Report Contents

June 14, 2021

MENA

IRAN: Presidential elections unlikely to surprise

BY Jon B. Alterman

Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on reddit

Listen to our reports with a personalized podcasts through your Amazon Alexa or Apple devices audio translated into several languages

( 4 mins)
  • The Iranian government is trying to make the 18 June presidential election as anti-climactic as possible, removing every possible stumbling block to the rise of Ebrahim Raisi.
  • The conventional wisdom is increasingly converging on a nuclear deal being struck in the interregnum between Raisi’s victory and his August inauguration.
  • However, a different outcome cannot be ruled out as negotiations will require the two sides to estimate each other’s limits accurately.

Iranian presidential elections have traditionally been unpredictable affairs, with dark-horse candidates catching fire. The Iranian government is doing everything it can do ensure that the 18 June elections elevate Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, to the presidency. More than 500 candidates had sought to run, including one of Iran’s current vice presidents, a former parliament speaker, and a former president. Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified all but seven of the candidates, leaving Raisi towering over the diminished field. Even Raisi seemed sheepish about the match-up, releasing a video saying he was asking authorities to qualify more candidates to make the election more competitive. His request was ignored.

As a politician, Raisi comes across as dour and harsh. However, as a guardian of the Islamic Republic, he reassures conservatives who fear reformists will leave the country at the mercy of its adversaries. In a sign of Iranian admiration of the’China model,’ the leadership seems to have abandoned its concern that the government’s legitimacy depended on a large electoral turnout. With Raisi’s election assured, many Iranians will stay home, and the government will derive its legitimacy from the absence of alternatives and its comprehensive security apparatus.

Raisi’s hard-line bona fides are unimpeachable, and he long has acted as a close ally of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a long government career, he was linked to the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran in 1988, he served as attorney general, and was chairman of a large parastatal foundation linked to the clerical establishment. For much of a decade he has been mentioned as a potential successor to the 82-year-old Khamenei, but his chances seemed dashed when current president Hassan Rouhani trounced him in the 2017 election. Assuming Raisi wins the election, his eventual ascension to Supreme Leader would be back on track.

Iran’s future trajectory seems clear, too. Among all of the presidential candidates, there is no disagreement that Iran needs sanctions relief after former US President Donald Trump reimposed harsh secondary sanctions that froze Iranian assets and took millions of barrels a day of Iranian crude off the market. The conventional wisdom among diplomats is that the Iranians will reach an agreement with President Joe Biden’s administration to lift sanctions sometime before Raisi is inaugurated, allowing him simultaneously to benefit from sanctions relief while harshly criticizing the agreement for surrendering too much. In office, Raisi will be circumspect about opening the Iranian economy to Western investment, seeing it as part of a broader effort to subvert the Islamic Republic.

However, negotiation dynamics may result in different outcomes. Negotiations, after all, require two sides to estimate each other’s limits accurately. Assuming the Biden administration sees the Iranian need to make an agreement to lift sanctions, it may overplay its hand and misjudge what Iran is willing to give. Similarly, Iranian negotiators may overplay their hand, assuming that the Western negotiators will be eager to conclude an agreement before Raisi comes in. Iran’s negotiating behavior generally includes a moment at the end when everything appears resolved and the Iranians pull back and demand’just one more’ concession, but the brinkmanship could fall apart.

For good or ill, all of the US and Iranian negotiators know each other from negotiations in the Obama administration. Further, some of the US officials who personally were involved in the negotiations with Iran have gone on to senior positions in the Biden administration, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. The Iranians will be hard-pressed to surprise the Americans, and it is unclear whether they will even try.

More by Jon B. Alterman