Hardline conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi was declared the winner of Iran’s June 2021 presidential election in a contest that was widely viewed as predetermined and will have major implications beyond Iran’s borders.
President-elect Raisi is the chief justice of Iran’s judiciary and a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi, who will be inaugurated in August, will succeed two-term reformist President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi won an uncompetitive race with 62 percent of the vote against his more moderate opponent and former head of the central bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati. Iran’s Guardian Council, the body that vets presidential candidates, disqualified almost all of the non-conservative candidates.
The election of Raisi comes at a delicate time for Iran, as the country struggles to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and revive a shattered economy that was badly bruised by harsh economic sanctions.
The poor performance of the economy was one of the foremost issues among Iranian voters, and U.S. sanctions are in large part responsible for the economic stagnation.
The U.S. under former President Trump in 2018 withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPO-A), which capped uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.
Raisi is fully aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei in taking a tougher tone against Washington but is receptive to reentering the 2015 nuclear agreement.
President Biden has made it clear he intends to renegotiate the nuclear agreement struck under the Obama administration.
The United States is currently engaged in talks with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear program, and any agreement that would curtail Iran’s nuclear program would require the U.S. to lift sanctions, which could prove to be politically divisive for the Biden administration.
The Biden administration wants assurances from Iran that there will be future negotiations on a more comprehensive deal, while Tehran wants a commitment from Washington that it will not unilaterally withdraw as Trump did in 2018.
The Biden administration has the advantage of continued negotiations over many weeks with Iran’s current President Rouhani, who was in office when the deal was agreed upon in 2015, and both sides are hoping to reach an agreement before Raisi takes office in August. Raisi, who had a long career in the judiciary, has no foreign policy experience or vision and did not discuss foreign affairs at great length during the campaign for the presidency, instead focusing on economic issues.
Nuclear talks will continue with the goal of lifting the sanctions, which would greatly contribute to Raisi’s promise to revamp the economy.
If an agreement of mutual compliance is agreed to between the U.S. and Iran, it would lower the temperature by taking the nuclear question off the table for now, but competition and tension in the region would not subside like it did post-JCPO-A, and there is no evidence to suggest it would substantially improve relations now.
There remains no consensus on other salient issues that Washington and the West would like to address.
At this point, it is unclear what a renewed nuclear agreement would mean for U.S.-Iranian relations or for a volatile region like the Middle East.
In Iran, foreign policy and grand strategy is formulated at the National Security Council, which is tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader. With Raisi so intricately connected to Khamenei, it is unlikely that there would be any major policy shifts toward the U.S.
The JCPO-A was criticized by both supporters and opponents for failing to tackle Iran’s substantial missile stockpile or its malign activity supporting destabilizing proxy groups in the region.
Raisi has already made it clear that these issues are not up for negotiation, and support for militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen will continue.
“Iran will not link nuclear negotiations with their missile arsenal or regional policies,” Alex Vatanka, Director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program, told Fox News.
Iran relies on its missile arsenal and support for regional armed proxies to project influence and counter external threats, and Tehran is unlikely to compromise on such core foreign policy principles based on their threat perception.
“This is their ace and only military capability to project power in the region, along with asymmetric warfare, so it will not be on the table,” Vatanka added.
Negotiations, particularly over sanctions relief, are further complicated by Raisi’s history of brutal repression.
Raisi faces accusations of abhorrent human rights abuses, including sentencing thousands of political dissidents and opposition figures to death following the Iran-Iraq war. He is the first Iranian president to enter office under U.S. sanctions, and Amnesty International declared Raisi should be investigated for crimes against humanity.
Many moderate or liberal-minded Iranians opted to boycott the election, as it was viewed as mere window-dressing for a Raisi victory.
The June 2021 election is uniquely important because Khamenei, at 81, looks at Raisi as his eventual successor as Supreme Leader and will want to cement his grip over a restless country in which many Iranians view him as unacceptable.