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Engaging Iran Remains Vital after Presidential Election
Engaging Iran Remains Vital after Presidential Election
Ayatollah Khamenei receives Iranian officials, ambassadors of Muslim countries, on 18 May 2015. khamenei.ir
Report 166 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran After the Nuclear Deal

Some in the West hope the nuclear deal with Iran will empower the country’s moderates. But playing Iranian domestic politics directly could backfire. The West should recognise that any change will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East.

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Executive Summary

With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal. Many, there and abroad, believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade. Yet, the political system, with its multiple power centres and tutelary bodies, inherently favours continuity. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system – for instance by trying to push it in a “moderate” direction – could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see. To start, all sides should fulfil their commitments under the nuclear deal.

The accord comes at a sensitive moment. Over eighteen months, three pivotal elections are scheduled. February 2016 will see polls for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next supreme leader; in June 2017, there will be a presidential poll. With the supreme leader aging, many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course. President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends. But his affiliation with the former makes for a balancing act that is as complex as it is imperfect.

The precariousness of this equilibrium means that policy shifts when pressure from below is accompanied by substantial consensus at the top. The nuclear talks illustrate this. Rouhani’s election and the sanctions-battered public’s demand for normalcy catalysed the process, but the agreement was not a single man’s achievement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the U.S. before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

The president, who is from the republican camp, brought on board the most important allies: the pragmatic theocrats, who control the unelected institutions. Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appears as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

Rouhani has encountered difficulties in other spheres. He was forced to freeze priorities behind which he could not generate sufficient consensus, including social and political liberalisation. But his economic agenda, aimed at stimulating growth after several years of recession, is likely to move forward, even though it damages entrenched interests that have profited under the sanctions regime.

Everything suggests Rouhani will continue with a prudent approach, and change is likely to be arduous, slow and modest. Though the U.S. and its European allies might nudge him to move faster, there is no way to speed the reform process and many ways to undermine it. Seeking to empower republicans – touted in certain quarters as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal – will not work, as many theocrats view that tactic as a stalking horse for regime change.

This does not mean giving Tehran carte blanche, domestically or regionally, but issues of concern will need to be addressed judiciously, taking account of Tehran’s legitimate concerns no less than its adversaries’. It also means Iranians – notwithstanding the imperfection of their governance system, which many are the first to acknowledge – should determine their country’s positions without undue external interference. Trying to shape Tehran’s regional calculus through a variety of carrots and sticks is standard foreign policy practice, but trying to shape or short-circuit the decision-making process itself is another matter. As seen in the nuclear deal and now in the economic realm, internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicised channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Tehran/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2015

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei casts his ballot in Tehran on Friday 18 June 2021. Official handout, Khamenei's website

Engaging Iran Remains Vital after Presidential Election

Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, represents the hardliners within the Islamic Republic. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati explain why the U.S. should nevertheless persist in working to restore the 2015 nuclear deal to its full promise.

What distinguished these elections in Iran?

No Iranian election since 1979, when the Islamic Republic was founded, has been free and fair by international standards. There were nonetheless two key differences between the 2021 presidential election and the others held since 1997, when Iran started orchestrating more competitive races and Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, won a surprise victory.

First, the process was more circumscribed than usual. Of the 592 candidates who threw their hats, turbans and scarves into the ring, only seven men met with approval from the Guardian Council, the twelve-member body of jurists and clerics in charge of vetting candidates that is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This number is slightly higher than in the 2017 presidential polls, when the Guardian Council approved only six out of 1,636 hopefuls. But what shocked Iranians, both elite and general public to equal measure, was the character of the arbitrary disqualifications this time around. The Guardian Council has ordinarily weeded out system critics and even loyal oppositionists, but rarely consummate insiders. This time, it exercised its unbounded exclusionary authority to reject the candidacy of, inter alia, the longest-serving former speaker of parliament, adviser to the Supreme Leader and lead negotiator of Iran’s strategic partnership with China, Ali Larijani, as well as Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who has been a heartbeat away from the presidency for the past eight years. The result was an uneven playing field in which Ebrahim Raisi, the incumbent chief justice and the main loser in the 2017 presidential race, had a clear path to victory. Raisi had a commanding lead in all surveys before the 18 June election, and finally won with 17,926,345 votes, or nearly 62 per cent of the tally.

