The Iranian elections did not bring any major surprises. The victory of the conservative candidate therein was expected, namely the head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, after obtaining more than 62 percent of the votes of those participating in the poll. In the overall electoral process, which is usually engineered in the corridors of the Iranian regime, it is possible to notice the domination of the regime's internal priorities this time, especially those related to internal political competition and preparations for the likely sovereign transition.
Significance of the recent presidential elections
The easy victory of Ebrahim Raisi came thanks to the actions of the institutions of the Revolution and the Guardian Council in the exclusion of most of his competitors from the reformist movement and moderate candidates (led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Assistant to the President of the Republic Eshaq Jahangiri, and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani). In addition, the process of concessions by conservative candidates that continued until a few days before the voting process, and the weakness of the reformists’ strategy, had several repercussions, including the following:
- For the second time in a row, the conservative movement managed to unite its ranks during the presidential elections after several stations that witnessed a sharp division within its ranks. Most of the conservative organisations stood behind Ebrahim Raisi. It was also noted that the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) had completely abandoned their aspirations to send one of their generals to the presidential palace in implementation of the idea of the Military President that the IRGC apparatus had promoted over the past two years. If it is taken into account that the ranks were united in both cases around the personality of Ebrahim Raisi, it can be concluded that Raisi has become the pillar of the conservative tent and the link between the various conservative currents and the IRGC establishment, which gives him, on paper at least, a strong credit for mobilising the conservative opinion behind him in important decisions.
- The recent presidential elections showed the depth of the crisis within the reformist movement, both at the level of disagreement between its organisations and at the level of declining popular support. The reformist current has been divided since the first day over participation in the elections, while the results of excluding most of its candidates deepened this division, resulting in a duality between the currents that confirmed the support of the candidate closest to the reformist current and those that preferred not to participate in the elections. At the level of popularity, while the current enjoyed popular support during the presidential elections in 2013 and the parliamentary elections in 2016, the 2021 elections saw this popularity drop to its lowest level, given that the candidate supported by the reformist currents, namely Abdolnaser Hemmati, received only 8 percent of the votes. The results of the municipal council elections confirmed the decline in the popularity of the reformist authorities, as it was found that the largest number of votes obtained by the reformist list candidates officially supported by President Khatami did not exceed 34,000 votes out of a total of 1.51 million votes cast. It is most likely that the results of the presidential elections and their repercussions will lead to the exclusion of the reformist movement from power, which means a fundamental change in the nature of political power in Iran, which is based on the dualism of reformists and conservatives.
On the other hand, the presidential elections in Iran showed clear indications in terms of figures. The official results showed that the recent presidential elections witnessed the lowest levels of popular participation in the history of the presidential elections in Iran, at 48.8 percent of the total eligible to vote. But this figure, which was promoted by the official media, would be worse if we take into account that the total number of scratched votes constituted nearly 14.5 percent of the total votes, bringing the total accepted votes in the recent elections to nearly 42.3 percent, which is one of the lowest levels of participation in all the elections that were held over the history of the revolutionary regime.
The total number of votes obtained by Ebrahim Raisi increased by nearly 2.1 million votes compared to his previous failed attempt. This time, he got 17.9 million votes (62 percent), ahead of the total number of canceled votes that ranked second with 4.2 million votes (14.3 percent), Mohsen Rezaee with 3.4 million votes (11.6 percent), Abdolnaser Hemmati with 2.4 million votes (8.1 percent), and Ghazizadeh with 999,000 votes (3.4 percent). However, if the votes that did not participate in the poll are taken into account, Ebrahim Raisi will have obtained 30.1 percent of the total possible votes, which makes him the least popular president of the republic in the history of the revolutionary regime, and does not give him a good standing in the eyes of the Iranian street.
Thus, the election process that took place in light of the reluctance of at least 58 percent of the street marginalised the reformist trend at the official level, and presented Ebrahim Raisi at the popular level not only as president of the republic, but also as a pivot for uniting conservatives. It also placed him in an embarrassing position before the Iranian street, given that he could not get more than 30 percent of their votes to be in a position similar to the "President of the Conservative Republic".
Files on the table: the most important challenges facing Raisi’s government
Ebrahim Raisi assumes the duties of the presidency against the background of a large wave of propaganda that presented him as the saviour of the poor and vulnerable in the Iranian street, and in light of a political, economic and international reality that is difficult to deal with and maintain the status of the saviour.
The elected president faces several files, such as the nature of the political forces that stood behind Ebrahim Raisi, the disputes within the conservative ranks that were postponed until after his victory, and the slogans raised by Raisi whose propaganda process has shown that he did not have a clear plan to address the various crises afflicting the country, as well as the indications of popular participation and the volume of votes obtained. All these have repercussions that will mark the next stage, and will open up before Raisi files that he will have to deal with through a government whose distribution of portfolios seems to be the subject of disagreement between the conservatives.
