On June 18th, Ebrahim Raisi gained enough votes to win Iran’s presidential election and secure Iran’s second most powerful political position. In total, he received 61.95% of the vote in an election with a record low turnout of 48.8%. However, Raisi’s win was not unexpected; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed his campaign, ensuring he would be the frontrunner. President-Elect Raisi is a notable hardliner regarding foreign relations with the West, and Raisi will succeed President Hassan Rouhani, a notable moderate. In the past, the Human Rights Watch has accused Raisi of crimes against humanity including “murder, enforced disappearance and torture.” He was involved in the execution of thousands of political prisoners during 1988 and in the suppression of 2009 protests, and the United States sanctions Raisi for his brutal human rights abuses.
According to Kasra Naji with the BBC, the Iranian political establishment engineered the election so that Raisi could win, which has already alienated the Iranian public. With his election, the political hardliners in Iran have secured all centers of government power. Inevitably, this will make Iran “a more closed society. Freedoms will likely be curtailed even more than before,” according to Naji. As a result, he also believes that Iran will look toward China and alienate itself more from the West.
In response to the election, Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, posted on Twitter calling for Raisi’s investigation. She said, “We continue to call for Ebrahim Raisi to be investigated for his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law, including by states that exercise universal jurisdiction.” She also pointed out that Iranian political leaders remain free from punishment for their political and human rights abuses.
Although Raisi was expected to win, his win poses a significant threat to domestic human rights and global stability. The international community can either intervene further with sanctions or cooperate with the new president to gain diplomatic leverage. Western democracies should approach Raisi’s future presidency with diplomacy instead of sanctions to relieve tensions. Historically, Western sanctions and intervention have alienated Iranian nationals rather than encouraging regime change. Additionally, further sanctions will compound the economic hardship of ordinary Iranians. Importantly, re-establishing the Iran nuclear deal will be a critical diplomatic step for rapprochement with the West and a necessary process to slow down nuclear proliferation. Raisi will inevitably stir tensions with Iran, so the West must use diplomacy proactively to placate worsening tensions in the interests of regional stability.
Over the last decade, Iranians have struggled with economic decline and financial hardship imposed by Western sanctions, so this election occurred amongst extreme public discontent. Currently, inflation is at 39%, and the country struggles with an 11% unemployment rate. Therefore, many Iranian citizens were already discontent with the political establishment and former President Rouhani, who failed to alleviate Iran’s dire economic situation.
In Iran, the Election Monitoring Agency, overseen by the Guardian Council, selects candidates for the presidential election. This year the Election Monitoring Agency selected five hardline presidential candidates out of seven, which alienated many voters. The government selected candidates who would protect the establishment and who would align with the current ruling political class. As a result, numerous Iranians called for an election boycott. This voter disenchantment explains the record low turnout compared to 2017’s 73%. Because of this election’s dubious processes, future President Raisi will assume office with low domestic political legitimacy.
In regards to the near future, the new President is unlikely to derail talks with the United States as both Raisi and Supreme Leader Khamenei support the reinstatement of the Iran nuclear deal. Since the supreme leader has the final say on all government decisions, even if President-Elect Raisi tried to reverse course on the Iran deal, it is unlikely that Iran would abandon the deal. Raisi and the government’s leaders are determined to alleviate economic hardship, so they will likely cooperate with the West to reinstate the deal in exchange for dropping nuclear-related sanctions.
In contrast, foreign policy experts expect Raisi to push Iran toward a more adversarial relationship with the West. Because of his hardline past, he is likely to bolster support for insurgents across the Middle East to oppose Saudi Arabian and U.S. influence. This makes Western-initiated diplomacy even more salient to proactively stop Iran from strengthening support for violent insurgencies. As stated by Naji, Raisi will probably deepen economic and political relations with Russia and China. In the past, conservative leaders have regarded these countries as anti-Western, so now that the hardliners control all of the government, they will likely deepen their cooperation with China and Russia.