The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shortages, sanctions, protests and pandemic: Daunting challenges await Iran’s new president

President Ebrahim Raisi, center, waves to journalists as he is surrounded by group of lawmakers after taking his oath as president at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 5, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

ISTANBUL — The challenges awaiting Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s incoming president, range from insistent to enduring, with the country in the throes of a deadly coronavirus wave, an economy writhing under sanctions and flashes of bold, anti-government protests that signal deeper discontent.

Abroad, Iran is acutely isolated and locked in a spreading conflict with Israel, including at sea. Negotiations with the United States and other world powers to revive a nuclear deal are at a standstill. Even before Raisi was sworn in Thursday, rights groups had called for him to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in mass executions in Iran more than three decades ago.

“The government of the people is going to fulfill their demands,” Raisi said Thursday during a somber inauguration ceremony in a cavernous green hall of the parliament. There was a smattering of foreign dignitaries in attendance, including the presidents of Afghanistan and Iraq, representatives from the European Union and the Vatican and delegates from regional militant groups that Tehran supports.

Iranians have already hinted that Raisi may not be the person for the job. More than half of eligible voters sat out the last presidential election, in which Raisi, an ultraconservative Shiite Muslim cleric, appeared to be the handpicked choice of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi prevailed in a landslide, but only after several prominent challengers were barred from the race.

His election consolidated power in the hands of Iran’s hard-liners, a development that some analysts said had the benefit of unifying Iran’s leadership after years of factional infighting during the tenure of outgoing president Hassan Rouhani and leaving it better equipped to tackle Iran’s many crises.

Iran’s new president consolidates hard-line grip as reformists pushed aside

Others questioned whether Raisi would harness that unity to satisfy a growing list of public demands, or instead further the goals of an establishment he has dutifully served for so long.

“A group that is pursuing an ideology does not depend on people for its legitimacy and will not accept any responsibility in face of any efficiency crisis,” said Nima, 45, an unemployed engineer living in Tehran. “This is not going to change at all with Raisi’s presidency and is only going to get worse.”

Between water shortages in southern Iran, a floundering response to the coronavirus pandemic and protests around the country, “there is a crisis of public confidence in government,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder and chief executive of the London-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, a think tank focused on Iran’s economy.

“All of this is taking place in the shadow of the election and how Raisi became president,” he said. The easiest way to quell questions that the election raised about legitimacy would be to “show a degree of managerial competence in the many crises Iran is facing,” Batmanghelidj added.

“I think it’s an open question whether Raisi and his administration are going to accept that and make it their fundamental priority,” he said.

In his inaugural speech Thursday, Raisi glossed over the low turnout, calling the election a “great epic,” but he acknowledged a public clamor for change and vowed to fight corruption, stabilize the economy and better manage resources like water.

Iranians had “demanded resistance against expansionist and arrogant powers while maintaining constructive interactions with the world and preserving our independence,” he said. Iran was not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, and “sanctions must be lifted,” he said, adding that he supported any diplomatic initiative toward that goal.

He made only passing reference to Iran’s most pressing crisis: the coronavirus pandemic, which over the last week has killed nearly 400 people a day, according to Iranian Health Ministry figures. Iran’s stumbling response to the crisis — blamed on the outgoing Rouhani government as well as the supreme leader — has left Iran without enough vaccines to tackle the latest outbreak and sent Iranians to the black market and even Armenia to get their shots.

With videos circulating in recent days of overwhelmed hospitals and patients lying in hallways, the coronavirus crisis delivers an early test of Raisi’s leadership, Batmanghelidj said. Another test comes with his cabinet selections, which could show “whether he has a clear understanding of effective governance,” or whether he prefers to choose subordinates based on their political alignment.

Iran’s economy has been improving, but “any setback in terms of foreign trade, confidence around the currency or concerns about the government budget could push the economy back toward the period of crisis it has been in for three years,” Batmanghelidj said. Lifting U.S. sanctions, which have compounded Iran’s economic struggles and scared off foreign companies that could update the country’s infrastructure, would be the most urgent priority, he said.

The government would have to follow up with more invasive surgery to provide relief to state industries hampered by electricity shortages and other problems, as well as private businesses perennially tied up in bureaucratic red tape.

Protests that broke out last month in southern Iran over water shortages laid bare the intertwined challenges facing the government, which has been accused for years of mismanaging Iran’s resources and then responding to complaints with half measures and repression by the security forces.

Protests over water shortages in Iran turn deadly in a summer of drought

Ninety percent of Iran’s shrinking water resources are diverted for agriculture. Dam-building, drought and global warming have worsened the shortages, especially in southwestern Iran, an agricultural area that also holds more than 80 percent of the country’s oil reserves. Despite that, the region is impoverished and beset by long-standing complaints of discrimination and official neglect. Protests over shortages in southwestern Khuzestan province, home to most of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, have repeatedly flared in recent years.

“The water crisis is directly tied to people’s livelihoods,” said Ebrahim Bakhshi, a human rights activist originally from Khuzestan and who now lives in exile. His family left the province more than a decade ago, largely because of water and air pollution, he said. Over the years, fertile soil has been diverted from the region, and dam-building has dried out its palm groves. More recently, water buffaloes have been dying off in large numbers, he said.

Chants from the latest protests focused anger on Iran’s rulers, as well as fears that the government’s aim was to force a restive population out of the region, Bakhshi said. Before the Khuzestan protests quieted down, authorities throttled Internet access as solidarity demonstrations with the water protesters were spreading to other parts of Iran, including the capital, Tehran.

Protests in Iran have occurred at a “fairly constant, low level for three years now,” said Batmanghelidj. But it is unclear whether the government views the durability of the protests as alarming, or whether the opposite is true and the unrest is seen as a manageable way to vent public anger, he said.

“I think they will begin again,” Nasser Karami, an expert on Iran’s climate and geography who is also originally from Khuzestan, said of the protests. The problems are likely to persist, he said, absent a shift in Iranian priorities now aimed at increasing the population and pursuing unsustainable agricultural goals that have encouraged farmers to try to grow crops in deserts. In his view, the ideology of Iran’s rulers has pushed the country toward land degradation.

“Raisi is not a president for development,” Karami said. “He is a president for deepening the ideological targets of the Islamic Republic — for increasing, not solving, its problems.”