His rivals in the race – those whom the Guardian Council did allow to run – included Saeed Jalili, a hardline former national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator, who eventually dropped out in favour of Raisi; and Alireza Zakani, a firebrand parliamentarian, who withdrew as well. Two other hardliners stayed in the contest: Mohsen Rezai, former commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, failed in his fourth presidential bid and was widely mocked as “General Botox” for his face’s transformation compared to pre-campaign appearances. He received 3.4 million votes, even fewer than in his last attempt in 2017. Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh, an ultra-conservative member of parliament, stood no real chance. He finished last with less than a million votes. Abdolnaser Hemmati, a technocrat and former head of Iran’s central bank, was the only moderate in the race, but having presided over a major economic downturn in the past few years, caused by U.S. sanctions and the outgoing Rouhani administration’s mismanagement, he faced an uphill battle to gain popular support. He received 2.4 million votes. The sole reformist candidate, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former governor of Isfahan, left the race and endorsed Hemmati days before the contest. Thus, while previous Iranian presidential elections retained an element of meaningful contestation, at least within the bounds of what the Islamic Republic regards as acceptable political divergence, this year’s contest appeared from the outset likely to produce only one outcome.

Secondly, the stakes were higher in this election. With the 82-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei’s succession looming large, and the country facing a myriad of external and internal challenges, the Islamic Republic is nearing a critical juncture. Ayatollah Khamenei may feel that he cannot afford a divided government, in which unelected tutelary institutions are at daggers drawn with elected bodies such as parliament and the presidency, even if that means weakening the participatory instruments through which Iran’s political order claims a popular mandate. In 2020, the Guardian Council orchestrated a similarly non-competitive parliamentary election, which yielded a landslide victory for the hardliners. Now, with a pliant president and parliament, the real power – ie, the Supreme Leader’s office and the military-cum-security establishment – can consolidate and, in the words of a prominent hardliner, “purify” the revolution.

How was the turnout, and does it matter?

The Guardian Council’s aggressive vetting, the raging COVID-19 pandemic and a widespread sense of political apathy after years of hardline obstructionism scotching any meaningful socio-political and economic reforms augured a low turnout. Surveys had predicted a participation rate of less than 45 per cent. In the last few days before the election, however, reformists and moderates tried to mobilise voters for Hemmati. Their two mottoes – #Turn-the-table, referring to the Guardian Council’s designs, and #Save-the-Republic – were trending on social media platforms. But Hemmati needed a miracle to dislodge Raisi, and in the end he received fewer votes than Rezai and even fewer than the number of ballots spoiled by voters (12 per cent). Still, the last-minute efforts may have contributed to the 48.8 per cent turnout that exceeded the most bearish projections and improved on the 42.57 per cent participation in the 2020 parliamentary contests. But it is still the lowest participation rate in the history of presidential polls held under the Islamic Republic. Only 26 per cent of eligible voters in the capital, Tehran, showed up at the polls.

The poor turnout is even more striking in that the presidential election happened in parallel with three other elections – local council races, mid-term parliamentary elections and filling voided seats on the Assembly of Experts, the body nominally in charge of selecting the next Supreme Leader – that undoubtedly boosted participation. Another interesting phenomenon was the jump in void ballots, which tripled from around 1.2 million in 2013 and 2017 to 3.7 million in 2021, probably indicating a protest vote.

In this election, however, the political establishment seemed more concerned about the outcome than the turnout. A former senior Iranian official told Crisis Group that “the Supreme Leader has realised that everyone forgets about the turnout in four weeks, but the system has to live with the election’s outcome for at least four years” – as was the case with previous presidents, including the sitting executive, Hassan Rouhani, who is wrapping up his two consecutive terms. That sentiment was recently echoed publicly by Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

This phenomenon is not new in the Islamic Republic. In fact, all elections from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s were marked by similarly limited contestation and low participation. For instance, before he became Supreme Leader, Khamenei was re-elected as president in 1985 in a contest with two rivals who posed no serious challenge to him, garnering 85 per cent of the vote with a turnout of only 54 per cent. His successor, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, became president in 1989 in a two-man race in which his victory was nothing short of certain (he won with 94 per cent of the vote) with a participation rate also of 54 per cent. These dull affairs contrasted sharply with the upset victories of President Khatami in 1997 and President Rouhani in 2013, which saw 80 and 73 per cent turnout, respectively.

