This may seem a paradox, but the truth is the United States does not realize that the result of Iran’s presidential election – the resounding victory of the conservative head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi – could be an optimal outcome.
Raisi has impeccable credentials as a hardliner who belongs to the powerful religious establishment and happens to be a genuinely popular public figure with whom the West can do business with.
Some skeptics might point out that Raisi is under US sanctions for his involvement in the 1988 mass execution of prisoners. According to anti-Iranian folklore, hundreds of detainees were executed. But few know what really happened.
It is no secret that Washington encouraged Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to wage war on Iran, taking advantage of the apparent disorder and isolation of the new Islamic government in Tehran – then at loggerheads with the US over the seizure of the American embassy – and of the demoralization and dissolution of Iran’s regular armed forces.
But the revolutionary regime fought back, and Saddam was finally forced to seek a peace agreement with Iran. It was a brutal war. Estimates of total casualties range from one million to two million.
But then, after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1988, members of the terrorist group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), based in Iraq and heavily armed by Saddam, and enjoying the backing of the US Central Intelligence Agency, stormed across the Iranian border in a surprise attack.
Iran smashed the MEK assault, and that set the stage for the so-called “death commissions” of prisoners, terrorists and others.
Inevitably, those executed included agents of Western intelligence. The executions couldn’t have been carried out except on Khomeini’s orders. Raisi was a young man of 27 when he reportedly served on a revolutionary panel involved in sentencing Iran’s enemies to death.
Interestingly, 31 years later, when Washington sanctioned Raisi, it was as part of a series of sanctions that followed the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018.
The administration of then-US president Donald Trump sanctioned Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his office and those closely affiliated with his access to key financial resources (June 2019); Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (July 2019); and the core inner circle of advisers to the Supreme Leader, including one of his sons, Mojtaba Khamenei, the then-newly appointed head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, the Supreme Leader’s chief of staff, Mohammadi Golpayegani, and others (November 2019).
The upshot is that the sanctions against Raisi and other Iranian leaders were part of a diabolical plot to complicate the US-Iranian standoff. Clearly, once those who plotted are no longer there, the current Joe Biden administration can lift those sanctions.
In fact, it should. For President-elect Raisi will be exactly the interlocutor that the White House needs to implement any agreement reached in Vienna on the JCPOA. US analysts keep grumbling that the “reformists” in Iran had a bad deal in the list of candidates for the presidential election.
But Raisi has won a resounding victory. In the 2017 election, Raisi received 38.28% of votes; his vote share has now increased to 61.95%, an aggregate increase of 2.1 million votes. Two factors contributed to this outcome.
First, the voter turnout reportedly dropped from about 70% four years back to around 50% in this weekend’s election. Second, Raisi’s popularity has been genuinely on a rising curve ever since he took over as the chief justice in 2019 and launched a high-profile anti-corruption drive. This needs some explanation.
Corruption in Iran
Public corruption has been a major issue in Iran’s public discourses in recent years. Raisi now figures as the champion of probity in public life, and that holds appeal to the average Iranian voter.
This is where America’s analysts lose the plot. The presidential election was held concurrently with the sixth Islamic city and village council elections, and they focused on the country’s political economy – and not about the United States.
Now, Raisi is well versed with the phenomenon of bonyads (meaning foundations), the charioteers of corruption in Iran’s political system.
The bonyads are supposedly charitable trusts exempt from taxes and enjoy huge state subsidies that play a major role in Iran’s non-oil economy and account for more than one-fifth of the country’s GDP, but are notorious for siphoning off production to the lucrative black market and providing only limited and inadequate charity to the poor.
Raisi held the position of chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, a bonyad based in Mashhad, from 2016 to 2019 until his appointment as the chief justice. The Astan Quds Razavi is the administrative organization that manages the fabulously wealthy Imam Reza shrine and various institutions.
In reality, it is a huge conglomerate that runs auto plants, agricultural businesses and many other enterprises, owns most of the real estate in Mashhad and rents out shop space to bazaars and hoteliers, etc.
Now, Raisi’s main political program as president will focus on the economic malaise gripping the country, which is inextricably linked to corruption. It will be interesting to see how he tackles the bonyads.
The Biden administration should try to understand that in Raisi it has a leader who is as committed to the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna as President Hassan Rouhani has been. In fact, the conservatives generally support the lifting of Western sanctions so that Iran’s full potential for growth and development can be realized.
Missing the forest for the trees
Conceivably, Raisi may choose to depend on Iran’s chief negotiator at Vienna, Abbas Araqchi.
This is where analysts with a zero-sum mindset miss the forest for the trees. Raisi himself has been a member of the Supreme National Security Council and contributed to the making of the country’s grand strategies in the foreign-policy arena.
The Biden administration should expect continuity in Iran’s policies under Raisi. This may not necessarily mean that strengthening ties with the West will be Raisi’s top priority. Iran pursues a multi-vector foreign policy.
But where Raisi scores over Rouhani is that he has an established reputation as a hardliner. In the prevailing political milieu in Iran where Rouhani’s “reformist” agenda stands thoroughly discredited and with the locus of domestic politics distinctly shifting to the conservatives – as manifest in the last parliamentary (Majlis) election – Raisi’s ascendence makes the regime more cohesive than before.
Having said that, much will depend on the Biden administration’s farsightedness to craft an Iran policy that dovetails with Raisi’s economic program.
Also, do not expect Iran to jettison velayat-e faqih, the country’s chosen system of Islamic governance. The US cannot possibly impose its exceptionalism on a “civilization state” such as Iran.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.