Change of guard in Iran: Obstacles ahead

Manal Lofty, Tuesday 27 Jul 2021

With the stalemate in nuclear talks, strained relations with America and Europe, and large demonstrations at home, Iran’s new president has a mountain to climb

Obstacles ahead
Raisi and Khamenei

Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi’s election to the Iranian presidency is likely to be a turning point. After he is sworn in on 3 August, all Iranian political institutions will be controlled by hardliners, from the office of the Supreme Leader, the presidency and parliament to the Judicial Institution, the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council.

Consequently, Iran’s new president will have nowhere to hide. He is assuming power under extraordinary circumstances, as Iran is going through a third wave of Covid-19, an unprecedented water shortage crisis, a sharp deterioration in the economic situation with high inflation and unemployment and a collapse of the value of the Iranian riyal.

On top of these internal challenges, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the 5 + 1 countries stopped, with Washington and European countries deeply discontented. While America, Britain, France and Germany had hoped for the restoration of the nuclear deal under the administration of outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, the office of the Supreme Leader in Iran wanted negotiations to continue under the new Iranian president.

The problem with the new timetable is that it makes reaching a deal more difficult. Realistically, the resumption of the talks will not take place before next September. If the entire Iranian negotiating team is changed and the new Iranian president shows no flexibility during talks, the negotiations may continue to 2022, the year of the midterm elections for the US Congress when the US administration is likely to be tougher on Iran as both parties, the Republicans and Democratic target the presidential elections of 2024.

France’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Iran was endangering the chance of concluding an accord with world powers over reviving its 2015 nuclear deal if it did not soon return to the negotiating table.

“If it continues on this path, not only will it continue to delay when an agreement to lift sanctions can be reached, but it will also risk jeopardising the very possibility of concluding the Vienna talks and restoring the JCPOA,” or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

These French fears are echoed in London, Berlin and Washington. “Iran is gambling by delaying the return to the nuclear agreement for internal political reasons. The Joe Biden administration came with a lot of enthusiasm to resume the nuclear agreement. This enthusiasm is now cooling and waning because there are other urgent issues for Washington and European countries, on top of which is the Chinese and Russian strategic challenge, and therefore Iran may find itself in a position where is it hard to get the attention it needs,” a European diplomat familiar with the nuclear talks told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Meanwhile, as online videos show, dozens of Iranians marched down a major street in Tehran on Monday to protest water shortages in southwestern Iran. The demonstrators are seen in the videos marching down Jomhuri Islami Avenue and calling on police to support them. Men on motorbikes and those in cars behind them blow their horns in time with the chants. The demonstrators later dispersed peacefully. While the protests were peaceful, several demonstrators shouted, “Death to the Dictator!” Security forces have recently maintained a heavier-than-normal presence in the Iranian capital.

The semi-official Fars news agency later reported the demonstrations but blamed them on a power outage at a nearby shopping centre known for its electronic shops. Fars published a video online that shows police on motorcycles and on foot, at one point talking to the crowd.

So far, at least five people have been killed in the days of protests, according to statements by state-run and semi-official media in Iran. The demonstrations began over the water shortages affecting Iran’s Khuzestan province, an oil-rich, restive area. Activists say the death toll is higher.

London-based rights group Amnesty International said last Friday that video footage and “consistent accounts” from sources in Iran had led it to conclude that security forces had killed at least eight protesters and bystanders, including a teenage boy, in seven different cities. It accused Iran of deploying “unlawful force, including by firing live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests.”

In a statement on his official website last Friday, Khamenei expressed sympathy with the water-deprived residents of Khuzestan but warned them against playing into the hands of Iran’s enemies.

Iran has faced rolling blackouts for weeks now, in part over what authorities describe as a severe drought. Precipitation had decreased by almost 50 per cent in the last year, leaving dams with dwindling water supplies. But experts have also blamed Iran’s drought on years of government mismanagement of water resources. 

At the same time, there has been a surge in Covid infections and oil industry worker strikes for better wages and working conditions, with the economy struggling under US sanctions since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, causing the value of the riyal to crash.

Asked by the Persian Voice of America whether Joe Biden’s administration believes Iran’s response to the protests has been harsh, State Department Spokesperson Jalina Porter repeated a comment made several times since the unrest began, that Iranians should be free to assemble and express themselves without fear of violence or arbitrary detention.

“We’re also monitoring reports of government-imposed internet shutdowns in the region,” Porter added. “We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their universal rights of freedom of expression, as well as [to] freely access information online.”

Rouhani, who will be leaving office by next Tuesday, is likely to say that he and his reformist camp were desperately unfortunate because of Trump’s election and the Covid-19 pandemic, complaining that they did not have enough support from  the Supreme Leader after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal. Khamenei in fact sided with the hardliners who blamed Rouhani and his administration for a deal with an untrustworthy partner, America. But despite having lost much support, Rouhani’s promise of greater openness at home and outreach abroad remains very popular among the Iranian middle class in Tehran and major cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz.

It is worth noting that the new Iranian president comes to power after the lowest turnout in the presidential elections since 1979. The bases that voted for Raisi are the conservative underprivileged classes that supported his electoral programme based on fighting corruption, improving the economy and providing jobs.

But the new president will have enormous challenges at home, including winning the support of the urban middle class, improving the economy, tackling Covid-19 and drought, in addition to making the nuclear agreement a success and having the sanctions lifted, the latter being a prerequisite for any other goal.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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