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Raisi’s hardline stance will not serve Iranians’ best interests

Jun 22,2021 - Last updated at Jun 22,2021

Few months ago, not many people outside Iran had heard of Ebrahim Raisi, who was declared winner of Friday’s presidential election in Iran. But a flood of media profiles and background information had poured even before his election, as his victory was seen as a foregone conclusion. He was the handpicked candidate of the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini , and his path to the helm was made easier when the Guardian Council, Iran’s election watchdog, eliminated a number of so-called reformists and moderates, including former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had criticised the election process.

The election saw a record low voter turnout as a majority of Iranians, mostly youth, stayed home in protest. Raisi, 60, has a notorious reputation; having been associated with the so-called “death committee” in the late 1980s which was responsible for the torture and execution of thousands of anti-regime activists. Since then, he had spent most of his professional life in the judiciary; appointed to be chief justice in 2019. Unlike his predecessor, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is an academic, a politician and a diplomat and a former member of the Assembly of Experts and Supreme National Security Council as well as an elected member of parliament, Raisi’s public resume is modest.

But Raisi's loyalty to Khameini and his close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have made him a safe choice to the extent that he is now seen as a probable successor to the supreme leader. Describing him as a hard liner is not enough. He is an extremist when it comes to his politics especially vis-à-vis the United States and Israel, but he is also a manipulator who has worked hard to accumulate power. With direct access to Khameini, the IRGC and parliament, the conservative Raisi will emerge as one of the strongest presidents in recent Iranian history.

But what does Raisi’s election, he takes over in early August, mean for Iranians, the region and the world? As chief justice Raisi tried to erase his reputation as a bloodthirsty jurist; issuing clemencies and pardoning indebted citizens. He has also presented himself as a fighter against corruption. His mission to improve the lives of Iranians will not be easy. The country is suffering from US economic sanctions; many are likely to remain even if the nuclear deal is revived. In fact, one of the main stumbling blocks in the Vienna talks has to do with sanctions against Khameini himself. Ironically, Raisi too is under US and EU sanctions for grave human rights violations.

While Raisi has committed himself to the nuclear deal, outside critics accuse him of supporting the extremists’ goal of enabling Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Israel was quick to reiterate its objection to a nuclear deal with the “hangman’s regime”. The US was less critical; focusing instead on the dysfunctional Iranian democracy rather than on the man who won the election. In essence, Washington and its European allies want to conclude an agreement with Tehran before the swearing in of Raisi.

One reason for this has to do with Raisi’s choice for the next foreign minister, replacing the charismatic and competent Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been able to justify and defend Iran’s position over the nuclear deal ever since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018.

In his first press conference on Monday, Raisi tried to downplay the importance of the nuclear deal saying that Iran’s foreign policy does not start with the deal nor does it end with it. He also said that Iran’s ballistic missile programme was non-negotiable. But improving people’s lives and normalising relations with Iran’s Gulf neighbours depends on reviving the nuclear deal in so many ways. Under Raisi, the region will witness important geopolitical shifts signalled by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and limiting its military presence in the Middle East.

Under Rouhani and led by Zarif, Iran had begun a slow process of mending its ties with its neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if Raisi and his foreign policy chief will continue that process. Iran’s controversial regional agenda remains a major source of instability in the region. Reviving the nuclear deal in Vienna must provide guarantees that Iran will respect the sovereignty and stability of its neighbours.

While Raisi’s special connection to the Supreme Leader, the IRGC and parliament puts him in a strong position to implement policy, unlike his successor, it remains to be seen if that will prove to be a liability or an asset. Iran’s regional and international isolation can end if the new leader in Tehran initiates a fresh phase in his country’s foreign policy agenda; one that presents Iran as a normal nation willing to co-exist with its neighbours.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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