Iran, a unique theocratic republic, has a dual political system: whereas the vox Dei is represented by the Supreme Leader (or faqih), the vox populi is chosen by universal adult suffrage, with an often high level of popular participation. Nevertheless, the June 2021 election was particularly odd, showcasing the lowest turnout since 1979. It’s understandable: when the Guardian Council announced the presidential candidate list, the event looked more like a plebiscite than an election, in the sense that voters felt they had only to approve or not the imminent election of the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
Raisi is a conservative Shia jurist, associated with the hardliner faction due to his links with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps); his advocacy for gender segregation in the public sphere; the Islamization of universities, and resistance against Western culture permeation. He is known for his involvement in the 1988 trial that sentenced thousands of Iranians to death for dissidence. While he had never publicly addressed his role in the prosecution, Raisi has been accused by many international institutions, such as International Amnesty, of human rights violation, and personally has been under US sanctions since 2019.
The low turnout of voters possibly was a form of protest. People were clearly dissatisfied with the narrow range of choices, being mostly conservative candidates, with no reformist or moderates offered. Even the Supreme Leader Khamenei commented that the disqualification of the most moderate candidates was unfair.
But the general dissatisfaction precedes the candidate list. Iran struggles with a long-standing economic crisis, primarily due to international sanctions that hampers investment, development, and capital attraction. Additionally, over and over, Iranian presidents have ended their mandates with accusations of maladministration, corruption, and inefficiency. Even for moderate Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), things were not different. Protests in 2019 and in 2020 indicated people’s disillusionment with Rouhani’s policies, the lack of promised reforms, and the slow economic advances after the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear deal. The shooting down of the Ukraine International flight PS752 by the IRGC in January 2020 and the brutal hit of the Covid-19 pandemic boosted social frustration even further.
Raisi campaigned on a platform of ending poverty, boosting a self-sufficient economy, eradicating corruption, and fostering political transparency. He was critical of Rouhani’s strategy of putting all his eggs in the JCPOA’s basket, as Iranians should know better than to trust their economic development to the United States. For Raisi, the focus should be on strengthening local production, supporting Iranian entrepreneurship, and developing a resilient economy that does not rely on the global market. How he plans to do that and create the promised millions of jobs remains to be answered. So far, he seems to have Khamenei’s support, which is critical for any president to succeed in his goals. In fact, rumors suggest that the ayatollah may be testing the waters of Raisi’s popularity among Iranians, as he is supposedly a candidate to replace the Supreme Leader. Khamenei’s health is a well-kept secret, but considering that he is 82 years old, it is rational to imagine that he is thinking about his possible successor. If Raisi is indeed an aspirant, his years as president could be seen as a test. After all, Khamenei was president (1981-1989) before replacing Ayatollah Khomeini.
The main challenge Raisi inherits from Rouhani’s administration is finding a solution for the JCPOA impasse since President Trump decided to withdraw from it in May 2018. Raisi, like many other conservatives and hardliners, is critical of Rouhani’s conciliatory approach towards the West. For him, the United States should never be trusted, as their interests diverge from those of the Iranians. However, to imagine that Raisi will abandon an agreement with these five great powers (being the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, China, plus Russia which also signed the deal) is farfetched. There seems to be a consensus, especially among Iranian civilians, that the end of the sanctions regime is essential to attract foreign capital and investment to fix the Iranian economy and re-instate it into the international community.
During the 2017 elections, in which Raisi lost to Rouhani, the former argued that any president should be committed to the deal, as it was a national document representing Iranian’s interests. However, it is important to stress that, after Washington quit the agreement, Iran started to breach its own commitments related to nuclear enrichment as a way to press for a solution while gaining new scientific expertise and knowledge. In May 2019, Iran announced it would peel back the JCPOA restrictions on its nuclear program calculatedly and gradually. Here lies the central issue halting the Biden administration returning to the deal immediately. While the new US president announced his interest in rejoining JCPOA, he is unsure about doing it without a renegotiation because the context is different from the one in 2015. Conversely, Iran rejects returning to the negotiation table with Americans, arguing it will return to compliance only after the United States lifts sanctions as previously agreed. It also demands to independently verify if sanctions have been removed, something that Washington calls unrealistic.
So far, 2021 negotiations in Geneva are frustrating: the Iranians refuse to talk directly with the Americans, forcing the Europeans to bridge indirect talks between the two. While some hoped for the issue to be settle before Raisi assumes rule on August 3rd, it is becoming clear that it will not happen. Thus, one should expect that negotiations will be even more challenging under Raisi. The political tone will be less conciliatory, and the diplomatic team will be inevitably less experienced. Rouhani and his Foreign Affairs Minister, Javad Zarif, are renowned for their diplomatic skills in negotiating the nuclear program since the early 2000s. Whoever Raisi chose as foreign minister will hardly be as globally welcomed or skilled as the previous one. Moreover, any discussion beyond nuclear matters seems to be off the table for Raisi and Khamenei. Hence, Europeans and Americans will remain frustrated regarding Iran’s missile program and regional behavior. In other words, any expectations of a more robust or comprehensive nuclear deal should be faced with skepticism.
