Ebrahim Raisi's election as Iranian president was marred by a low turnout and the banning of moderate opponents. Photo: AFP

It’s official: hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi is Iran’s new president and will formally succeed Hassan Rouhani in August. What’s less clear is the Islamic Republic’s new foreign policy and economic direction.  

Raisi secured 17.9 million popular votes, accounting for 61.9% of the ballot in a preordained result marred by the disqualification of pro-reform and moderate candidates.  

Raisi, a darling of the conservative establishment, saw his supporters celebrate in eastern Tehran on Saturday evening in defiance of millions of Iranians who boycotted the polls. As anticipated by many observers, voter turnout was a record low in the history of the Islamic Republic at 48.8%.

The boycott was a silent protest against the country’s many economic woes, growing social and political restrictions and other grievances that have piled up since the former US president Donald Trump exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, spelling the ruination of the nation’s reform movement.

Many Iranians realized that the June 18 election was a coronation rather than a democratic election, and that the establishment had decided the winner.

To underline the point, a few days ahead of the polls, conservative contenders Saeed Jalili and Alireza Zakani dropped out of the race in favor of Raisi, ensuring that the contest was even less competitive and paving the way for an absolute consolidation of power in the hands of ultra-conservatives loyal to the Supreme Leader in what some see as a march to make Iran a one-state party.

Raisi, who lacks diplomatic or statecraft experience, has been Iran’s chief justice since March 2019 and has spent nearly his entire career in the judiciary. The 60-year-old is also speculated to be next in line replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 82 and has held the position for 32 years.

Raisi’s rise raises questions about the future of Iran’s relations with the West and particularly the US. Over the years, he has voiced acerbic anti-West and anti-US views and is likely to oversee a backsliding of Iran’s ties with the European Union after eight years of engagement pushed by the outgoing Rouhani administration.

A homeless man carries a garbage bag as he walks past an electoral banner for Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Morteza Nikoubazl

In December 2020, Raisi told a group of students the US was “weaker than ever” while adding that “overzealousness for negotiations with the United States is gravely misguided, and to sugarcoat the United States as good versus bad is erroneous.”

As chief justice, Raisi has wandered into foreign policy pronouncements a number of times, saying recently, “the United States’ repression and imperial demeanor doesn’t change with the Republicans or Democrats … and what disappoints the United States is the strength of Islamic Iran.”

In the aftermath of the January 2020 assassination of popular Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Raisi said the US is the “clear manifestation of state-sponsored terrorism” and that “the US presence in the region has yielded nothing but insecurity, breeding chaos and disruption to the region’s stability.”

Raisi is subject to US sanctions for his alleged role in gross human rights violations. In November 2019, the Donald Trump administration blacklisted him for giving the go-ahead to the execution of seven child offenders in 2018, putting at least 90 child offenders on death row and imprisoning at least eight prominent human rights lawyers.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control also cited Raisi’s membership in a “death commission” that rubber-stamped the execution of 5,000 prisoners in 1988. Raisi has never publicly commented on the rights abuse allegations, but his judiciary is notorious for its stringent verdicts and frequent recourse to the death penalty.

In 2020, more than 246 people were executed by the state. Amnesty International has reported that executions have been increasingly deployed as an instrument of political repression.

In his role as First Vice Chief Justice from 2004 to 2014, Raisi was one of the authorities in charge of a brutal crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement that emerged as a response to widespread perceptions of voter fraud and electoral gerrymandering by hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bidding to secure a second term in office.

While few world leaders have so far sent congratulatory messages to the president-elect, Amnesty International threw cold water on his victory, saying he must be “investigated for crimes against humanity.” 

“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” Amnesty secretary-general Agnes Callamard said.

Some experts say the Biden administration may seek to engage Raisi to follow up fledgling progress in restoring JCPOA under Rouhani but the new president’s record will give Biden pause as human rights are central to his foreign policy and have been a fixture of the West’s negotiations with Tehran.

US President Joe Biden has signaled he intends to improve relations with Iran. Image: Twitter

“There is no question that he will have a hard time due to his past,” said Sohail Jannessari, an adjunct professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

“Groups will probably call for European sanctions on him, while he’s already on the US sanctions list, and he might not even be able to travel to the Western world.”

To be sure, Raisi will not be the first Iranian president with a blemished human rights record. Some Iran pundits believe the international community will seek to work with him and turn a blind eye to his transgressions.

The president-elect is expected to consider maintaining the momentum behind reviving the JCPOA and refrain from new military adventurism in the region that could collapse the talks in Vienna.

Talal Mohammad, an academic visitor at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, says a resumption of anti-Western rhetoric is likely on the cards but the Raisi administration will not scrap the nuclear deal if it is revived by the Rouhani administration in the final weeks of its incumbency.

“There is no doubt that the new administration will do their best to keep the JCPOA alive. This matter is not only for the president. It is an issue that has oversight and goes all the way up to the Supreme Leader,” he told Asia Times.

“However, there is a great possibility that the Raisi administration will not negotiate Iran’s missile capability, its sponsorship for regional groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Bashar Assad in Syria, and regimes as far as Venezuela, simply because these are not matters decided solely by the president.”

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

Analysts say one of Raisi’s weaknesses is that he lacks an exclusive political brand to project domestically and internationally, which may end up eroding his popular base. Indeed, he lacks the charisma of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, nor does he exude the demagoguery that Ahmadinejad leveraged to popular effect.

The presidency will be a litmus test of Raisi’s suitability to replace Supreme Leader Khamenei amid deteriorating health rumors that have circulated for several years.

Raisi’s foreign policy team will most probably comprise conservative envoys and little-known diplomats from the ranks of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He may also seek assistance from Saeed Jalili, the ultra-conservative ideologue who as Ahmadinejad’s nuclear negotiator effectively squandered eight years of opportunity to bring the stalemate with the West to an end.

“With someone as inexperienced and uncharismatic as Raisi at the helm, he may rely more on friendly diplomats than what we may have seen out of Iran in the past. On his own, he has not tried to develop a clear political narrative to sell like Ahmadinejad’s populism,” said Shahed Ghoreishi, a fellow at the Defense Priorities think tank and a contributor to Responsible Statecraft.

“Raisi is a rumored replacement for Khamenei, but if he remains unpopular as president, he will lose this opportunity, even with establishment figures,” he told Asia Times.

Ebrahim Raeisi was the hands-down favorite among presidential candidates approved to run by Iran’s Guardian Council. Photo: YouTube

More broadly, Iranians should brace themselves for uncharted territory with Raisi, since little is known about how he may handle the tanking economy and other important policy areas as the country struggles to emerge from the devastation wrought by Covid-19.

One thing is clear: all branches of the government and the armed forces are now dominated by conservatives, and the one-horse race that awarded Raisi the presidency will strip hardliners of the ability to deflect blame for the country’s many deficiencies and failures on reformists like the outgoing Rouhani.

It is only a matter of time before it is determined if those behind Raisi have actual plans to improve the country’s economy and its international standing, or if they will will steer Iran into greater isolation and possibly even pronounce the demise of the Islamic Republic for an anti-democratic one-party state.