The announcement of the political victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections earlier this month came as no surprise to anyone – either inside or outside Iran. Right from the beginning of the electoral process, the tide was clearly heading his way as other possible strong candidates were blocked, upon the uncontested and unexplained decision of the Guardian Council – a board of unelected 12 topologists.
Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s first vice-president, and Ali Larijani, a conservative former speaker of parliament and Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, former Iranian President, were all disqualified – thus leaving the door wide open before Raisi to make an easy victory in an election that saw a really low turnover.
“I think it is safe to argue that Raisi was all but assigned by the Iranian establishment. It was the first time that the political system in Iran abandoned all signs of impartiality in the presidential elections in such an almost open fashion,” argued Nevine Mossa’d, professor of political science at Cairo University and prominent expert in Iranian affairs.
Actually, she added, what was at stake at this year’s elections was not strictly or only who is the next president of the Islamic Republic of Iran but rather who is the next Supreme Leader. She explained that the declining health and old age of the effective head of the Iranian political regime, Aytollah Ali Khamenei, has been begging the question on the successor of the second Supreme leader who took over in 1989 after the death of the founding and first supreme leader of Iran Eshaq Jahangiri. Mr Rouhani's first vice-president, and Ali Larijani, a conservative former speaker of parliament, were not allowed to run.
“So what we saw was not exactly a presidential election but rather preparations for the rise to power of Iran’s next supreme leader,” she argued. Raisi, a topologist who had served for long inside the establishment, including its hardline security quarters, and who is also known to be close to Khamenei and his 52-year old son Mojtaba Khamenei “who is also a potential successor to the seat of the supreme leader”.
According to Mossa’d, if Raisi, a chief judge, is not going to walk a path that would take him from the seat of the president to that of the supreme leader, as Khamenei himself did in the 1980s, then he will be there to lend full support to a smooth succession from Khamenei senior to Khamenei junior.
“Unlike other religious figures, Mojtaba is not as well-versed in theology as some of the old hands; he would therefore need the political support of a president who is willing to acknowledge his succession,” she explained.
“So this is Raisi, a president who might turn to be the supreme leader or at least the supreme leader-maker,” she said.
Raisi, she added, is in this not just with the support of the Council of Guardians but also with that of the most influential Revolutionary Guards, of a majority of an overwhelmingly radical parliament and the religious elite in Qom.
“So Raisi is not just an elected radical president; he is hardliner who became president with the support of the supreme leader and the three influential partners of the Iranian political regime,” she said.
This, she added, is set to make his presidency one where Iranian presence in its sphere of power would be expanded - or at least consolidated. “We saw during the electoral campaign that some Iraqi TV channels, with direct association to Iran, like AlMayyadin were covering the details of Raisi’s electoral campaign as if they were covering an Iraqi elections. “And the bias was unmasked, really,” she stated.
This said, Mossa’d added, that Raisi’s presidency is not exactly something that the political regime in Iraq would have hoped for. The more the radical the Iranian leaders are the more involved they become in Iraqi politics, she argued.
In fact, she said, the Iraqi political regime had a tough time accommodating the direct and abrasive intervention of Qassim Soulimani, the head of a leading faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who was assassinated in the early days of January 2020.
“His policies were too abrasive to the extent that they prompted anti-Iranian demonstrations in no other than the city of Basra, one of the strongholds of Iraqi Shiaas,” she said.
Soulimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, Mossa’d argued, was not as heavy-handed and this gave the Iraqi politicians some political breathing space.
And what would go for Iraq would “certainly” go for Lebanon, Mossa’d said. Hezbollah, she reminded, makes no secret at all of its close association with Iran. Actually, in January this year, Hezbollah marked the anniversary of the assassination of Soulimani in such an intense way that prompted criticism from within the Shia quarters that support Hizboullah most.
And in Yemen, Mossa’d, was not expecting Raisi’s presidency to facilitate a quick victory for the Houthis in their battle with the Saudi-supported army over the city of Marib in Yemen. Nor was she expecting the newly elected president, once in office, to introduce any dramatic shifts to his country’s policies on Syria unless Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to give Iran a tough time there. “The deal is that they are in a state of power-sharing,” he said.
The big question, according to Mossa’d, is whether Rohani would be able to strike a deal that would re-enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) or that he would need a new deal.
She argued that in her view there are three issues that are of direct relevance there: the first is the developed Iranian missile technology; the second is Iran’s regional influence and the third is the relationship with the IAEA and the terms of inspection.
“I think Raisi could make some compromises on matters related to its regional influence through the diverse groups and on issues related to its relationship with the IAEA. However, I think it is highly unlikely that Tehran, under Rohani or under Raisi for that matter, could make any concessions on its missile programme,” she said.
At the end, she said, the deal will be re-introduced. Raisi, she explained, is a hardliner but not all the way through. “He knows that it is in the interest of his country to get the deal working again,” she explained.
Under Raisi, Mossa’d added, Iran too will avoid picking up a fight with Israel – while it would still contest its regional schemes, especially in the Gulf.
However, Mossa’d said that she would not be surprised to see the usual Mashrek/Gulf regions pursuing their planned normalization with Israel irrespective of the new presidency.
At the internal level, however, there seems to be no much change under Raisi – “except in only as much as he would be more associated with the poor,” she said.
As for the reformists who had hoped to see a day where they could be more vocal – at least, Mossa’d is not making big promises. “The reformists have for long been sidelined for years now and sporadic work could bring about any change now. He actually might not think that it is a priority.”