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Commentary | 18 August 2021

Iran’s political shake-up and Ebrahim Raisi as president

Image of Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai |Co-founder and CEO of CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient

Europe Iran JCPOA Middle East Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Global Security

With the electoral victory of Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, Iran is potentially undergoing a dramatic shift in its political landscape. After eight years and two presidential terms in control of the executive branch of government, the centrist ‘Moderates’ (e’tedaaliyoun) have suffered a heavy political defeat against the conservative ‘Principlist’ (osulgeraa) camp. In the midst of this, the ‘Reformist’ (eslaahtalab) faction, which once mobilized masses to elevate the Moderate Hassan Rouhani into the presidency in 2013 and to his reelection in 2017, has lost its political capital and appeal. It will take years for Reformists to recover and reemerge as a political force. A comeback would require nothing short of a generational transition within the camp and their reformulation of what reformism actually means in the Islamic Republic of today.

In full contrast to the Reformists, the most hardline faction within the Principlist camp, the Steadfastness Front (or jebhe-ye paaydaari), appears to be on a roll. Interestingly, it had appeared on the brink of being politically sidelined for good during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. Their uber-ideological approach, deep disregard for the republican nature of Iran’s political system, and full-fledged opposition to the nuclear agreement – or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – had no place in the country’s political climate until only two or three years ago. But with the JCPOA going off the rails after the US withdrawal under former president Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani’s government appeared increasingly paralyzed. Weakened, with his key dossier in shambles, Rouhani simultaneously lost popular backing and political weight within the establishment.

With the economic malaise of the country worsening by the day and any hope for economic recovery waning, the Steadfastness Front seized the opportunity to rehabilitate, masterfully adopting a rhetoric that appeared more in synch with public sentiment compared to what seemed, at times, arrogant and out-of-touch words from Rouhani and some of his cabinet members. Add to this widespread disillusionment among millions of Iranians, resulting in mounting political apathy, it therefore came as no surprise that roughly one-third of parliamentary seats went to the Steadfastness Front in February 2020. The fact that almost every Reformist or Moderate candidate was barred from running in the Guardian Council made life considerably easier for the hardline conservatives. But even if those disqualifications had not happened, the overall mood of the population and the failure of Reformists and Moderates to deliver would also have most likely sealed their political defeat. After all, some well-known reformist MPs like Majid Ansari or Mostafa Kavakebian had been approved as candidates but could not secure enough votes to reclaim their parliamentary seats, as they came in only as 36th and 38th in a list of 30 MPs from Tehran.

But anyone who believes that this will leave Iran’s political scene monolithic urgently needs to zoom in. There are different shades of grey within the Principlist camp, and the factional infighting is as intense as it can be. Adnan Tabatabai

But anyone who believes that this will leave Iran’s political scene monolithic urgently needs to zoom in. There are different shades of grey within the Principlist camp, and the factional infighting is as intense as it can be. Dozens of veteran politicians and loosely defined parties compete for power. The likelier it became that this time their camp would take back hold over the executive branch, the more their differences came to the fore. It may have been this very factional infighting that led to the necessity of inviting Ebrahim Raisi as the frontrunner for the presidential elections as he appears to embody the political gravitas to unite this political camp behind a single candidate.

Even among Raisi’s supporters, many were not happy about his candidacy. They saw him as the right man to be at the helm of the judicial apparatus and therefore expected him to complete his five-year term as chief justice, following his appointment by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2019. In their view, the presidency could harm his gradually increasing popular support base, obtained through his anti-corruption drive in the judiciary. His supporters also feared that a second electoral defeat, after his failed bid for the presidency in 2017, could undermine his future political career.

After all, there is a lot of speculation (by some who view it with hope and by others with concern) that Raisi’s political career will eventually lead to the office of the Supreme Leader — as the successor of 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the question of succession is far from sealed. Whether or not Raisi can be a serious candidate will depend on the trajectory of his presidency and on how views about him in the population and the political elite alike evolve during his time in office.

