This report sheds the light on recent political and institutional process and developments in Iran in the wake of the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi’s victory as president. These developments include an analysis of the latest political and institutional process, developments in the hardline and reform camps, and major trends in traditional and social media.
Part One: Political, institutional process and developments
1. Raisi as a unifier political figure. When he ran as a presidential candidate, Ebrahim Raisi promised to be an independent political force who could attract support from all factions in the regime. In the days since his election, the regime’s propaganda machine has been working hard to give the impression that Raisi’s position as a unifier political force is a reality, and to be continued.
For example, Raisi held a high-profile meeting with all the other six presidential candidates to show one unified position by all the men in defending the Islamic Republic. This show of “unity” is, however, much more about the panic the regime has experienced after the lowest voter turnout since 1979. Whether the regime is genuinely “unified” is an open question as one could argue the opposite is also true: that the regime is fragmenting after many prominent presidential candidates were stopped by Ali Khamenei from participating in the June election.
In fact, it is likely that in the first instance Ebrahim Raisi will face political pressure from the hardline camp. There are demands coming from this camp that insist Raisi to pursue rigid domestic policies while urging him to be tough with the Americans in the nuclear negotiations. On the other hand, the reform and moderate camps, including many of the technocrats that might join the next Raisi government in various official capacities, have one message for Raisi: that he needs to reach a nuclear deal with Washington and remove the sanctions soonest possible as the only solutions to dire economic challenges facing Iran.
How Raisi can balance between these two interest groups is going to decide if he can be a “unifier” or if he will fail in this political mission, at a time the regime is on shaky grounds. Moderate leaders, such as Hossein Marashi from Kargozaran party, have so far been cool toward the idea of Raisi as a “unifying” political figure.
Part Two: Developments in the Hardline camp
1. Raisi’s potential cabinet members. Raisi is due to take over as president in the first week of August. In the next four weeks, his cabinet will be put together but it is already looking to tilt toward the right. In his most noticeable decision regarding his upcoming cabinet, Raisi has put Ali Bagheri as his coordinator to deal with the foreign ministry. This puts him on the shortlist as the next Foreign Minister. Bagheri, who is related to Khamenei through family marriage, was deputy to Saeed Jalili when he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during the Ahmadinejad presidency.
Jalili is said to want to replace Ali Shamkhani as the Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Jalili is an ideologue whose dogmatical approach in talks with Western negotiators resulted in Iran becoming repeatedly sanctioned at UN level during his term. Should they both be given senior roles in relation to foreign policy, the Bagheri-Jalili duo can make negotiations harder with the West.
2. Fight in the hardline camp intensifies. As the Guardian Council disqualified almost all reformist and moderate candidates in the 18 June elections, hardliners are increasingly turning on each other. This could be an interesting trend to watch as it’s a sign of possible further fragmentation of the regime. On 18 June, Iran also held mid-term elections for a number of seats in the Majlis. One seat for the Tehran district was contested by two men from the hardline camp: Hamid Resaee and Esmail Kowsari.
Kowsari is said to have won the seat but Resaee quickly complained that Kowsari was not eligible to run since he is a serving member of the Revolutionary Guards. Kowsari responded that he had retired from the Revolutionary Guards in 2008, which is patently not true. Nonetheless, the Guardian Council chose to side with Kowsari after reviewing Resaee’s complaint. Some sources in Tehran claim that Kowsari had been asked to run for the Majlis seat after encouragement by Gholam-Hossein Hadad Adel, a top figure in Khamenei’s office who deal with Majlis affairs.
It is obviously impossible to know what exactly might have motivated Khamenei’s office to push for Kowsari’s return to Majlis (he was a Majlis member before returning to Revolutionary Guards). Two things are likely. First, that Khamenei’s office plan to have Kowsari play the role of an enforcer in Majlis at a time when Khamenei is consolidating power in fewer trusted hands. Second, this is not a risk-free strategy as Resaee’s reaction shows that the hardline camp can face serious internal fissures, which in turn can undermine Khamenei’s plans for his succession.
Part Three: Developments in the Reform/Moderate Camp
1. Reform leaders and the task of rebuilding. One of the biggest losers in the latest presidential elections were the reform leaders and parties. After what was essentially a rejection of the reformist message by the voters, the test for reform leaders is to determine the path ahead. Two obvious choices face them. First, they can extricate themselves from the regime and boldly declare that the recent mass disqualification of reform and moderate presidential candidates is the last nail in the coffin of any hopes for gradual political change in Iran. Such a proclamation would arguably be the only way reformist leaders can redeem themselves after years of disappointing their support base in society. This path can only be meaningfully taken if prominent figures, such as Mohammad Khatami, make a public stance and articulate such a disillusionment with the Islamic Republic. There is, however, no sign that such announcements are forthcoming anytime soon. Reformist leaders might be dejected but clearly have no blueprint for the future nor are they ready to abandon the political model that is the Islamic Republic. Second, prominent figures such as Khatami can go on the offensive but still stay in the framework of the regime. They can forewarn Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that ignoring the reformist spirit in Iranian society and marginalizing reformist figures in the political process can only further hollow out what is left of the popular legitimacy of the regime. So far, the most prominent reform figures have either been too timid to take such a stand or have been highly wary when arguing for change.
Instead of pointing out to the obvious structural obstacles in the way of political reform – that Khamenei through the Guardian Council can always prevent any grassroots-led desire for political change – reform leaders speak of the need to “reorganize.” What this means is not clear as the voters did not largely boycott the June elections because reform candidates were disorganized but because they did not stand up to Khamenei when he kept them out from the election process.
Mohsen Hashemi, son of late Hashemi Rafsanjani, has elsewhere pointed to the need for “new blood” among reformist leaders. He has a point. There are almost no prominent reformist leaders under the age of 50 and most are in their 60s and 70s. While the reform movement’s leadership will soon have a generational transition problem as very few new leaders have been groomed to take over, it is inevitably the movement’s failure to find ways to push back against Khamenei that has increasingly made it into a redundant political force.
Part Four: Trends in traditional media and social media
1. Khamenei’s new selections have serious image problems. Ali Khamenei has been busy choosing trusted figures to new roles in the regime. He engineered Ebrahim Raisi’s election “win” as president and soon after choose Gholam-Hossein Ejei Mohseni as the new head of the judiciary, replacing Raisi in that role. Both Raisi and Ejei Mohseni have very controversial records given their roles in the imprisonment and execution of political dissidents.
This reality is already being tapped into by the Iranian opposition, which in turn is often the source of insight into Iranian affairs for Western press. Accordingly, a grassroots momentum has been building up around the issue of Raisi’s role in the 1988 execution of political prisoners. Already the UN investigator on human rights in Iran has called for an independent inquiry. Similar kinds of steps might be taken against Ejei Mohseni. These efforts at the UN and other international forums might not go anywhere but the damage is already arguably done to both men’s ability to engage with the international community. This reality shows how quickly the press in the Iranian Diaspora can help mobilize international public opinion against the leadership in Tehran by acting as a conduit of information about their shadowy records.
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