisoners. According to Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard, Raisi rubber-stamped execution of thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran, who were executed in 1988. The circumstances surrounding the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their bodies are, to this day, systematically concealed by the Iranian authorities. The trials had begun with defendants asked to identify themselves. Those who responded ‘mujahedeen’ were sent to their deaths, while others were questioned about their willingness to ‘clear minefields for the army of the Islamic Republic’, according to a 1990 Amnesty International report. Raisi has been defiant when asked about the 1988 executions, which many human rights defenders see as a crime against humanity.
As former head of the Iranian judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi had also presided over a cold-blooded crackdown on human rights, which had seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained. Under his watch, the judiciary was also granted blanket impunity to government officials, and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds of men, women, and children. He had subjected thousands of protestors to mass arrests, and at least hundreds to enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill treatment, during and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of November 2019.
In his role as first vice chief justice from 2004 to 2014, Raisi was one of the authorities in charge of a brutal crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement that emerged as a response to widespread perceptions of voter fraud, and electoral gerrymandering, by hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bidding to secure a second term in office.
The election of a new ‘hardline president’ in Iran also brings bigger problems for the Biden administration. Since President Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 agreement that sought to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in exchange for a lifting of some sanctions, Iran restarted its nuclear development, and has continued to improve its ability to enrich uranium, breaking limits what were agreed out in the deal: Tehran is enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, though is still short of weapons-grade 90%.
On Saudi Arabia, Raisi revealed that secret talks with Iran in Baghdad, over several points of contention, would not be a problem. He won’t even mind reopening of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, after it closed down in 2016, following protests against Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Seeing the developments, American negotiators are in Vienna, working with their European counterparts, to find a way to restore the nuclear deal. While Raisi had voiced criticism in the past, he made clear during a televised debate with other candidates that he will honour the nuclear deal, as an agreement that has been endorsed by the supreme leader. However, many commentators argue that Raisi will be expected to take a more nationalistic and unwavering tone. It will be a more provocative and pugnacious stance, similar in lines as happened in 2006, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Like Ahmadinejad, Raisi is filled with anti-Americanism. He had warned that Iranians cannot trust the Americans, as they would betray the agreement, and would stab them in the back. In the aftermath of the January 2020 assassination of popular Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Raisi chided that the US was the “clear manifestation of state-sponsored terrorism”, and that “the US presence in the region had yielded nothing but insecurity, breeding chaos and disruption to the region’s stability.”
He has even backed out of two other US priorities, by affirming not to negotiate over Tehran’s ballistic missile program, which the US wants to stop, or its support of regional militias. Raisi also revealed that he would not be meeting with President Biden in the future.
He might even oversee a backsliding of Iran’s ties with the European Union, after eight years of engagement, pushed by the outgoing Rouhani administration. And, instead of seeking reconciliation with the US, Raisi is likely expected to be more willing to work with China, Russia, and other regional allies.
It is likely that many groups will probably call for European sanctions on him. While he’s already on the US sanctions list, he might not even be able to travel to the Western world in future.
However, scathing political attacks against Israel becoming a routine in Raisi’s administration would not be unusual, especially after the Abraham Accords, which made Iran tilt towards political vehemence. Israel, under Naftali Bennett, has already tainted Raisi as part of a ‘hangmen regime’, and wants the world to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement.
The writer is the author of six books. He is the editor of Globe Upfront. [email protected]