"The Iranian elections – A milestone in the history of the Islamic Republic


Col. (res.) Udi Evental | Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East | July, 2021

Photo: Tasnim News Agency | Mohammad Hossein Taaghi | CC BY 4.0
Photo: Tasnim News Agency | Mohammad Hossein Taaghi | CC BY 4.0


Ebrahim Raisi, a 60-year-old conservative cleric born in Mashhad, has been elected by a majority vote as Iran's president. Raisi won about 62% of the votes (some 18 million). The next runner-up, lagging far behind, was another conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, who won 3.4 million votes. The voter turnout in these elections, seen as gauging the level of legitimacy the regime is given, was 48.7% (compared to 73% in the last elections, held in 2017) – the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, although the pandemic probably played a part in this outcome too. Approximately 3.7 million votes were disqualified (blank / invalid protest votes), thus, in effect, Raisi was only supported by about 30% of eligible voters.


Raisi is part of the right wing of the Iranian conservative camp (Principlists or usulgaryan), displaying stringent views on the implementation of the revolution principles both domestically and externally (objecting to the west, spreading in the Middle East). His last position was Chief Justice, and, in the west, he is remembered most for being a member of the "death committee" which, in the late 1980s, retried government opponents, most of whom belonged to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, sentencing thousands of them to death. In 2019, the United States had imposed sanctions on Raisi and several other senior officials in the Iranian regime for human rights violations and oppression.


The uniqueness of the recent elections lies in the regime's determined decision not to take any chances and ensure ahead of time that Raisi would win them. The Iranian government filtered the presidential candidates particularly aggressively using the Guardian Council that did not hesitate to disqualify candidates who were "part and parcel" of the conservative camp, primarily former speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani. The latter is a member of a strong family closely tied with the core of the Iranian conservative camp, and his disqualification as presidential candidate was criticized among its own ranks. His brother, former chief justice and himself one of the 12 members of the Guardian Council, as well as the Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson and other conservative figures, criticized his disqualification. As a result, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, admitted a miscarriage of justice during the filtering process, but stopped short using his authority to change its outcome.


The regime had filtered out hundreds of candidates in previous election campaigns too, however, less stringently or across the board. Thus, in the past, the final list of candidates managed to include some who had ultimately defeated the regime's favorites. In 1997 it was Mohammad Khatami who defeated speaker of parliament Nateq-Nouri; in 2009 it was Hossein Mousavi Lari who defeated Ahmadinejad, forcing the regime to "rig" the elections at the price of mass protests (the Green Revolution); and in 2017 it was Raisi himself who lost to Rouhani.


Raisi's election is the culmination of a trend that has been prominent in recent years under Khamenei's leadership, whereby younger and more right-wing candidates are promoted, political cleansing performed, and the idea of the revolution fortified with growing disregard for the public's opinion. However, at this time, the regime was resolute to determine the identity of the president-elect as part of its effort of ensuring the "morning after" Khamenei, for Raisi is likely to be the last Iranian president in his lifetime. Khamenei is 82 years old, his health is failing, and he has suffered from prostate cancer. In preparation for the power transition in the supreme leadership, the regime seems to be seeking to ensure the future of the revolution, the impact of conservative power hubs in Iran, with special emphasis on its chief source of support – the IRGC, and perhaps even to guarantee the influence of the Khamenei family (through his son, Mojtaba). Under these circumstances, Raisi is emerging as the conservative establishment's agreed candidate (even if not the strongest), not only for president, but probably as Khamenei's successor as well.


The regime's conduct during the election campaign reflects a tension between its desire to be legitimized by the public and its determination to ensure that, at this sensitive time of generational transition in leadership, the values and principles of the revolution, despised by the Iranian citizens, will not be undermined. Therefore, while the regime did everything in its power to increase public participation in the elections (including extending voting hours until 2am for the first time since the revolution), it also did not hesitate to blatantly intervene, dictating the results in advance even at the cost of a possible public upheaval.


