On June 18, the Iranians went to the polls to choose the country’s new president. Of course, among those who were previously authorized for the election. About 49% of voters turned out, the lowest number among elections held in the 21st century. That’s even with polling stations having their opening hours extended, which was already a sign of low attendance. The one elected, with more than 70% of the votes, was Ebrahim Raisi. And what is the possible impact of this election on the negotiation of the resumption of the nuclear agreement with the USA?
First, the actual elections. Of the approximately 600 applications, only seven were approved; of these, three withdrew their candidacy after authorization. The approval, or not, of a candidacy is made by the Council of Guardians, which is, in practice, the main decision-making body in the country, with powers over the legislature and the judiciary, as well as an electoral body. It is composed of twelve people, six religious scholars of Islamic jurisprudence and six secular jurists.
Religious members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The title ayatollah is a religious one, from Shiite Islam, not a political title, and there are several ayatollahs. The message is often conveyed that Ayatollah is a political and exclusive title, which is not true. The other half of the council is approved by parliament from a list of nominations made by the head of the judiciary; which is named by the Supreme Leader, meaning that ultimately all names go directly or indirectly through Khamenei.
Likewise, directly or indirectly, candidates are approved by the Supreme Leader. And, although the legislation allows the participation of women in elections, we never had the authorization of a candidate for the top office, only at regional and local levels. Of the seven candidacies approved by the council’s ideological filter, absolutely none represented the reformist sectors, of the current president Hassan Rouhani, who occupied the position for two terms. His favorite was his vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri.
Another candidacy that Rouhani supported behind the scenes was that of Ali Larijani, seen as a pragmatic conciliator, from the “center”. Reformers, in general, advocate greater political openings and deep internal reforms, and a conciliatory role on the international agenda. In opposition, principists defend more rigid and traditional social and political structures, in accordance with religious principles, hence the name of the group. In the external field, they defend a more assertive and active policy.
These two groups should not be assumed to be synonymous with left and right, or with liberals and conservatives, as sometimes happens. Of course, it works as an analogy, for didactic purposes, but they are not precise, they are elaborate terms thinking of Western countries. Returning to the election, it was already written that the new Iranian president would be a principled. In this case, Ebrahim Raisi, former head of the judiciary. That is, someone who appointed part of the Council and who was himself appointed by Khamenei, whose influence pushed any opponents of Raisi out of the way.
As head of the judiciary, and in his past career, Raisi is a staunch advocate of capital punishment and gender segregation. It has already been the target of several and heavy criticism from international human rights groups. It also plays an active role in managing foundations linked to the government and the Revolutionary Guards, which act as intermediaries in the economy, trying to circumvent international sanctions. He, even as a natural person, is the target of economic sanctions by the US.
Does his election mean he will take a hard line and make negotiations with the US difficult? No. It doesn’t mean otherwise either. In fact, the election of Ebrahim Raisi has little influence on the negotiations. To be kind and not say that it influences anything. He is Khamenei’s man, the true mandatary. Who will decide on the negotiations are the Supreme Leader and the command of the Revolutionary Guards. The institutional and secular government will conduct the daily life and the formalities of the negotiations, that’s all.
It is important to remember that, last April, a recording by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was leaked, in which he says exactly that. It’s not a crazy conjecture or just a hypothesis raised by the column. With that in mind, there are three options in the near future, which depend on Khamenei’s will. The Iranian leader wants the end of economic sanctions against the country and the reinsertion of Iran in the international economy, this is a fact.
Years ago, Rouhani undertook a veritable tour of Europe, signing fat contracts with European companies, eager for the normalization provided by the agreement. Europe opposed Trump’s breach of the agreement and tried to keep it functional, promising that it would offset US sanctions via a de facto barter market. Did not work. The new US government also wants the agreement to resume. Biden criticized Trump’s stance and argues that the deal is the best way to oversee Iran.
Therefore, Iran, Europe and the USA want the agreement to be resumed. China, another signatory, is on the fence. It is interested in economic opportunities, and sanctions are not that much of a concern, but neither does it want to pick a fight. Russia does not want a nuclear Iran, but neither does it want to risk losing its main ally in Syria to Western countries. Publicly, he favors the agreement, so much so that he signed it, but behind the scenes he made things a little more difficult.
The desire for an agreement, however, is not enough. Each of the actors will be willing to pay only a certain price for it. More than that, it won’t pay, whether it’s making a big practical concession or even the impression that national pride has been hurt. Hence the three options, which basically depend on Khamenei. First, and most obvious, would be to wait for the new government, “hard-line” to take office, and to maintain an inflexible posture in the negotiations. For example, Iran claims that, since it was the US government that broke, it is Washington that must take the first step and withdraw at least part of the sanctions.
If the posture results in the agreement, win. If it doesn’t work, talk about national pride and circumventing sanctions, as well as maintaining the nuclear program. The second option would be to wait for the new government to take office, but now with a more appeasing posture. “Pragmatic”, some would say. It would show that the new government is willing to sacrifice and harmony, that it is not as “evil” as they say. If the deal works, another win. If the approach fails, blame remains on the West, who broke their word and were uncompromising.
Finally, the third option is to put the next six weeks as the deadline. That’s the time left for the government of Hassan Rouhani, who would be a scapegoat if necessary. If the agreement is not resumed within the next six weeks, the “blame” is Rouhani’s. If the agreement is resumed and does not yield the expected results, the “blame” is Rouhani’s. And, if the agreement is resumed and the economy takes off as in 2016, with 13% growth? The fruit is reaped by the Ebrahim Raisi government, with years of economic expansion and investment. In other words, Khamenei is victorious.
These will be intense weeks in Vienna, where negotiations are taking place, with the intermediation of European diplomats. Representatives of the US government and the Iranian government do not sit at the same table, at least not yet. Iran wants a signal of compensation or some assurance that Trump’s attitude will not be repeated in future governments. For its part, the US government cannot guarantee this, besides wanting an expansion of the agreement. Whether or not the impasse will be overcome, we’ll know soon.