Dire economic conditions and social unrest were the bleak backgrounds in which the Iranian presidential election took place on the 18th of June 2021. The Coronavirus pandemic only fuelled the already catastrophic situation of the country, suffocated by the US economic sanctions and public discontent. Without any surprises, Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative cleric close to the current Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won the presidency. With campaign promises bolstering the eradication of unemployment, the end of corruption and poverty, and a firm stance on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) on nuclear activity, Raisi announced the willingness to become the president of all Iranians. The new mandate will undeniably represent a split with the prior moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and might even bring the nation back to an authoritarian condition.
The precarious circumstances that led to Raisi’s win already cause trouble for the administration’s future. Indeed, the new leader conquered his position after collecting 62% of approval and 17.9 million votes. However, with a total turnout of 48.8% of the population, the victory has been contested and Raisi’s legitimacy put under scrutiny. Moreover, what is being debated is the overall electoral process too. Data shows that a total of 600 citizens, 40 of which women, were running for the office. Nevertheless, only 7 men – 3 of which withdrew soon after – were selected by the Guardian Council, an entity of jurists and religious scholars who have the last say in applicants’ approval. Ebrahim Raisi has been criticised for being favoured by his close relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which allowed him to score more than 14 million votes more than the second-listed contestant. What seemed to be an unfair process has been widely condemned by analysts and politicians. The US State Department spokesman commented on the voting and said that “Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process”. Despite the numerous critiques, Raisi presented himself as the “the opponent of corruption, inefficiency and aristocracy” and vowed to create a “hard-working, anti-corruption and revolutionary” government.
What allowed Raisi to finish first was not only his closeness with the Iranian Supreme Guide but also his top-notch background. Indeed, the newly elected president was appointed to high-level roles from a very young age. Raisi has been a prosecutor for most of his life, attaining the position of chief attorney for the city of Karaj when he was only 20 years old. In 2019, he reached the peak of his influence, being nominated by Ali Khamenei as the chief of justice.
However, despite his prominent position, Raisi has been involved in numerous controversies. Notably, Iran’s president is being accused of human rights violation which led him to be put under US sanctions. Raisi is under suspicion of having participated in the mass execution of political prisoners after the ending of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Moreover, during his time as a judiciary chief, there was an alleged increase in punishments and an intense crackdown of social protests. The pious scholar denied his involvement in such matters and instead, argued that “(E)verything I’ve done in my time of holding office has been to defend human rights”. He rebutted against Western accusations and claimed that “those that founded terrorist groups” should instead be put on trial for human rights violations. Despite his claims, Amnesty International has called for further investigation on the Islamic scholar, highlighting how his ascension to the presidency is “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran”.
Among others, two elements might mark Raisi’s presidency: his determination to get the nation’s economy back on track and his firm stance regarding the Iranian nuclear activity.
Iran’s controversial president presented himself as the leader who will eliminate poverty, fight corruption and restore the economy. During his campaign, he promised to reduce the soaring unemployment level and fight to lift US sanctions which are financially strangling the country. Nevertheless, he did not provide concrete strategies on how to achieve these goals.
The other pivotal political battle Raisi will focus on is the JCPA on nuclear activity. Indeed, Iran’s presidential election comes at a crucial time during which the Iranian nuclear deal that was first introduced in 2015 is currently being renegotiated. Although hostile to the West, Raisi is thought to not be opposed to it but will instead pursue discussions with the other international leaders. Nonetheless, because of the leader’s defiant tone, agreements might be complex. Indeed, he recently confirmed his willingness to resume consultations but rejected any restriction to Iran’s missile potential and its flow of subsidies to affiliated regional armed forces. Iran’s head of state’s unyielding resolution has been summed up in his affirmation that “(W)hatever negotiation that ensures our national interests will be supported by us, but we will not tie our people’s economic situation to the negotiations and will not allow negotiations for the sake of negotiations”.
There is no doubt that Iran’s presidential election’s effects will have an echo throughout the region and the wider international arena. Analysts believe that under the very devout and hard-liner Islamic intellectual the government will attempt to promote a more intransigent Islamic Republic, possibly further jeopardizing the population’s freedom and intensifying social control. Other experts have stated that the new administration might represent a regression to a more dictatorial leadership, closely resembling Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s 2005-13 mandates. Natasha Lindstaedt, a scholar from the University of Essex has commented that she understands “Raisi in some way as the return to Ahmadinejad, a more populist, authoritarian president and that was a period when the relationships with the US and Iran was really tense”.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.