1. The economy and Rouhani's heavy legacy
The government of Ebrahim Raisi inherits great economic burdens from the government of the moderates. These are burdens that helped Raisi's campaign rally votes behind him. But at the same time, ways will have to be found to deal with them:
- The public budget: the size of the budget that was approved by the conservative parliament exceeded 1,300 billion tomans, an annual increase of nearly 124 percent. It places on the government the responsibility of collecting nearly 400 thousand billion tomans in taxes and customs rights, in contradiction to a major slogan of reducing taxes. It also expects to sell no less than 2.3 million barrels of oil in the internal and external markets, given that the total daily sales during 2020 did not exceed 600 thousand barrels. Its figures also indicate that the government has been mandated to sell at least 150 thousand billion tomans of its company shares and government-owned assets in auctions that have proven to be unsuccessful, and to distribute at least 150 thousand billion tomans of financial bonds, given that the last three months have not witnessed any success therein. The expected outcome will be a budget deficit of no less than 350 thousand billion tomans, according to parliamentary sources. The government will have to cut it by borrowing from the assets of the Central Bank, as it did in 2020, as it borrowed more than 105 thousand billion tomans, which led to the addition of liquidity worth 700 thousand billion tomans to the total liquidity and significantly high inflation rates.
- Liquidity: liquidity witnessed a historic jump in the last Iranian year by nearly 40.6 percent (from 2,472 thousand billion tomans in March 2020 to 3,475 thousand billion tomans in March 2021) as a result of borrowing from the Central Bank. It is expected to rise by at least 35 percent, according to official sources, which means an increase of nearly 1,200 thousand billion tomans in the volume of liquidity in the event that the government can fill part of the expected budget deficit through other methods. This means the continuation of the pace of the rise in the prices of basic goods, and great pressure on inflation rates and levels of economic poverty.
- Inflation: while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expected the annual inflation volume in 2020 to be at 39 percent, field figures indicate that monthly inflation in April 2021 amounted to 49.6 percent, while figures issued by the Central Bank confirm that the annual inflation rate reached nearly 43 percent during the last 12 months, setting a 26-year record. Inflation rates in the food basket recorded an even higher increase, as the Iranian Central Bank figures showed that they rose by more than 67 percent in April 2021 compared to April 2020. While Raisi did not present any plan to reduce inflation rates other than confirming his intention to reduce them to 18 percent within two years, a combination of high liquidity, the continuation of international sanctions and the high rate approved for the dollar’s exchange in the budget (from 5800 tomans to 17500 tomans, according to official sources) is expected to raise inflation rates continuously during the current Iranian year.
- Unemployment: the government confirms that unemployment levels remain at less than 10 percent, while the Iranian Parliament's Research Center indicates that it is more than 2.5 times the official figures. While figures from the Parliament Research Center indicate that the unemployment rate was at 24 percent at the end of 2020, the National Statistics Center indicated in successive reports that the Iranian economy lost 1.5 million jobs in 2020 (representing 6.4 percent of total jobs) under the weight of sanctions and the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. While official figures indicate that more than 4 million unemployed people burden the Iranian economy, Ebrahim Raisi's programme to create one million jobs every year seems unrealistic in light of historical experience, as figures indicate that the Iranian economy added nearly 240,000 jobs annually over 16 years, despite the Rouhani government's programme to create 600,000 jobs annually. As for the economic contraction figures, official figures indicate its stability at 12 percent in the past two years.
These files, along with other pending economic files, such as the real estate crisis (where figures indicate that it witnessed an annual increase of 95 percent during the past year, and an increase of nearly 690 percent during the Rouhani government), and poverty (official data show that 30 percent of Iran’s population live below the extreme poverty line, and 65 percent of the population fall below the poverty line) made the deteriorating economic reality thanks to sanctions and other influences the biggest legacy left by the Rouhani government to the next conservative-dominated government. It would be difficult to imagine that such a legacy would be overcome over the next four years, especially if we assume that the sanctions regime will remain in place, even in its partial forms.
2. Other internal challenges
Internally, Ebrahim Raisi's government faces other challenges, no less important than the economic ones, the most important of which are the following:
In addition to those obstacles, the Conservative government is expected to face fierce media resistance by the press machine of the reformist movement. It is clear that this media resistance, which intends to criticise the government's performance at various levels, began on the first day of Raisi's victory during the presidential elections within a campaign which could be seen to focus on "the concentration of powers in the hands of the conservative movement".
3. Obstacles facing the conservative trend
As the candidate who was able to unite the conservative ranks after repeated experiences of division, Ebrahim Raisi will enjoy an excellent position in the hierarchy of power among the conservatives. However, he theoretically faces several obstacles within the conservative ranks that complicate the path before him, the most important of which are the following:
- The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) file: the Raisi government will have to manage outstanding disputed files between the government establishment and sovereign decision-making institutions, such as the FATF file, whereby Iran was placed on the blacklist, and whose decision prevents the banking system in Iran from monetary exchange with banking systems in the world. While the debates have shown the desire of the candidates, including Ebrahim Raisi, to deal with the issue in a positive spirit, the reality indicates that the majority of members of the Expediency Discernment Council, to which was assigned the responsibility for examining the file pursuant to the constitution, still oppose Iran’s accession thereto.
