Iran’s unique “Mullahcracy” has elected an ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, head of the country’s judiciary, as the new President. He is a protégé of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is kind of a dictator for life. The election has been dubbed as rigged and seen widely as “selection”, rather than an outcome of an open, free and fair nomination and voting process. The 60-yearold Raisi has no political experience and his career in the judiciary has been highly controversial. He played an important role in mass imprisonments of journalists, political activists and dual American-Iranian citizens. His role in a 1988 commission led to execution of thousands of political prisoners for which he came under American sanctions for alleged human rights abuses.
Khamenei has been in power for three decades and has functioned as a puppet master in the selection of candidates. Iran’s Guardian Council, an unelected body, had earlier chosen seven candidates for the Presidential election, out of 592 applicants. Among the 40 or more women applicants, all were disallowed. The Council has the power to nominate or reject candidates, without assigning any reason, giving currency to the widespread impression that the process of candidate selection is arbitrary, undemocratic and closely controlled. Three approved candidates dropped out, leaving Raisi and three other candidates in the field. Choosing Islamic clerics as candidates has been the norm, except for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former President who turned out to be extra subservient to Khamenei. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani urged Khamenei to nominate more candidates and Ahmadinejad announced that he will boycott voting. The Council’s management of the election is somewhat akin to that of the Pakistan Army’s management of elections which has put Imran Khan, widely regarded as a “selected” rather than elected, in the PM’s chair.
Voter apathy was evident with a comparative low turnout of around 48%. An online campaign has gone on urging Iranians not to vote, in protest against Iran’s rigged political system. International sanctions on Iran and the COVID pandemic have caused high inflation, unemployment, collapse in the value of the Iranian currency and extensive curtailment of basic freedoms. Most Iranians want better economic prospects and a better life. Millions of Iranians have been pushed into poverty. In the 2017 election, voter turnout was around 73%. Iranian authorities tried hard to show that there was good turnout of voters. Iranian TV showed long lines of voters waiting to cast their votes and voting time was extended to show that many voters had not been able to vote. The reality was different.
PM Narendra Modi has congratulated Iran’s new president on his electoral victory and vowed to work with Raisi to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two nations. India has long-standing ties with Iran. India’s investment in the Chabahar port provides a strategic gateway to Afghanistan and the North- South Transit corridor to Central Asia. Iran has deep interest in the future of Afghanistan, after the Americans leave the country. Iran remains wary about a Taliban takeover.
Raisi is backed by the Islamic hardliner lobby, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards which was unhappy with the relatively moderate and pragmatic Rouhani. Moderates and pragmatists have been on the back foot during President Trump’s administration when the latter quit the nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Sanctions on oil exports badly hurt Iran’s economy. India too had to reduce imports of Iranian oil to zero after getting a waiver for some months from the Trump administration. Raisi’s win empowers the hardliners at a crucial time, when the Biden administration in the US, reversing Trump’s policy on the nuclear deal, seeks to re-join the JCPOA. Negotiations for this purpose have begun in Geneva. Raisi is likely to be a more difficult personality and may drive a harder bargain in the ongoing negotiations with the US and western countries. Negotiations, currently postponed in view of the election, may get more difficult because the US will seek to impose curbs on Iran’s missile capabilities and its nexus with Iranian-backed militias in the region which are active in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
The US will seek to curb Iran’s capabilities to threaten Israel, an issue that Tehran has rejected for discussion. Iran holds the extreme position that Israel has no right to exist and wants to wipe out the Jewish state from the face of the planet. Though largely rhetorical, Israel perceives Iran as the greatest threat to itself. Israel has expressed grave concerns about Raisi, calling him the most extremist president so far. Consistently opposed to the nuclear deal, Israel has warned against reviving the deal. Naftali Bennett, the new Israeli PM, has attacked the Raisi-led government as “a regime of brutal hangmen (which) must never be allowed to have weapons of mass-destruction”. Israel believes that Iran’s nuclear programme is geared towards producing nuclear weapons. After President Trump re-imposed crippling sanctions following his decision to quit the nuclear deal, Iran ramped up production of enriched uranium, an essential ingredient for fabricating nuclear weapons.
The Iran-Israel contestation has become the most serious faultline in West Asia. An undeclared asymmetrical warfare has been underway between the two countries. Israel has been blamed for attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassinations of nuclear scientists. Iran has mounted assassination attempts on Israeli diplomats and embassies, including in Delhi. Iran’s economic woes are serious enough to induce it to negotiate a new nuclear deal and ease sanctions. Easing of sanctions will also help India access Iranian oil. The sanctions have pushed Iran to collaborate more closely with China and Russia. Whether Raisi will deepen these ties or seek to negotiate a compromise with the western countries on the nuclear deal still remains unclear.