The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on Iran, where the Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi emerged victorious in the last presidential election, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the Islamic Republic and its relations with the rest of the world.
During last week’s election — the twelfth in the history of the Islamic Republic — Iranians chose the conservative Ebrahim Raisi as their next President. Raisi’s electoral success was highly expected considering the Guardian Council’s decision to exclude prominent potential rivals from the electoral race. Raisi – Iran’s current Chief Justice – has won with nearly 62% of votes. In fact, Raisi’s appointment has been widely seen as an attempt to reconcile the presidency with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as many experts also see Raisi as Khamenei’s most likely successor. Nonetheless, voter turnout hit an all-time low in the Islamic Republic’s entire history, with less than 49% of ballots cast, probably due to several boycott calls. The President-elect will face several issues, starting with a difficult economic situation, a stunted vaccination campaign, and a problematic foreign policy centred on restoring diplomatic dialogues with other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, and reviving the 2015 nuclear accord. Since April, JCPOA’s signatory countries have been meeting in Vienna to negotiate a settlement to restore the deal. Nevertheless, Raisi’s elections could complicate the restoration of the agreement and, more generally, Iranian relations with Washington as Raisi is currently under US sanctions for human rights violation.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the election of Ebrahim Raisi as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A first step towards generational change
“The selection of Ebrahim Raisi can only be understood in light of what happened in the last four years and what is going to happen over the next four to eight years. Looking at the past, the US maximum pressure campaign as well as the sabotage campaign ascribed to Israel has put the Iranian leadership on high alert. Looking at the future, the Supreme Leader feels the urgency to cement his legacy and prepare the transition. These factors contribute to explaining the need for the Guide to make sure all the institutions of the Islamic Republic are in the hands of like-minded people, so as to protect the interest of the system in this very crucial moment.”
Annalisa Perteghella, Research Fellow, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
The real winner is the boycott campaign
“The historically lowest voter turnout of 48.8% (which, in reality, is certainly lower than that), of which over 3.7 million were spoiled votes, has been a resounding rejection of the entire establishment – hard-line or moderate – by a clear majority of Iranians. The real winner has been the boycott campaign that wanted to strip the Islamic Republic of its ability to leverage voter turnout as proof of its legitimacy, also to the outside world. What it got instead is a quasi-referendum against it, a popular vote of no confidence. This, however, is no surprise to those who have closely watched the widening gulf between state and society in the Rouhani era, as epitomised by two nationwide uprisings.
Internal stability will continue to be challenged by re-emerging protests, driven by a combination of socio-economic and political grievances. Increasingly devoid of legitimacy and amid the impossibility of any reform, the Islamic Republic will continue to rely on repression and violence to contain popular disaffection heavily.”
Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Political Analyst and Author, Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani; and Iran 1400 Brief: Beyond the Headlines.
The economic challenge at the centre of Raisi’s success
“President-elect Raisi is fortunate that the worst of Iran’s economic crisis is over. Iran’s economy is now growing, albeit slowly, following nearly three years of contraction. Inflation is easing, and Iran’s currency has regained about one-third of its value since reaching a historic low exchange rate in October 2020. But this economic recovery is too weak to allow Raisi to rest easy. For those Iranian families hit hardest by the economic downturn triggered by sanctions and then compounded by the pandemic, the anaemic growth means that they will be unlikely to see their living standards return to pre-crisis levels. The economic crisis may not be acute, but economic anxieties will remain. Raisi will look to the restoration of the nuclear deal and the lifting of secondary sanctions for a boost—this should help reduce inflation further as the cost of imports falls. But the deal is unlikely to lead to new foreign investment in the short term as companies hit by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal hesitate to make big bets on the Iranian market. In particular, this hesitancy will hamper prospects for job creation. Raisi’s success will be principally judged on whether he can create a major shift in the country’s economy. It will prove challenging.”
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, CEO, Bourse & Bazaar Foundation; and Visiting Fellow, ECFR
Pragmatic continuity in Iranian foreign policy
On Iran’s key foreign policy issues, we can expect continuity. This will apply with regards to Iran’s position in the nuclear talks, the ongoing security talks with Saudi Arabia and regional neighbours — which he explicitly called a priority — as well as to strategic relations with China. These policies have been designed and shaped by the Supreme National Security Council, which Ebrahim Raisi had been a member of as Judiciary Chief. The rhetoric towards the US and Europe has certainly sharpened in the past 2-3 years, already. And this, too, is likely to continue. But on actual policies, Raisi may in fact benefit from more solid backing from power structures and be able to deliver.”
Adnan Tabatabai, Co- Founder and CEO, Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO)
An Eastern Zeitgeist for Raisi’s presidency
“Raisi’s election as Iran’s President will likely result in a relaunch of the “Look to the East” strategy as the core orientation of Tehran’s foreign policy strategy. In fact, the Conservative camp has historically been the most prone to accept a shift towards the East. For instance, while the Iranian moderates and Reformists are traditionally more prudent and sceptical towards having a relationship with China, Conservatives have demonstrated a receptive attitude towards Beijing’s attempts to frame the Sino-Iranian partnership as a civilisational friendship soaked with historical and political meanings. Arguably, Iran’s relations with Russia will face the same zeitgeist, broadly reflecting a substantial change from the spirit – the opportunity of a new season of European investments in the country – that characterised Hassan Rouhani’s electoral campaign in 2013. Yet, it is essential to note that Raisi’s impact on Iran’s foreign policy strategy will eventually reflect an acceleration of pre-existing dynamics – the above mentioned “Look to the East” strategy – rather than a radically new shift.”
Jacopo Scita, H.H. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Doctoral Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University