With a New Iranian President, What May or May Not Change?
Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline chief of Iran’s judiciary and close collaborator of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential election on June 19. He was congratulated by the other three candidates – Mohsen Rezaei, Abdolnaser Hemmati and Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh – even before the official result was announced. According to the Iranian news agency IRNA, the turnout was about 49%, i.e., much lower than the 73% in the 2017 election. Raisi’s victory was seen, at least in the West and perhaps among many Iranians too, as a foregone conclusion once the candidacies of two reformists, first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri
and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, were banned.
According to an assessment published by Al Monitor just before the election, President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 was the “death blow” to the reformists supporting current President Hassan Rouhani, who was blamed for the economic crisis that resulted from the reimposition of U.S. sanctions.
Another blow was the assassination of Iranian Quds Brigade leader Major-General Ghasem Soleimani by the Trump Administration in January 2020. A clear sign of the shift in support of the conservatives was their overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election later that year.
The election of Raisi is unlikely to put an end to the ongoing talks in Vienna on restoring the nuclear deal (JCPOA). Both the conservatives and moderates are ready to cooperate fully provided the sanctions are lifted and the 2015 status of the agreement is restored. The Biden Administration is keen on forcing Tehran to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities before lifting the sanctions, but apparently does want to keep the door open. However, the new leadership may not have as much patience as the current one.
What is not clear is how the fight for influence in the region between the U.S.-British alliance and Iran will unfold. Anglo-American plans to bring about regime change in Syria, undermine the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and force the Houthis in Yemen into submission make the region vulnerable to the outbreak of a larger war at any time, as recently happened in Gaza.
Indeed, for Iranian leaders, in particular the hardliners, it is a matter of moral principle to support President Assad in Syria, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and the Houthis in Yemen. In Iraq, where the doors are wide open for Iranian military and economic influence, the presence of American troops is considered by the hardliners as a direct threat to their security – and vice versa.
In all these hotspots, there still reigns a balance of terror, including with Israel. Only an intervention at a higher level from international powers such as the UN Security Council P5 aimed at solving the totality of the intertwined crises in the region through diplomatic means, could bring all the now exhausted players to the peace table. But any such move has to be preceded by a declaration that regime change and the implementation of killer sanctions have become both destructive and useless.