Three years after former President Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and following stalled negotiations to renew the deal in Vienna, Iran has elected hardliner Ebrahim Raisi into office in an election with the lowest voter turnout in the Islamic republic’s history, and which has gained condemnation abroad for being neither free nor fair.
Gaining the required approval of the unelected Supreme Leader (who barred reform-minded candidates from running), Raisi sealed his victory by winning nearly 62% of the counted votes and seeing off other pre-approved candidates including another hardliner, Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei who came second, and relative moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati who came third.
Raisi has been involved in Iranian politics for decades following the Islamic revolution and overthrow of the US-backed Shah in 1979. In 1981 he was appointed as a district prosecutor but gained notoriety in 1988 for his role in facilitating the execution of thousands of political prisoners. When asked about his role in this grisly affair, Raisi has been vague, arguing only that “I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was.”
The former prosecutor ran his election platform on the main themes of “economic self-sufficiency” and “combating corruption”. These problems have plagued the Islamic republic since its inception and ordinary Iranians have been hit hard by ruthless US sanctions (including sanctions on medicine) following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the subsequent failure by the Biden administration to immediately re-join the deal.
As far as foreign policy, Raisi shares many of the sentiments held by hardliners in Iran, and has ruled out engaging with western powers on Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its policy of backing sympathetic militant movements across the Middle East such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
However, some observers may yet find hope in Raisi’s seeming willingness to continue indirect talks with the US to restore the nuclear deal and gain some relief from sanctions. Further, Raisi has expressed openness at the idea of reopening the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran which was closed in 2016 as tensions mounted between the countries with Yemen plunging deeper into civil war.
On the whole, Ebrahim Raisi’s election as president of Iran signals a hardening position among the country’s ruling elite. This is perhaps unsurprising given the US’ longstanding desire to impose regime change in Iran (as expressed openly by former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo).
More recently, this has manifested in Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from an international agreement and Biden’s reluctance to re-join the agreement without imposing additional measures related to Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for militant groups in the region.
Nevertheless, Raisi’s election paints a grim prospect for not just the future of US-Iranian relations, but Iran’s place in the world. The country’s theocratic leadership may desperately seek help from abroad and make further deals similar to last year’s ambitious agreement with China, thus reducing opportunities for Iran to become a truly global energy and trade hub in the coming years.