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Iran and Raisi Have a Legitimacy Crisis

After an engineered election, Iran’s new president may have little choice but to govern cooperatively.

By , a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addresses his first press conference in Tehran on June 21, 2021.
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addresses his first press conference in Tehran on June 21, 2021. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Ebrahim Raisi will assume the mantle of the Iranian presidency on Aug. 3 amid major crises for Iran. The country’s economy is reeling from U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, corruption and mismanagement are rife, and—perhaps most debilitating—huge parts of society are so disillusioned with the political process that less than half the electorate bothered to vote in last week’s presidential election. Raisi’s ability to weather these storms and deliver tangible improvements in governance and the lives of Iranian citizens will determine whether the Iranian system can maintain its legitimacy after the historically low turnout.

Raisi hails from the principlist camp of Iranian politics, which seeks to protect the ideology of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Principlists generally espouse conservative Islamic sociocultural norms and see an unavoidable clash between the interests of the West and an independent Iran. Raisi’s core challenge will be to assuage the concerns of his principlist base and simultaneously meet the needs of the larger part of society that has long since moved on from revolutionary fervor and is tired of the dismal economic-political status quo and intrusive laws regulating their lifestyles.

The new president will need to be pragmatic in domestic and foreign policy to successfully address the widespread grievances of ordinary Iranians and improve the economic situation. He himself has no background in managing government but is a product of Iran’s repressive judicial system. Who he surrounds himself with in his administration will thus be most telling of the direction his presidency will take Iran. If he pulls exclusively from the ranks of traditional principlist ideologues, he is unlikely to overcome the many problems Iran faces. Such forces often do not have realistic policy prescriptions and are used to playing the role of political opposition and regurgitating idealistic slogans. A case in point was the principlist-dominated parliament that pushed Rouhani’s administration for massive increases to the subsidies in the national budget last year amid a sharp decrease in governmental revenues.

Ebrahim Raisi will assume the mantle of the Iranian presidency on Aug. 3 amid major crises for Iran. The country’s economy is reeling from U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, corruption and mismanagement are rife, and—perhaps most debilitating—huge parts of society are so disillusioned with the political process that less than half the electorate bothered to vote in last week’s presidential election. Raisi’s ability to weather these storms and deliver tangible improvements in governance and the lives of Iranian citizens will determine whether the Iranian system can maintain its legitimacy after the historically low turnout.

Raisi hails from the principlist camp of Iranian politics, which seeks to protect the ideology of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Principlists generally espouse conservative Islamic sociocultural norms and see an unavoidable clash between the interests of the West and an independent Iran. Raisi’s core challenge will be to assuage the concerns of his principlist base and simultaneously meet the needs of the larger part of society that has long since moved on from revolutionary fervor and is tired of the dismal economic-political status quo and intrusive laws regulating their lifestyles.

The new president will need to be pragmatic in domestic and foreign policy to successfully address the widespread grievances of ordinary Iranians and improve the economic situation. He himself has no background in managing government but is a product of Iran’s repressive judicial system. Who he surrounds himself with in his administration will thus be most telling of the direction his presidency will take Iran. If he pulls exclusively from the ranks of traditional principlist ideologues, he is unlikely to overcome the many problems Iran faces. Such forces often do not have realistic policy prescriptions and are used to playing the role of political opposition and regurgitating idealistic slogans. A case in point was the principlist-dominated parliament that pushed Rouhani’s administration for massive increases to the subsidies in the national budget last year amid a sharp decrease in governmental revenues.

The choice before Raisi is between more exclusionary and iron-fisted rule, or more consensus-driven rule that draws on the experience of technocrats and is inclusive of moderate and reformist officials. Raisi’s record in the judiciary and his election team seem to suggest he will not opt for the latter. He has overseen gross human rights abuses, including playing a role in mass executions of the Islamic Republic’s opponents in 1988. His campaign team was also composed of avowed hard-liners who seek to kick moderates and reformists out of Iran’s system. One of his senior campaign officials, Mojtaba Amini, was in fact the director of a controversial TV show that portrayed the 2015 nuclear deal as a plot for “soft regime change” and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as duped by Western spies who infiltrated his team.

However, Raisi has said that the makeup of his administration will be different from his campaign team. He said he is not “indebted” to any political factions and will form an administration based on merit and Iran’s national interests. The foreign-policy stances he has taken so far are largely a continuation of the positions of Rouhani, with Raisi in his first press conference after the election signaling support for returning to the nuclear deal, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, and seeking foreign investment. He also made a point to meet with Zarif within days of his election.

Raisi also took more liberal economic positions during the campaign, which stood in contrast to the more populist rhetoric of some of his fellow conservatives in the race. He met with Iran’s Chamber of Commerce before the election and told its members that the economy cannot be managed by government intervention. He called for increased privatization and said the economy should be driven by market forces and not by decisions made in “closed-off rooms.” His rumored choice for economics minister is Farhad Rahbar, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the prestigious University of Tehran, served for five years in the administration of the pragmatist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and held posts in the Rouhani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administrations.

On foreign policy, Raisi is unlikely to push for drastic changes. The presidency in Iran does not decide the overall strategic inclination of Tehran’s foreign policy but plays an important role in shaping who sits at various national security decision-making tables, forming consensus on key national security decisions, and influencing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The divisions that existed between Rouhani and Zarif and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on foreign policy will be gone under Raisi, with the incoming president closely aligned with the military organization. While this will impact how far Raisi will go in negotiations with the West, it is unlikely to change Iran’s regional policies or its ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia.

There is much speculation in Iran about who Raisi will pick for important national security posts such as foreign minister or secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Many believe Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in the Ahmadinejad era known in the West for his obduracy, is a leading contender. However, Jalili, who was also a candidate in the election before withdrawing in favor of Raisi, had notable disagreements with Raisi in the presidential debates. This included over dormant legislation in Iran to reform its banking sector in line with guidelines from the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force. Jalili is a staunch opponent of the legislation, which regulates money laundering and terrorism financing, while Raisi said he would decide on it based on Iran’s national interests.

Ali Bagheri is also rumored to be a potential contender for foreign minister. Bagheri was a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team under Jalili and has been the deputy for international affairs for the Iranian judiciary during Raisi’s tenure as judiciary chief. Another name often mentioned is Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a veteran diplomat who served as deputy minister for Arab affairs under Rouhani and in recent years has been an advisor to Iran’s conservative speaker of parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

Raisi takes the helm of the Iranian presidency at a critical juncture for the Islamic Republic. His publicly stated positions suggest he may be more of a pragmatic president than many believe, but his dark past and principlist base may make him a poor steward for enacting much-need reforms. The Islamic Republic may be past the point of restoring its popular legitimacy, but Raisi’s presidency will be the litmus test for whether the system’s entrenched principlists can deliver tangible improvements to the lives of nearly 85 million Iranian citizens.

Sina Toossi is a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.

  Twitter: @SinaToossi

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