Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Perils of the Iranian Presidency

Most meet unhappy endings. Here’s why Ebrahim Raisi might avoid a similar fate.

By , executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Forum.
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi hold posters as they attend an election campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, on June 14.
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi hold posters as they attend an election campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, on June 14. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Not unlike the wives of Henry VIII, Iran’s presidents rarely have happy endings. The first was assassinated; the second, exiled; the third, now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, survived; but the fourth, fifth, and sixth have been censured from public life. The same fate seems to await the outgoing seventh.

Since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, power struggles between the supreme leader and the president have been an endemic problem of Iranian public life. They have become especially pronounced in recent years; former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both had high-profile spats with Khamenei. Their attempts at rapprochement with the West ended in humiliation while their relatively liberal policies were seen as having empowered massive protests in 1999, from 2017 to 2018, and from 2019 to 2020. To their right, eccentric former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared little better thanks to his personal ambition and lack of respect for Khamenei.

After elections this week—assuming there is no runoff election later this month—Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi will almost certainly become president; the Iranian people have little say in the matter. This matters not because of what he will do but because he is unlike his predecessors. Rather than competing with Khamenei, he will be the perfect accomplice to Khamenei’s plan to make the Islamic Republic of Iran more “Islamic” and less of a “republic.”

Not unlike the wives of Henry VIII, Iran’s presidents rarely have happy endings. The first was assassinated; the second, exiled; the third, now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, survived; but the fourth, fifth, and sixth have been censured from public life. The same fate seems to await the outgoing seventh.

Since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, power struggles between the supreme leader and the president have been an endemic problem of Iranian public life. They have become especially pronounced in recent years; former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both had high-profile spats with Khamenei. Their attempts at rapprochement with the West ended in humiliation while their relatively liberal policies were seen as having empowered massive protests in 1999, from 2017 to 2018, and from 2019 to 2020. To their right, eccentric former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared little better thanks to his personal ambition and lack of respect for Khamenei.

After elections this week—assuming there is no runoff election later this month—Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi will almost certainly become president; the Iranian people have little say in the matter. This matters not because of what he will do but because he is unlike his predecessors. Rather than competing with Khamenei, he will be the perfect accomplice to Khamenei’s plan to make the Islamic Republic of Iran more “Islamic” and less of a “republic.”

Unlike his predecessors—all professional politicians—Raisi is a bureaucrat with impeccable credentials. He is a sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; has a doctorate in Islamic law and was recently promoted to the rank of Ayatollah; is married to the daughter of a senior cleric who is friendly with Khamenei; and joined the regime at the age of 20, climbing to be attorney general and chief justice. His hard-line credentials are also impressive. In 1988, as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, Raisi helped sentence more than a thousand dissidents to death, landing him on EU and U.S. sanctions lists. Between 1997 and 2004, Raisi ran Iran’s anti-corruption authority and jailed several reformist allies of Khatami. He has been praised by senior clerics and by commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for his performance as a prosecutor. And now, conservative politicians, publications, and social media channels have closed ranks around his candidacy.

Khamenei has effectively rigged the system in Raisi’s favor through the Guardian Council—which the supreme leader effectively controls—banning almost all reformist candidates in local, parliamentary, and presidential elections. In some ways, this mirrors the lead-up 2005 election. Then, like now, the perceived failures of reformist Khatami, who had run on a platform of press freedom and better relations with the United States, were followed by a conservative backlash that culminated in the election of Ahmadinejad, a “principlist” who reversed reforms and pursued a hard-line anti-American foreign policy. Ahead of Ahmadinejad’s victory, principlists swept the 2003 and 2004 local and legislative elections after reformists were barred from running. In the 2005 presidential election, most reformists were again barred, and it seems probable that the IRGC stuffed ballot boxes to help Ahmadinejad, who spent the next eight years reversing Khatami’s reforms.

As in 2005, Khamenei is now paving the way for a principlist to undo eight years of reform. The disastrous economic results of Rouhani’s presidency—produced in part by the 2018 U.S. decision to reimpose comprehensive sanctions—have facilitated Khamenei’s attack on reformists. Unemployment has spiked, GDP has dropped by more than 10 percent, and Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost two-thirds of its value. Economic unrest caused massive protests, which the Trump administration cheered on.