What should everyone know about Ebrahim Raisi?

Raisi, 60, is a mid-ranking cleric, a protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei and a product of Iran’s judiciary, where he has spent most of his career. His role as a prosecutor in the mass execution of political dissidents in 1988 made him notorious and, along with his appalling record in crackdowns upon protesters in the past few years, put him on the U.S. sanctions list. In 2016, the Supreme Leader elevated him to the post of custodian of Iran’s richest religious charity, Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad. Then in 2019, Ayatollah Khamenei tapped him to head the judiciary. He is also a member of the Assembly of Experts. He characterises himself as an anti-corruption champion and has prosecuted some high-profile cases in this vein. But given that corruption remains endemic in Iran, it is hard to qualify his record as a success. He has little to no foreign policy experience.

Raisi was born in Mashhad and is married to the daughter of the prominent puritanical Ayatollah Ahmad Alamalhoda, who is the Supreme Leader’s representative in the shrine city. The fact that he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s student at one of Tehran’s seminaries, to which he owes his entire career and meteoric rise – he even bears a physical resemblance to his teacher – has given rise to speculation that the Supreme Leader is priming Raisi to succeed him.

What does Raisi's win portend for Iran’s domestic politics? 

The presidency might be a stepping stone for Raisi on his way to the leadership when Ayatollah Khamenei leaves the scene. Before then, however, it could be that the Supreme Leader has tapped a kindred spirit to further an agenda of institutional change, like transforming Iran’s presidential system into a parliamentary one, which would aim to reduce the fractiousness that has characterised Iran’s bifurcated political structure. Or he might simply want a president who will not challenge his authority as much as the four who have served under him so far. If Ayatollah Khamenei is seeking transformation to put the system on a more stable footing and secure his own vision for the future, he could not have wished for a better setup: the non-competitive 2020 elections produced a “revolutionary” parliament that the leader cannot stop praising, and the presidential election put the icing on the cake.

This election portends a consolidation phase for the Islamic Republic before it enters the post-Khamenei era.

But regardless of the Supreme Leader’s motive, this election portends a consolidation phase for the Islamic Republic before it enters the post-Khamenei era. Such transitions are delicate moments in any polity’s lifespan, and they have a precedent in Iran’s own experience. In the aftermath of Ayatollah Khamenei’s re-election as president in 1985, Iran’s leaders agreed to a ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq war and kicked off constitutional reforms that, inter alia, abolished the prime minister’s office and created a consensus-building mechanism for major decisions in the form of the Supreme National Security Council. This government also oversaw the transition to Ayatollah Khamenei’s assuming the role of Supreme Leader. But it also moved to purge internal opponents and stifled dissent; Raisi was part of this crackdown, ordering the execution of hundreds or perhaps thousands of dissidents. So, it is a safe bet that his administration will close down space for criticism, up to and including outright repression.

The economy will rank high on Raisi’s to-do list. If Iran and the U.S. manage to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, the new president will come into office with wind in his sails. He will own not only the economic benefits of sanctions relief, but also the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the country will have better access to vaccines by the time he takes the reins on 3 August. If he chooses, he will also have stronger authority to bring about long-overdue economic reforms. But the specifics of his agenda remain unknown, and hardliners are prone to prioritising their ideological aims, like national self-sufficiency, which have never resulted in sustainable growth and have cost the country’s environment dearly.

What do these results mean for Iran’s foreign policy, including the nuclear deal negotiations under way in Vienna?

Raisi will take office in just over a month. There may be one dynamic in place before he formally assumes the presidency, and another afterward, but in any case, it will be important for the U.S. and the West to keep engaging Iran in pursuit of lower Middle East tensions. 

Iran’s strategic direction is set by a small group of senior officials in the Supreme National Security Council. They are relatively insulated from, and yet reflect, alterations in formal structures, including through elections. Subservient to the Supreme Leader, with whom key decisions ultimately rest, and captive to a sharply polarised polity, presidents enjoy scant autonomy, especially in foreign policy. While new presidents often usher in important changes in style and negotiating tactics, Iran’s grand strategy remains unaltered.

