Iran, Ebrahim Raisi and Geopolitical Implications of a Preordained Hardline President
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Iran, Ebrahim Raisi and Geopolitical Implications of a Preordained Hardline President

By Arushi Singh
Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal India


Image Attribute: The file photo of Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisolsadati, the current President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

On August 5, 2021, 60-year-old Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisolsadati has ascended to the office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This was his second run in an election where five out of the seven approved candidates were hard-liners who were intensely antagonistic towards the US and openly referred to those pursuing relations with the West as "infiltrators". Raisi, as the Conservative Chief of the Judiciary of Iran, will also be the first Iranian president to have been sanctioned by the US before his inauguration.

The election comes at a momentous in Iranian history as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and a previous President of the country himself seeks a successor who could be in power for decades. Subsequently, the subdued turnout at the election has raised concerns as well with only 48.8 percent of eligible voters participating in the election which is the lowest for a presidential election since the 1979 revolution. At the same time, experts posit that the Supreme Leader is working to bring about transformational changes and to that end, has been working to secure a pliant President and a pliant parliament to ensure the longevity of the Republic. These assertions have been cemented by Raisi's statements regarding his foreign policy which will be in accordance with the Leader’s guidelines. Some scholars have also promulgated that the hardline or Iran's "principlist" political faction’s power grab in Tehran on the US maximum pressure campaign and Israel offensive actions.

To inoculate itself from future US pressure tactics and to hedge against another abnegation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) by a different administration in the US, Tehran has to reach strategic alliances with regional countries in the form of 15 years long-term trade agreements. To that end, Iran has been focusing on its Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) to enhance ties with regional countries and address their concerns. Consequently, Iran’s current hardline victory has been compared to the rise of Ali Khamenei which led to the ceasefire in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq. This is in line with Raisi’s advocacy for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia cut off in 2016 after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Additionally, talks are being conducted between the two countries which are being mediated by Iraq focusing on Yemen and by Oman on issues of larger mutual regional concerns while engaging in proxy battles with Israel.

These initiatives are sure to receive greater consideration under Raisi. Raisi boasts an impressive profile with having studied in the seminary in Qom and served in the judiciary throughout the country including in Tehran which provided him with the opportunity to be a member of the Supreme National Security Council. Raisi began his career in earnest at the age of 20 in the city of Karaj as its Prosecutor General, a career which brought him to the notice of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He has served in the Assembly of Experts tasked to monitor the performance of the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, the Center to Combat Economic Fraud, and as the Chairman of the Monitoring Council on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. He also dons a black turban, the color of the "Sayyid", that portrays one to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Furthermore, he was appointed as the custodian of the Astan-e Quds Razavi, an important shrine of Imam Reza and one which allowed Raisi to supervise billions of dollars in assets. Raisi also has links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and strategic analysts expound that the election is bound to render the policies of Iran to become more radicalized.

Notably, during the presidential debates, Raisi said that he will adhere to the JCPoA while forming a “strong” government to guide the accord in the correct course. He also stated that the US must return to its commitments and start by lifting unilateral sanctions that were imposed after the US withdrew from the JCPOA. The current President’s Rouhani’s chief of staff has elucidated that the US has agreed to lift “all insurance, oil and shipping sanctions, to restore JCPoA. However, Raisi would have to focus on the lifting of secondary sanctions to encourage foreign direct investment and much which is likely to be inadequate due to the risk-averse nature of most companies midst the current volatility in the Republic. There are 1,040 Trump-era sanctions or 700 sanctions outside of the JCPoA which have been planned to halt Iran’s economy and chasten its leadership.

On the other hand, Raisi’s campaign promises have sought to address practical concerns such as Iran’s economy that is subject to US sanctions and the infrastructural problems due to caused due to provincial negligence and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly, Raisi will have to address protests that began in oil-rich Iran's southwest over water shortages and have spread to other parts of the country and have been described as the continuation of four nationwide uprisings in 2017.

However, the economic transformation would necessitate political reforms to enhance the credibility of the government which is likely to impact or result in an approach commanding a reorientation in Iran’s foreign policy including greater focusing on trade and cooperation. This path would, however, require taking on the entrenched crème de la crème of the regime including influential clerical elites and Revolutionary Guards for centralizing and securitizing the Republic. Decision-makers may also connect with adversary nations devoid of dread of internal factionalism undermining different endeavors. Foreign policy will be, nevertheless, determined by how wide the Iranian leadership defines Iran’s national interests.

Raisi may take a middle path and could prioritize maintaining the status quo by being dependent on the returns from hydrocarbons and better foreign investments to take full advantage of the demographic window of opportunity while creating economic interdependence ensuring the revitalization of the JCPoA. Raisi will also have the opportunity to forge linkages with its neighbors and European countries based on “mutual respect and mutual interest”. A litmus test for any path taken by the new president in Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan including with the Turkish foray into the country. Concomitantly, relations with the US may initially be contentious and may take longer to normalize especially after considering the US sanctions on Raisi for human rights violations along with his first public comments since the election wherein he disallowed for a crucial Biden area of expanding on the JCPoA. Raisi has also refused to meet President Joe Biden.

One of the most consequential outcomes of the election would be Iran’s return to its “Look to the East” strategy as the fundamental alignment of Iran’s foreign policy strategy of an erstwhile dynamic. Raisi is slated to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in mid-September in-person to forge closer linkages with countries from the “East” that are part of SCO. In a similar vein, traditionally, conservatives have been predisposed to assume a swing towards the East including China and Russia as compared to moderates and reformists who are conventionally more cautious. Raisi is also on his way to implement a comprehensive partnership with China and Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to send a laudatory note to Raisi who has previously met Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov, a crucial stand-in for Putin’s foreign policy in the Islamic world. These linkages could also lead to additional apprehension in Iran’s ties with countries in Europe including the UK which has festering frictions with Russia across a wide gamut of subjects. Debates and deliberations likewise emphasize Tehran’s national security two-sided strategy of regional de-escalation with neighboring nations and attaining consistency in its engagement with Western powers.

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