With Khamenei ready to give up the last appearances of democracy, principlists are poised to sweep the country. But unlike in 2005, the power shift toward them will not be easily reversed.

Khamenei is now 82 years old and has suffered from prostate cancer. He likely wants to consolidate his legacy. This requires ending the back and forth between principlists and reformists and the power struggle between the president and the supreme leader. It also requires insulating under-30s—more than 60 percent of the population—from Gharbzadegi, or “West-struckness.” Although Raisi would likely be a willing partner in such a project, his confidantes are ahead of him; his social media director recently proposed a bill criminalizing the use of virtual private networks and, ironically, multiple social media platforms.

Raisi’s ambition is another incentive for him to assist in any counterreformation. He has been floated as a prospective successor to Khamenei for years, and it is worth noting that Khamenei succeeded his predecessor while president in 1989—at the same age as Raisi and with less impressive scholarly credentials. If elected, Raisi will likely use his term to appease the hard-line factions with influence over the succession, namely hard-line clerics and the IRGC. But regardless of what he wants, he—like Rouhani—will be a pawn in a larger autocratic scheme that has been planned without him.

Iran is, of course, already one of the world’s worst autocracies. Yet, it could soon become even more autocratic. Since 2012, Iran has worked to create a “halal internet” disconnected from the web. Last year, the regime showed its ability to cut off individual provinces from the global internet while retaining access to locally hosted sites. Going forward, Iran could use this capacity to ban web services like Google and Instagram as soon as a politically viable window appears. Iran is also allegedly set to expand domestic surveillance, with around 10 million new closed-circuit television cameras purchased from China. In recent years, Khamenei has even discussed replacing English with Mandarin Chinese in Iran’s schools as a way to make Western culture inaccessible; the plan would likely go ahead if Iran did not have a critical shortage of Chinese teachers.

Meanwhile, senior and veteran IRGC commanders and members of the Supreme National Security Council, who have always had harsh words for Rouhani, will doubtless be glad to be rid of him so they can pursue their agenda without domestic opposition. The list of grim possibilities runs long. The IRGC will be free to ramp up pressure on the United States by attacking U.S. assets in Iraq; meddling in Iraq’s upcoming October elections; using a phony cease-fire in Yemen as cover to allow Houthi rebels to seize de facto control of the country, as was the case in 2014; and expanding political control of Lebanon through so-called economic aid. And if the Iran nuclear deal is restored, Iran’s means to wreak havoc will be expanded if the country regains access to $120 billion in frozen foreign exchange reserves or hundreds of millions of dollars in daily oil revenues. The regime could be even more boosted in 2023, after a United Nations ban on Iranian ballistic missile testing expires along with a raft of additional sanctions and a freeze on exporting advanced missile technology to Iran.

Raisi’s election will empower factions within Iran that see the Iranian Revolution as an ongoing task in need of consolidation at home and expansion abroad. Even if Raisi himself does not actively participate in this counterreformation—and it seems he will—he will at the very least enable the destruction of the opposition and the creation of an iron cage that will outlast the Biden administration, his own administration, and possibly even Khamenei himself.

It is too soon to say whether Raisi will follow in Khamenei’s footsteps to become supreme leader as a once-in-a-generation exception to the unfortunate track record of Iranian presidents. But for now, it seems he has the support of—and is willing to appease—the powerful factions that could potentially bring him down. This bodes well for his power. But it bodes ill for Iran’s reformists and its young people, who will continue to be exhausted. The panopticonic dictatorship they hope to budge will treat them more harshly. And although the Biden administration seems to have tepid hopes for detente with the Iranian regime, it now stands to become an even more fearsome foe. Raisi will enable this while the Iran nuclear deal, with its sumptuous financial relief and sunset clauses, will enable Raisi. It is a grim outlook.

Jay Mens is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Forum, a think tank based at the University of Cambridge, and a research analyst for Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.

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