Although the regime is not confident enough of its status or the public's support of its policies, it is certainly sure enough of its power to impose the revolution on it, and forcefully suppress any opposition to this approach. One example of the regime's confidence to take unpopular steps and crush any expression of protest, should one follow, was provided by the October 2019 fuel protests. In this respect, the blatant intervention in the election process proves that the regime believes the risk associated with such a step is low at present, certainly in comparison with the benefit of entrenching conservative dominance in government establishments and systems.


Ultimately, from a domestic point of view, Raisi's election as president completes the conservative right-wing's takeover of all government powers (judiciary, legislative, and now, executive). At the same time, competing political streams in Iran are being increasingly suppressed, especially the reformists, which the public no longer trusts to make a change as it is. Raisi's election, his personal record, and the establishment of an Islamic government in his image bring news of more stringent restrictions on freedom of expression to the Iranian public, as well as greater media oversight, and a growing threat to personal and national liberties in Iran.


As far as the regime's foreign policy, which will directly affect Israel, it seems the elections may mark a step up in Iran's efforts to entrench itself militarily in the Middle East as part of its pursuit of hegemony. The backdrop for this is a combination of three processes: ideological principles in the regime's foreign policy growing stronger, particularly the principle of exporting the revolution and weakening Israel until it collapses; a less pragmatic approach than that of the reformist wing in the outgoing government with respect to the manner and pace of reaching the objectives set by the revolution; and finally, the possible return to the nuclear deal, expected to relieve Iran of the threat of sanctions, and free up substantial budgets for the force buildup efforts of its proxies in the region, especially Hizballah.


In the nuclear field – Raisi's election does not indicate an Iranian withdrawal from the negotiations with the great powers over the return to the nuclear deal. On the contrary, Raisi has expressed his support of this move on several occasions, and has even undertaken to make every effort to have the sanctions lifted. Moreover, in any event, Iran's nuclear policy is dictated by the supreme leader, Khamenei. If Raisi and the regime seek to bolster his status, and perhaps even mark him as the next leader, they have a profound interest to ensure that the sanctions be lifted, and that such a feat be attributed to Raisi himself. Finally, the agreement being discussed in Vienna is emerging as less stringent than the original JCPOA, whereas its advantages for Iran – primarily its paving the way for Iran becoming a future nuclear threshold state with international legitimacy – are still viewed by the regime as valid.


One of the decisions the government will have to make is whether to allow the outgoing one, headed by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, to complete the negotiations in Vienna during July, or wait for Raisi to enter office in early August, to enable him to take all the credit for both the nuclear deal itself and its prospective benefits.


If the regime chooses to extend the negotiations until after the presidential power transition, the efforts to return to the agreement could run into some difficulties, get prolonged, and perhaps even altogether collapse, inter alia because a new cabinet would be appointed in Iran, the Iranian negotiating team may be replaced, Iranian nuclear program could make more irreversible progress, and the International Atomic Energy Agency could find it hard to perform its oversight duties.


Under such circumstances, Israel should prepare for "the morning after" a nuclear deal, which will buy it some time, inter alia, to build up its force to prevent future Iranian breakout to weapons-grade nuclear capabilities. At the same time, it must not neglect the possibility that the negotiations between Iran and the great powers would find itself in a rut, and Israel would come up against an Iran that is much closer than before to the nuclear threshold and the red lines Israel has delineated for Iran in the past. Already Iran is in possession of some 110 kg of 20% purity enriched uranium (out of the 230-250 kg required for a bomb).


On the side of opportunity, the Iranian regime's strategic move to deepen its Islamic character and the dominance of the conservative camp among its ranks will deprive it of the ability to display a "smiling face" to the west, and of the advantages that a president and government perceived as reformists have provided it with in this context. The internal developments in Iran, especially if accompanied by effective public diplomacy efforts, could debunk the argument that strict international pressure on the Iranian regime could weaken the reformists and trend of change in Iran, making it easier to present the true colors of Tehran's extreme and harmful domestic and regional policy.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental.


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