Unlike his predecessors, Ebrahim Raisi has not articulated any clear political identity or vision. It, therefore, seems likely that he will be a president whose conduct will be shaped mainly by the composition of his cabinet rather than by his own personality. This makes the current dynamics within the Principlist camp particularly important. The dose of ideological zeal or pragmatic realism in his government will depend on which Principlist faction most effectively imposes its personnel and agenda on Raisi: will it be veteran conservative figures like Gholam Ali Haddad Adel and Mohammad Reza Bahonar? Or former military commanders like Mohsen Rezaei and Rostam Ghassemi? Or, indeed, hardline minds like Morteza Agha-Tehrani and Sadegh Mahsouli who lead the Steadfastness Front?

One key appointment will be that of the foreign minister. As with the minister of interior, the minister of information and national security (or intelligence ministry) and the minister of defence, the president’s choice for the country’s top diplomat is decided in close coordination with the Supreme Leader. All nominees will then need a vote of confidence from parliament.

In a significant first appointment, Raisi has nominated Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to inherit the role of foreign minister from Mohammad Javad Zarif. Receiving the necessary vote of confidence in parliament should be a no-brainer for him.

Amir-Abdollahian is known as a career diplomat specializing in Iran’s neighbouring region. And given the promising series of talks that were held between Iranian and Saudi security officials in the first half of this year in Baghdad, Amir-Abdollahian’s appointment may herald what Raisi pledged during his first press conference as president-elect: that Iran’s foreign policy priority will be relations with its neighbours.

Furthermore, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has no distinct passion for or against the JCPOA. Unlike Javad Zarif, who ardently fought for it, or diplomats close to Said Jalili who may have aggressively fought against it, Amir-Abdollahian will want to focus on other foreign policy files and, ideally, seek to champion the return to the JCPOA sooner rather than later. This would allow him to pay more attention to regional affairs. His meeting in Tehran with Enrique Mora, the Deputy Secretary-General and Political Director of the European External Action Service, on the sidelines of the inauguration ceremony of Raisi, has reportedly been ‘constructive’.

Engaging Iran has never been easy for Europe, and it will certainly not get easier under President Raisi. Restoring the JCPOA will be essential in the quest to improve relations after mutual disappointment and frustration in relation to the accord – with Iran blaming Europe for inaction and Europe blaming Iran for escalating the nuclear file and exerting pressure on the remaining parties to the agreement.

Neither side can afford to cut relations. Iran is too important a regional actor for Europe to dismiss. The contexts of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the rapidly unfolding crisis in Afghanistan – with all the challenges this entails – will require Iran at the table alongside other regional players for these issues to be meaningfully addressed. At the same time, Europe’s economic and technological prowess continues to be admired among Iranian technocrats and viewed as the prime partner for the development and growth of the country – even if it’s only meant as an intermediary step towards more independence, self-reliance and immunity to sanctions.

Raisi’s political personality will be formed by the formation of his cabinet. Similarly, his views on engagement with Europe and the JCPOA will be shaped by experiences during his presidency. Adnan Tabatabai

As outlined above, Raisi’s political personality will be formed by the formation of his cabinet. Similarly, his views on engagement with Europe and the JCPOA will be shaped by experiences during his presidency. There is no doubt that Raisi shares the scepticism of the Supreme Leader regarding any outreach to or with the West, but neither hold the dogmatic view that cooperation is impossible.

Restoring the JCPOA to its full functioning would create a precedent that would serve as a solid argument in favour of continued engagement. The centrality of the nuclear file can be a curse and blessing – a blessing because it is technical in essence, and a curse because nothing will work in the short- and mid-term without this dossier being resolved. The shift to the far right in Iran does not appear to have gone too far for the JCPOA to remain on the table. The opportunity to restore it should be seized.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Raisi in 2021 election, Wikimedia, Maryam Kamyab