Ghastly election of Raisi portends a darkening Middle East
While the uncomprehending Biden administration may greet last week’s Iranian election with a shrug — noting that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has the lion’s share of the power anyway — the elevation of Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency actually has significant and far-reaching consequences. Sadly, almost all of them point to darkening days for a region desperately in need of sunlight.
Rather than myopically focusing on the details of the election just passed, political risk analysis impels us to look more broadly at what the result actually means. First, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it so well: “Character is destiny.” In Raisi’s case, his future course can be clearly seen by looking at his striking biography.
Raisi came to prominence early, as a fire-breathing prosecutor in the late 1980s, when at the age of just 27 he served on what became known as the “death commission” in Tehran. In 1988, this panel oversaw a series of mass trials that led to the execution of between 5,000 and 30,000 regime dissidents in the wake of the brutal Iraq-Iran war. Moving up, since 2019, Raisi has served as the country’s chief justice. It was in his current role that Raisi advocated impunity for Iranian officials and security forces accused of killing protesters during the mass unrest in the country in 2019.
Throughout his career, Raisi has been the hardest of hard-liners. His personal fealty to Khamenei is well documented. In fact, it is widely expected that Raisi’s elevation to the presidency (he is just 60) is but a stepping stone to his succession as supreme leader as Khamenei’s chosen successor (he is 82). Such an outcome has historical precedent, as this was precisely how Khamenei himself came to supreme power following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. In other words, in political risk terms this was not just another election; rather it was Iran’s succession plan put into practice.
Second, Raisi’s elevation means that the old, tired argument that Iran’s “moderates” can be supported by the West from outside the country has at last definitively been proven false. With Raisi as president, hard-liners control all of Iran’s state institutions and levers of power. There simply can no longer be any doubt that a revolutionary, hard-line Iranian policy agenda is what the world is facing.
There can no longer be any doubt that a revolutionary, hard-line Iranian policy agenda is what the world is facing.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
Third, Iran’s economy is a mess and Raisi has no domestic answers as to how to salvage it. Following Donald Trump’s highly effective sanctions campaign of “maximum pressure,” Iran’s economy nosedived by 4.8 percent in 2018 and a further 9.5 percent in 2019. Oil exports, the lifeblood of the Iranian economy, dipped from 2.3 million barrels per day in 2018 to just 1 million in 2019. At the same time, according to the International Monetary Fund, raging inflation is set to increase from an already stratospheric 36.5 percent in 2020 to 39 percent this year.
Fourth, all of this economic woe means Tehran will be looking outside its borders to find a way to somehow right the ship of state. Only by both quickly reinstating the nuclear deal with the West and courting new ally China can Raisi and the other hard-liners hope to keep the economic wolf from the door. With Iran having entered into a new, anti-American, strategic alliance with Beijing, look for Raisi to try to quickly expand ties with a rising China, which is keen to find long-term sources of energy for its ever-expanding economy.
Fifth, due to all this, look for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to be quickly renewed between Tehran and the West. Raisi has said he grudgingly supports the renewal of the JCPOA “as long as it serves Iran’s interests.” A deal is likely to come about sooner rather than later, potentially before the official handover of power in Iran in August, as this would suit the domestic political interests of the outgoing Rouhani government (looking for a historical legacy), the incoming Raisi government (which doesn’t want to get its hands dirty negotiating with the Americans), and the impatient Biden administration (that is eager to lock down a deal so it can pivot to the Indo-Pacific).
Sixth, such a deal will amount to a diplomatic disaster, as it will be a strategic capitulation entirely on Iran’s terms. It will let Tehran off the economic hook; as Raisi put it, “The US is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran.” Raisi went on to say that he wouldn’t bow to international calls for a broader discussion (as the Biden White House has been pushing) about the development of Iran’s highly advanced ballistic missile program or its fervent support for terrorist and militia groups across the region (in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), saying these were “non-negotiable” issues.
If this is so, and there is every reason to believe Raisi means what he says, the Biden administration’s efforts to make Iran “a more normal” regional power have just gone up in smoke. Instead, while conceding nothing new, Iran will see its coffers replenished, fortified by an unthinking White House, as its expansionist regional policy is given new life.
Americans like to say “elections have consequences.” Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the political rise of Raisi may well prove to be disastrously consequential.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.