Europeans obviously do not decide elections in countries outside of Europe, even though they may have their preferences. Four years ago, when Ebrahim Raisi unsuccessfully ran against incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, the two looked like stark alternatives: the moderate officeholder who had just agreed to curb the country’s nuclear program versus an unknown hardline cleric. Now the latter, also a conservative judge, has been elected to succeed his previous adversary thanks to his first-round victory last Friday over a very limited number of opponents. However, instead of big change, Iranians – and European governments – are likely to get more of the same.
That is because the Iranian regime had already turned away from the pragmatic course that Rouhani promised in his first campaign, which led to the 2015 nuclear deal. It was the United States’ 2018 rejection of this agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, that put the brakes on Iran’s international opening.
Today, the so-called Principlists control all levers of power in the Islamic Republic, both the elected ones such as the parliament and presidency and the unelected ones, from the supreme leader to the judiciary and the security apparatus.
To achieve this outcome, the system’s rules were bent to directly favor the frontrunner for the presidency. The Guardian Council cleared the field of candidates so that Raisi would face no serious competition. The members of this clerical-legal body were mostly handpicked either by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or by the man who served as the head of the judiciary for the past two years, Raisi himself. Bending the rules was even more important than ensuring that the election would excite the public: voter turnout already fell to a historically low 42.5% in the parliamentary election in 2020, which brought the Majles under conservative control; the officially announced result for the June 2021 election shows voter turnout at less than 49% – with millions of ballots deliberately made invalid in an apparent sign of protest.
This conservative turn means that the Europeans will have a much tougher time once Raisi enters office, whether in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, the bilateral approach to Iran, or the regional file. There is no longer a veneer of moderation to the Islamic Republic; Tehran is sending out a consistent hardline message.
Talks to revive the nuclear deal continued for one day after the election and were then adjourned until another, now seventh, ‘final final’ round begins. Negotiators had initially aimed to find a compromise over both America’s and Iran’s return to compliance with the JCPOA prior to the presidential election. Now, the goal is to do so before the inauguration of the next government by early August, even though the election result will not change much on Iran’s side anyway. This is because the supreme leader already gave the green light to a return to the JCPOA under the condition that the United States lift its sanctions.
A more immediate concern is the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to inspect Iran’s nuclear installations. An interim agreement on this issue has just expired, threatening to severely curtail the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground – and to derail the talks in Vienna. Given that the Iranian leadership appears to be banking on the eventual lifting of sanctions, however, this could be seen as posturing to create a sense of urgency among negotiators to find a compromise.
If a deal reviving the JCPOA can indeed be agreed by the time when Raisi assumes the presidency, he will effectively be able to bask in the benefits of that decision while blaming any remaining faults on his predecessor. And the Europeans should begin to set their sights on the many other problems this country poses for them – beginning with what the return of the hardliners to the presidency means for Iranian society.
The 60-year-old Raisi is a middle-ranked cleric (hojatoleslam) steeped in the country’s judicial system. He hails from a clerical family in the Shia holy city of Mashhad and holds conservative views on a range of social issues, from a dress code to Internet use, as well as on the Islamization of universities. In fact, Raisi claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet – hence the “Sayed” in his name and the black turban on his head.
The next president happens to be, in effect, a first-time politician. He rose from being deputy prosecutor of Tehran after the 1979 revolution to attorney general by 2014, becoming chief justice in 2019 following his failed presidential bid. Between 2016 and 2019, Raisi also ran the Astan Quds Razavi foundation that guards the Imam Ali shrine of his hometown. This is one of Iran’s largest and wealthiest conglomerates, with holdings in construction, agriculture, energy, telecommunications, and financial services. It was placed under US sanctions in January 2021. The US Treasury has sanctioned Raisi himself, accusing him of advancing the regime’s “domestic and foreign oppression” as he led the crackdown against the November 2019 mass protests. This resulted in (at least) hundreds of deaths, with thousands still in custody.
Importantly, Raisi is most notorious for his alleged role as a member of a four-person death panel that oversaw the killing of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, a charge that he denies. As much as this repels any civic-minded Iranian, it endears Raisi to the regime’s insiders because it means he has a vested interest in maintaining the system – and, if anything hardening it.
With Raisi leading the Iranian government, any hope for reform from within will be gone. Unlike Rouhani, who spoke of holding a referendum to reform the state leadership after Khamenei’s eventual passing, Raisi appears determined to maintain – even cement – the status quo, possibly seeing himself as the next supreme leader.
All this will make any European initiative directed at Iran’s domestic sphere more difficult to execute. Already, there is little room for the “constructive engagement” the EU keeps hoping for once the nuclear deal is back on track. The Iranian leadership has refused Western vaccines and aid, thus hampering humanitarian cooperation during the pandemic. Moreover, it views academics with international contacts as potential spies, which stalls efforts to help the country’s battered environment.
Lastly, with a verdict looming in a Swedish court case against a suspected collaborator of Raisi in the 1988 killings, there is certainly a chance that an (indirect) juridical implication of Iran’s new president could disrupt European-Iranian political dialogue, just as the “Mykonos verdict” of a German court on the murder of four opposition politicians did back in 1997.
Even if a reactivated JCPOA brings renewed control over Iran’s nuclear program and limited trade, it won’t be a springboard for an internal opening. Still, by taking the threat of the bomb off the table it should allow for a more coordinated focus on regional security.
The new president will likely continue to pursue Iran’s regional policies of extending its reach through proxies while being open to diplomacy with worried neighbors. Having given little indication whatsoever about his own priorities, Raisi is expected to yield to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which controls regional activities in consultation with the supreme leader. In recent years these activities have included both violent attacks, for example on Arab tankers and oil installations, and talks on issues such as maritime security and regional de-escalation with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Hence, the new Iranian leadership will be hard-nosed about its security interests, but without any isolationist streaks.
For the EU, this represents an opportunity to update its own approach, turning away from its focus on the nuclear file to take in the bigger, regional picture. The political grounds are shifting: Israel has concluded diplomatic accords with two Gulf states, some of the latter have begun talking to Tehran, and Washington would like to extricate itself from a conflict-prone theatre. Time for Europe to come in with proposals for how to organize collective security in the Persian Gulf.
Dr Cornelius Adebahr is a political analyst and entrepreneur based in Berlin, Germany. He consults with European political institutions, international think tanks and universities, as well as civil society organisations on issues of European integration, foreign policy, and citizens’ engagement. He is an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a nonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, and a fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He is the author of „Europe and Iran: The Nuclear Deal and Beyond (Routledge 2017) and „Learning and Change in European Foreign Policy: The Case of the EU Special Representatives“ (Nomos 2009).
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.