Outgunned by the U.S. and its regional adversaries, Iran seeks to compensate for its sense of encirclement and relative conventional military weakness by achieving self-sufficiency in asymmetric military capabilities and increasing what its leaders see as strategic depth. It has invested heavily in its ballistic missile program and built a network of proxies with the goal of, from Tehran’s perspective, deterring external threats. Tehran dubs this policy “forward defence”: an effort to exploit weak states, such as Lebanon and post-2003 Iraq, where it confronts its enemies through proxies without direct harm to Iran and its people. Regardless of who is president in Iran, this strategy will not change unless Iran’s threat perception or the balance of power in the region undergoes revision.

Raisi’s election, however, may not be all bad news on the foreign policy front. A more monolithic power structure will be less bogged down by infighting, which often impeded Rouhani’s agenda and that of his envoys. Iranian and U.S. negotiators just wrapped up the sixth round of talks in Vienna aimed at charting a path back to mutual compliance with the nuclear deal. Were Iran’s negotiators able to restore the agreement before Rouhani leaves office at the beginning of August, it would allow Raisi to come in with a clean slate and blame Rouhani for the deal’s shortcomings while reaping the economic dividends of sanctions relief.

But the deal’s restoration, while crucial for curbing Iran’s nuclear program and removing a major source of tension in the region, is in itself insufficient. The accord has proven unstable given political opposition to it in both Tehran and Washington and the U.S.-Iran enmity that has often put the two countries on opposite sides of regional conflicts. The Biden administration is seeking to negotiate a follow-up nuclear agreement before some of the restrictions in the original deal terminate in 2023. At this stage, there is no indication that Raisi would be willing to engage in such talks. But if Iran does decide to seek a better-for-better arrangement, in which it can get more sanctions relief in return for more durable restrictions and more rigorous monitoring of its nuclear activities – which on paper should be in Tehran’s interests – then the Raisi administration would arguably be in a stronger position than its predecessor to do so as it will face less internal resistance.

That said, while Iranian hardliners may be better placed to follow through, they are not necessarily adept at negotiating with Western powers. Raisi’s choice of foreign minister (which the Iranian president traditionally does in consultation with the Supreme Leader) will hence be critical. Raisi himself is unlikely to be the face that Iran wants to project to the outside world. Most of his foreign policy advisers during the campaign hailed from the hawkish camp. But the leadership might want him to retain some of Iran’s present negotiators, at least temporarily, to ensure a smooth transition on key portfolios including the nuclear issues. Some Western diplomats still remember the trauma of engaging with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, when every meeting started with hours of diatribe and, according to then-U.S. Under-Secretary of State William Burns, “meandering philosophising about Iran’s culture and history”.

If a deal is not reached prior to Raisi’s 3 August inauguration, the nuclear agreement’s revival could become moot.

If, on the other hand, a deal is not reached prior to Raisi’s 3 August inauguration, the nuclear agreement’s revival could become moot, as the original deal’s constraints will no longer suffice in curbing Iran’s nearly irreversible advancements since 2019. It is also hard to imagine that Raisi would be willing right out of the gate to make compromises – necessary for completing the roadmap for the U.S. and Iran to return to full compliance with the deal – from which even Rouhani shied away. That would imply a perilous nuclear standoff before both sides get back to the bargaining table to start negotiating a new deal from scratch.

While the political cost for the U.S. and Europe of deal-making with Raisi is higher given his troubling human rights record, the West cannot choose its interlocutors. In any case, it has experience negotiating with unpalatable counterparts. More importantly, the Islamic Republic will probably be seeking a degree of calm in its foreign relations so that it can focus on a smooth transition at home. In that sense, Raisi’s election and preparations for a likely succession are an opportunity for the West. Engaging the new Iranian government would also likely better serve the interests of the Iranian people, who will be facing a system that cares more about its own survival than their needs and grievances. Confronting the Raisi administration through extra pressure would further weaken Iran’s middle class, which has suffered much under U.S. sanctions, as well as Iranian government repression, but remains the best hope for positive change in the country’s future.


Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
Senior Analyst, Iran