The ultra-conservative head of the Iranian judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, has just won one of the country’s most controversial elections. Less than 50% of the electorate voted in the election, which is the lowest rate of participation in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Presidential elections, held every four years in Iran, are the country’s most important political event, especially every eight years, when a new administration usually takes office. Past elections have drawn up to 85% of eligible voters to the polls.
The mass disqualification of candidates – combined with deep voter apathy, frustration and anger, and Covid-19 restrictions on both campaign events and polling stations – led to an election result that was already predicted.
While Iranian elections are not fully free or fair, they have been fairly competitive in the past, at least among those candidates that have been allowed to run. And in the past two-and-a-half decades since the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami, high voter participation has meant more votes for the reformists and moderates, handing landslide victories to their candidates. This includes the previous presidential election in 2017, when Ebrahim Raisi, who was also the hardline favorite back then, lost to Hassan Rouhani in a landslide.
However, this election was widely seen by most reformists as already “pre-engineered”. In order to ensure a guaranteed win for Ebrahim Raisi and avoid a second embarrassing defeat, the Guardian Council disqualified all prominent reformist and moderate rivals and only allowed two relatively obscure moderates to run. This unprecedented mass disqualification ruled out a former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, and a current vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, all of whom had a strong support base and could have been potential challengers to Raisi. Therefore the Guardian Council prevented any serious competition in the election and cleared a guaranteed path to victory for the hardline favorite.
Azar Mansoori, the deputy head of Iran’s largest reformist party, the People’s Unity, told me that the Guardian Council eliminated the minimum requirements for fair competition. “It is very clear. This time they didn’t even allow Larijani in. And the two remaining moderates had no power to resist the hidden government [the deep state] and other parallel entities. They wouldn’t be qualified to run if there was any doubt that they could resist.”
One fairly unknown moderate, Abdolnasser Hemmati, the former head of Iran’s central bank, was allowed to run. He was a technocrat in the Rouhani administration with very little charisma, who lacked the political support needed to win such a controversial election. Major reformist parties refused to support any of the approved candidates, announcing that, after the mass disqualification by the Guardian Council, they had no candidates to support.
Ebrahim Raisi received slightly more votes this time than in 2017, but this time with no rival on the other side. It was clear that the hardliners were not really aiming for a competitive election with high voter participation, but rather a guaranteed result with the help of their core base of supporters.
Ms. Mansoori told me that Raisi has basically won the election by coming in second place. “In the previous election in 2017, Mr Raisi received about 16 million votes, which was around 28% of all eligible voters, and Rouhani won with 24 million votes, more than 50% of eligible voters. In this election in 2021, the winning candidate received the votes of 29% of eligible voters,” Ms. Mansoori explained.
Ebrahim Raisi is believed to have high ambitions beyond the presidency. He is widely seen as one of the potential successors to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the favorite candidate of the IRGC and its intelligence and security forces. Ayatollah Khamenei was president himself before being named supreme leader. It seems that Ebrahim Raisi and the powerful forces that support him have been trying to follow the same path, from the presidency to supreme leadership.
Many Iranian analysts and political figures believe that Donald Trump’s maximum-pressure policy – which included pulling out of the nuclear deal, imposing crippling economic sanctions, escalating military tensions, and playing a part in the assassination of Iran’s top general and top nuclear scientist – all helped push Iran to the right. Iranian moderates and pro-diplomacy voices were weakened under Trump, the country’s more hardline factions and militaristic forces were emboldened and strengthened, and the political space became increasingly securitized.
As this presidential election unfolded, Iranian and American diplomats were making progress in Vienna, negotiating a return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) that President Trump left in 2018. Though Raisi hails from the anti-JCPOA camp in Iran, he has recently voiced his support for the negotiations. And once a final agreement on the nuclear deal is reached, we can expect continuity on Iran’s commitment even after Raisi comes into office in August, despite his hardline past. This is because the agreement already exists on paper and has the approval of the supreme leader.
Moreover, there are still a few weeks left of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency; Raisi’s inauguration is not until early August. If the current team of negotiators under Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif get the nuclear negotiations over the finish line before the change of administration, the deal will have a good chance to survive.
But any future negotiations on issues beyond the JCPOA – whether on Iran’s nuclear program, its missiles, or regional policy – will be more complicated under a hardline president. Raisi has been sanctioned by the United States for his alleged role in the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, as a member of a “death committee”. His hardline views and his past record of human rights abuses will complicate his administration’s engagement with the West.
Masoud Bastani, an Iranian journalist based in Tehran, says that Raisi will pursue a hardline policy towards the West. “As a first step Raisi posted Ali Bagheir Kani as his representative at the Foreign Ministry, a figure known as Saeed Jalili’s deputy during Iran’s failed negotiations with the West. And during his press conference, while Raisi tried to signal a green light to the Saudis, he said decisively that he is not willing to meet with the American president,” Mr Bastani told me.
Ebrahim Raisi’s future presidency will most likely resemble the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when nuclear negotiations took place but went nowhere, and relations with the West became more turbulent. This will complicate the follow-on negotiations that President Joe Biden has mentioned in the past, in the context of his desire to follow a return to the JCPOA with more diplomacy and newer agreements with Iran.
Iran’s relations with the West are very much centered around tensions with the United States. Tehran and Washington have been caught in a cycle of mismatched timing over the past three decades. When pro-engagement presidents emerged in Iran and tried to reach out to the United States, they quickly ran into opposition from hawkish leaders in Washington. Vice versa, when pro-diplomacy American leaders tried to reach out to the other side, anti-diplomacy forces gained power in Tehran. For example, when reformist president Mohammad Khatami presented a pro-diplomacy discourse to the West, it soon coincided with George Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” speech. And when Barack Obama talked about negotiating with Iran, he coincided with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-American administration.
With Joe Biden rising to the White House and ending Donald Trump’s one-term presidency, there was a brief opportunity to break this cycle. Joe Biden and Hassan Rouhani had a few months, between January and June, to make a fast return to the JCPOA that could have boosted the Iranian economy and potentially changed the daily lives of many Iranians. With that backdrop and the active participation of voters, another moderate could potentially have risen to the presidency in Iran. In that case, two pro-engagement presidents in Tehran and Washington would have coincided for four and possibly eight years. They could have made progress on issues beyond the nuclear program and eased the four-decade-long tensions between the two countries.
But now that hardliner Ebrahim Raisi has become president just months after Joe Biden, this long cycle of bad timing between Iran and the United States will likely continue.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and political analyst based in Washington DC, who has been covering Iranian affairs and US-Iran relations for over a decade. She is a columnist for The Independent and host of the Iran Podcast. She is a frequent media analyst on Iran and US foreign policy, and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, BBC, France24, Aljazeera, and media outlets across the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. She has been named a Young Leader by Friends of Europe, New America, and the National Iranian American Council, and an inspirational woman in Forbes.
On Twitter: @NegarMortazavi
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.