Raisi is no friend of progress, nor of the rights of the Iranian people. His most noteworthy career act was his role as a young jurist who sat on a commission that sent thousands of dissidents to their deaths without due process in 1988. Despite denials, this has been documented by human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International, and Raisi has even praised the killings. He has since been Iran’s prosecutor general, oversaw one of Iran’s wealthiest religious foundations and now heads the judiciary. Though it might be hard to imagine, his presidency is likely to usher in even more repressive tactics by the state and less accountability for those who abuse power.
Every four years for the past quarter century, Iranians have been confronted with the same stark choice between candidates who proposed greater economic, cultural and security connectivity with the world, and ones who looked inward, espousing stricter social and cultural controls and pinning economic hope on domestic production. When they have chosen to weigh in en masse at the ballot box, Iranian voters have overwhelmingly favored the former. And when they haven’t, those insular forces have used the opportunity to consolidate power.
All candidates need to be approved by the Guardian Council to run. In this election, the council declined to approve the candidacies of several other well-known political figures. While the process to vet candidates is shamelessly undemocratic, controlled by an unelected body that does the bidding of an unelected supreme leader, the result still matters. It matters for the Iranian people, and also for the prospects of the Iranian regime and the United States returning to compliance on a nuclear accord that all credible international bodies agree was working.
The stakes were clear. The seven candidates who were ultimately permitted to run are all loyal to a single principle shared by every previous candidate: commitment to the survival of the regime. The differences were in how they envisioned ensuring the system’s longevity, either through greater openness to the West or by adhering to a revolutionary system that a growing number of Iranians wish they could eliminate.
The result reflects how factions pushing for reform ultimately failed, thanks to a combination of disillusionment after eight years of unfilled promises by current President Hassan Rouhani and the regime’s decision to manipulate the election process even more than usual. Among the other candidates, there was only one who presented a stark contrast to Raisi’s vision. Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor and briefly ambassador to China before that, made waves in a series of televised debates as the main foil to Raisi.
“What will happen if the hard-liners have power? I tell you there is going to be more sanctions with global consensus,” Hemmati said in the campaign’s final debate over the weekend.
Though he has supported more openness, Hemmati is no democrat. Yet, as the field of candidates narrowed, and sensing the potential for a historically low turnout that could favor Raisi, the pro-engagement factions coalesced around Hemmati. He announced this past week that the current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would be offered a key position in his administration. But by the eve of the election, as Hemmati’s hopes dimmed, even key figures in Rouhani’s administration struck a conciliatory note to Raisi.
“I see no concern over the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the elections,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi wrote on Telegram. “The nuclear negotiations are within the country’s macro-political framework” — signaling that, regardless of who is president, the regime acknowledges how important securing this deal is.
Raisi has pledged to adhere to a deal if elected. In reality, though, Iranian negotiators and the Biden administration are now under pressure to conclude a new nuclear deal by August, when Raisi will be inaugurated. There is no precedent for Iranian officials outside the current team of negotiators coming to terms on anything with U.S. counterparts.
Iran will continue to be ruled by an authoritarian regime struggling to placate a society plagued by sanctions, a decimated economy and an ongoing pandemic. The difference is that the incoming administration will do little to address the actual grievances of Iranians — or even feign that they’re trying.
More discontent is on the horizon and likely to spill into the streets. The Biden administration should prepare for how to address that inevitable backlash. And it should make clear that any repeat of Raisi’s history of violent suppression will be met with new and strong consequences, whether or not there is a deal in place.