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Wednesday, 01 February 2023
  • No surprise that Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s new president. But what will happen with the nuclear deal?

No surprise that Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s new president. But what will happen with the nuclear deal?
Ian Black

It was hardly surprising that Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s presidential election earlier this month. His close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, guaranteed his success, especially compared to the other four (carefully-vetted) candidates whose participation was largely symbolic.

 Voter turnout was the lowest in decades – officially just 48% - despite Khamenei having decreed voting a religious duty, and casting a blank ballot as a sin. That reflected frustration, apathy and anger at continuing US sanctions, the Covid pandemic, a collapsing financial system, a drought, and general disappointment with the reformist administration of the current president, Hassan Rouhani. And Tehran province had a staggeringly low 34% turnout, half that of previous years, with many polling stations noticeably deserted. Ebrahim Raisi

 The president-elect (who will take power on August 3) is correctly defined as “hardline” and is considered by some analysts likely to eventually succeed Khamenei (now 82 and in poor health), as the current Supreme Leader himself replaced Ayatollah Khomeini after serving as president from 1981-1989. Another possible contender is Khamenei’s son Mojtaba. According one scenario Raisi‘s term is intended to pave the way for Mojtaba to succeed his father.

 Pessimists have characterized Raisi’s victory as the most farcical since the 1979 revolution and also the most consequential since that landmark event. As deputy chief prosecutor for Tehran, he was directly involved in the execution of 4,000 opposition activists in the late 1980s. He also oversaw the brutal crackdown on mass protests in 2019, resulting in US sanctions targeting him personally. Nevertheless, in his first post-election remarks he unashamedly defined himself as a “defender of human rights”.

 Obviously his victory will have both international and regional, as well as domestic repercussions. Raisi will be in office if the ongoing negotiations with the US succeed in resurrecting some version of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and a key, if controversial, achievement of Barack Obama’s two terms.  

 A revived JCPoA would bring an end to some of the sanctions unilaterally re-imposed by President Donald Trump after he withdrew from the deal in 2018. While the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has hurt ordinary Iranians, it has also weakened the regime. Ebrahim Raisi

 Signals have been mixed. In comments after he won, Raisi ruled out meeting President Joe Biden, who is committed to reversing the decision of his Republican predecessor. That position appeared to be connected to new bills in the Iranian majlis banning direct negotiations between Iran and American representatives. Washington said Iranians had been denied a democratic election, pointing out that all prominent reformists were disqualified as candidates by the Guardian Council, an instrument of Khamenei’s influence.

 Just days after Raisi’s victory, the scale of the dangers facing both Iran and the Middle East was underlined by yet another mysterious “sabotage attack” that targeted a civilian nuclear facility near Tehran. As in previous cases, the main suspect was Israel. Back in April, Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear site experienced a mysterious blackout that damaged some of its centrifuges.

 Ominously, Israel’s reaction was to denounce the incoming Iranian government and predict it would be a pawn in the hands of Khamenei. “Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with,” said the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. “A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction. Israel’s position will not change on this.”

 Paradoxically, however, some western-based analysts of Iranian affairs seem to think that Raisi’s victory is good news for the renewal of the JCPoA. Optimists hope that a more unified leadership in Tehran will find it easier to revive the agreement and that the glacial progress in the resumed Vienna talks was designed to ensure that officials who were deemed to be reformists would not secure the easing of sanctions.

 In his remarks last week, Raisi emphasized the deal’s importance, describing sanctions relief as “central to our foreign policy” and exhorting the US to “return and implement your commitments”. Hardliners would clearly benefit from the cash flow that easing sanctions would deliver, as well as from improved relations with China and Russia.

 On Saudi Arabia, which recently started secret talks with Iran in Baghdad over several points of contention, Raisi also said that Iran would have “no problem” with a possible reopening of the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and that the “restoration of relations faces no barrier”. The embassy shut in 2016 after it was stormed by protesters enraged by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric.

 On the negative side, Raisi has already declared that Iran’s ballistic missile program “is non-negotiable” and support for regional militias are not going to be on the table in Vienna. Unlike Rouhani, he is not remotely interested in attracting western investment. Pressure is on to secure a new agreement before Raisi enters office in just over a month. But if he then sticks to his familiar guns, it will not be surprising either. Ebrahim Raisi

by: IAN BLACK levant