Raisi’s election will heighten tensions in the Middle East. We must adopt a firm approach to Iran.

Roberto White

June 25, 2021

Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative judiciary chief won 17.9 million votes, equivalent to 62 per cent in the Iranian presidential elections. In August of this year, Raisi will succeed Hassan Rouhani, a “moderate”, who has been President since 2013. The result means that the hardliners in Tehran will be at their most powerful since Rouhani’s election in 2013. So, what does this mean for Iran and the Middle East?

Iranian elections are neither free nor fair. All presidential candidates must be vetted by the Guardian Council, a body chaired by the Supreme Leader, who has final say of who can run for President. As a consequence, many reformist candidates in this year’s presidential elections were disqualified from running.

Raisi’s election does not seem to be a step towards a freer and more democratic Iran. As Chief Justice of Iran, he oversaw a system that is second only to China in the number of people it executes a year. Minorities constitute a disproportionate number of those convicted with Iranian Kurds making up approximately 50 per cent of those executed despite representing less than half of the population.

He is also a protégé of current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the writing on the wall is clear: the Iranian people must fall in line or face consequences.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said that the world must “wake up” to the threat posed by Iran while promising to never allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Israel’s concerns are justified, especially given that Iran’s Supreme Leader has openly stated that he seeks the destruction of the State of Israel.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal, was the 2015 agreement signed by Iran and most world powers (including the US and the UK) that sought to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for billions in sanctions relief.

The US withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed all sanctions removed under the deal in a strategy of “maximum pressure”. Since taking office, the Biden administration has been attempting to revive the deal, but Raisi’s elections complicates things. The Supreme Leader remains the foremost authority for important issues like Iran’s nuclear program, and he is believed to want a deal to ameliorate the effect of the sanctions on Iran’s economy.

As the New York Times reports, there is a chance to strike a deal before Raisi is inaugurated, given that if a deal is agreed and is successful, sanctions will be lifted and Raisi will reap the economic benefits.

However, there are two key issues to be resolved: Iran wants a guarantee that the US will not withdraw from the agreement again (a non-starter given that the deal is an “executive agreement” that can be reversed by future Presidents) and the Americans want it in writing that once the original deal is restored, the Iranians return to the table for a “longer and stronger” deal (something unlikely to occur as once sanctions are lifted, the Iranians will have little incentive to concede more). Therefore, the situation could go either way- both sides can agree on a deal, or their differences will stall consensus until after Raisi formally becomes President.

The primary concern with Iran is that they develop a nuclear weapon that they could use against adversaries. A classical liberal might suggest a similar approach that led to the JCPOA, whereby a coalition of major powers engage with Iran through meetings and negotiations to ensure the Iranians do not acquire a nuclear weapon.

However, what often occurs with this approach, as evidenced by the Iran Deal, is that Iran receives substantial benefits without conceding anything of substance. For example, the Iran Deal did not require Iran to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at sites or facilities where nuclear activity is suspected to have occurred. In return, Iran received tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

The most appropriate way to deal with Iran is through sanctions and international pressure. After President Trump reinstated sanctions on Iran in 2018, Iran’s economy went into freefall as GDP contracted 4.8 per cent in 2018 and inflation increased from 9 per cent in 2017 to 30.5 per cent in 2018.

Sanctions are crucial because they force the realisation of the considerable costs of pursuing a nuclear program. Only when prolonged sanctions exert great pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei will Iranian diplomats arrive at the negotiating table willing to commit to a verifiable and irreversible path that does not involve them acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Ultimately the election of Ebrahim Raisi as the next President of Iran will be consequential. What we are likely to see is that, just as the US pushes for an agreement to be made, the Israelis, feeling increasingly threatened, will adopt a tougher posture against Iran. Other major players, including Saudi Arabia, will most likely increase cooperation (unofficial and official) with states such as Israel and the UAE who view Iran as a major threat.

Domestically, Iran’s citizens are likely to be subjected to increasing levels of state-sanctioned repression. What is certain is that Raisi’s election will heighten tensions in the Middle East and due to this, we must adopt a firm approach to Iran.


Written by Roberto White

Roberto is a Masters Student of International Relations at the University of Bath.

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