In his first press conference as elected president, Raisi stated that foreign policy will not be limited to the JCPOA and that he will not negotiate Iran’s regional role. Iran has always perceived itself as a natural regional leader due to its size, population, history, and culture. However, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran feels this role has been rejected by a US-oriented status quo in the Persian Gulf, and it has sought alternative ways to increase its influence and alter the regional order. Its involvement in crises in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has guaranteed Iran a key position in the Middle East’s geopolitical scenario at the cost of the GCC monarchies’ sense of security. Thus, since the 2000s, Iran’s relations with its immediate neighbors have been a challenge: while relations with Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait are manageable, tensions tend to rise quickly with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
Particularly Riyadh, the ultimate status quo actor (Sunni, conservative, a monarchy, and a close US partner), has been stepping up to contain Iran’s influence in the region. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is one of the primary sources of instability in the Persian Gulf due to its inherent hegemonical ambitions and needs to be contained.
Riyadh’s decision to execute a Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016 led to protests in Iran and eventually to the suspension of diplomatic ties between them. However, Raisi stated that ‘there should be no problem for relations between the two countries’ and that he supported the idea of reopening embassies. While during Trump’s ‘maximum pressure campaign,’ Saudi Arabia had few incentives to reduce animosities with Iran, things may be changing with Biden’s election. Moreover, the need to find a solution to the grueling Yemen War and the low oil prices since the Covid-19 crisis may also work as incentives. Thus, the rivalry between Saudis and Iranians can (contour-intuitively) be reduced with the election of the hardliner.
Raisi also said, ‘we will have interaction with the world,’ which we should interpret as linked with Iran’s ‘look East policy.’
Iran has perceived that the strategic and economic gravity center is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region and has attempted to take advantage of that, seeing an opportunity to overcome decades of sanctions and financial hardship in China’s emergence as a global leader. It has, thus, attempted to internationalize its economic activities according to Asian interests and needs. For hardliners like Raisi, strengthening China’s role in the Middle East also represents an alluring anti-hegemonic narrative of weakening the US role in the region.
Thus, one should expect his foreign policy to give particular attention to these relations, especially after the ambitious 25-years comprehensive partnership with China. For Beijing, Iran is not only key for energy security but also a vast untapped market for Chinese goods and a geostrategic partner for consolidating the Belt and Road Initiative. In this way, Iran is central to China’s global strategy.
Nevertheless, Iran is not China’s leading oil supplier in the Persian Gulf. One should not expect Beijing to take Iran’s side if regional rivalries escalate into conflicts. Enduring tensions between Tehran and the rest of the world hinders China’s possibility to become more active in Iran’s economic development. That is because China is risk-averse and has no interest in getting involved in political conundrums in the Middle East. In fact, the Chinese – as well as the Europeans, Russians, and Indians – see Iran as a trading opportunity to be tapped once sanctions are cut back in tandem with the consolidation of regional stability. Therefore, even if the United States returns to the JCPOA, Iran will not automatically become attractive to foreign capital – it needs to push for political and diplomatic normalization. It is yet to be seen if Raisi’s regionalism agenda is fully aware of this logic.
Raisi’s election does not mean that everything changes, nor that nothing changes.
After all, the Islamic Republic of Iran has more often than not shown itself as a rational actor in international relations, balancing its ideological stand when needed and favoring national and strategic interests.
Despite the discourse that Raisi’s administration will not focus solely on the JCPOA, solving the nuclear program dilemma is unavoidable – even if the goal is to promote Iran as a vital Asian partner. Moreover, if improving relations with the region is a central part of his foreign policy agenda, it is essential to reduce local suspicion towards its nuclear project and find pathways to guaranteeing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Persian Gulf, issues bringing us back again to JCPOA. Finally, the elephant in the room is domestic legitimacy, considering that Raisi was elected with the lowest recorded turnout. Iranians are a highly politicized people that do not shun away protest and social unrest when required. Can Raisi find alternatives to reduce widespread dissatisfaction with governmental affairs and start uniting the very political fractionated landscape? While too early to tell, it is possible to guess that the answer for this question will not be disconnected entirely on how the administration plan to conduct foreign policy.
In collaboration with Pedro Perfeito Da Silva and Karen Culver.
Luíza Cerioli is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Marburg, Germany. She holds an International Relations masters from the University of Brasília (UnB). Her research focuses on Persian Gulf geopolitics, the US role in the region, International Relations theory, and Iran-Saudi Arabia relations.
 For more on Iran’s regional power ambitions, see: Saikal, Amin, 2019: Iran rising: the survival and future of the Islamic Republic, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Arjomand, Said Amir, 2009,: After Khomeini: Iran under his successors, Oxford University Press, New York; or Abrahamian, Ervand, 2008: A History of Modern Iran, Cambridge University Press, New York.
 For more on Iran’s Asianization of its politics and economics, see: Perteghella, Annalisa (eds.), 2019: Iran Looking East: an alternative to the EU?, report for ISPI, Milan, Italy. Available at: Iran Looking East: An Alternative to the EU? | ISPI (ispionline.it)