- Taxes: the issue of imposing taxes on major economic institutions that have so far remained outside the tax umbrella will be the subject of another dispute between the government and other sovereign institutions. While the economic hardship is pushing the government towards activating a project to collect taxes from those institutions, most of which fall within the circle of the IRGC and the Supreme Leader establishment, especially that the draft budget is based on more taxes, this governmental desire is expected to encounter resistance from the conservative centres that dominate those institutions.
- The nuclear deal file: while the government will be driven to engage in nuclear negotiations or adhere to any consensus on the nuclear agreement for several reasons, including the pressure of allies thereon and its need to cancel parts of the sanctions, it is theoretically likely that the other sovereign institutions, including Parliament, will continue in the opposite direction that refuses to give up some sovereign steps within an area of competition over who is authorised to manage the Iranian nuclear file.
- Distribution of ministerial portfolios: the most important challenge in the coming period will be the distribution of ministerial and administrative portfolios in a government that was fully supported by the conservative currents. Despite Raisi’s effectiveness in uniting the conservative ranks, the government formation process is expected to open the door to disagreements within the various conservative organisations. While the signs of differences between the various organisations appeared during the election campaign, and through a dispute over the campaign management (between a parliamentary current represented by Ali Nikzad, a current close to the IRGC represented by Alireza Afshar, and a third current close to the traditional conservative organisations represented by Manouchehr Mottaki), the totality of the positions expressed by the conservative figures, including the candidates who conceded in favour of Ebrahim Raisi, indicate the desire of the currents to obtain their share of the government. As a result of this internal competition to obtain a share of the government, in which traditional conservative organisations and modern organisations participated, along with the IRGC and its political extensions, various lists have emerged so far, nominating names for the most important ministerial and non-ministerial portfolios.
4. Foreign Policy Challenges
At the level of foreign relations, the formation of a conservative government reduces the chances of an Iranian-US rapprochement, and this casts a shadow over other files that form the backbone of Iranian foreign policy.
- The nuclear agreement and Iran's relations with the West: the next government must present a clear vision regarding the nuclear file. While the Iranian president-elect tried, during his first press conference after his victory, to downplay the nuclear agreement (within a frame of reference that governs the mindset of the Iranian decision-maker, stressing the need to place foreign policy within contexts other than the context of openness to Western societies), the position on the nuclear agreement will be critical, and will clearly affect all other files, either positively or negatively. In the same context, the file of Iranian-European relations and Iranian-US relations could be discussed. In light of the state of rapprochement between the European Union (EU) and the US following the victory of the Democrats, which was reflected in the positions expressed regarding the nuclear file, the US position on the presidential elections in Iran could be a vanguard for the upcoming US confrontation with the conservative government. At the level of European-Iranian relations as well, some of the files raised about the winning Iranian president, including his involvement in some political executions in the 1980s, could complicate relations between the two sides and bring them out of the state of peace that they experienced in the days of the Rouhani government. It is also possible that a government of conservatives will largely lack those Iranian lobbies in the West, which are mainly close to the moderates and reformists, which will reflect negatively on Iran's attempts to influence the mentality of the Western decision-maker.
- Regional relations file: despite Raisi’s affirmation that Iran is ready to heal the rift with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and reopen embassies, it is clear that there will be a change in Iran’s position, which has recently been characterised by flexibility regarding the Yemeni file, in light of the dominance by the IRGC over the course of the political process within the conservative circles during the recent elections, which suggests an increase in the IRGC footprint within the regional files. It will also open the door to a possible conflict between the government's diplomatic apparatus and the regional arms of the IRGC similar to the one that occurred during Ahmadinejad's rule in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
It is very likely that the government of Ebrahim Raisi, upon assuming power, will expand the vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus, using its good relations with China and Russia in order to provide more vaccines besides relying on domestic products. It is also expected to make attempts to reduce dollar prices in the markets through the policy of pumping government dollars in order to prove field effectiveness and gain popular approval. However, field data and the nature of the political forces in Iran, especially those around President Ebrahim Raisi, push in the direction of envisioning the following possible steps and possibilities on various tracks:
- Within the path of the formation of the government: despite the fact that the elected president announced in more than one situation that he entered the elections as an independent candidate, and would put the matter of the cabinet formation in the hands of the street through a website to suggest ministers, the data of the political arena indicate a competition between the different currents within the conservative ranks in order to obtain ministerial portfolios. The portfolios could be considered an opportunity to satisfy the parties of the coalition that supported Ebrahim Raisi during the presidential elections, making the next government more like the council of the coalition of conservative currents.
- There are analyses indicating that the majority of cabinet members will come from Ahmadinejad's two governments. It appears that Ali Nikzad (Minister of Roads in Ahmadinejad's government, Assistant Speaker of Parliament and Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign manager), Farhad Rahbar (Director of the Budget Organisation, President of Tehran University and Senior Adviser to Ebrahim Raisi in the economic field), and Gholamhossein Esmaeili (Raisi’s assistant in the Judicial Authority) will be the candidates for the position of Vice President. Data nominate Farhad Rahbar, Mohammad Reza Pour Ebrahimi and Shams al-Din Hosseini for the economic positions (Ministry of the Economy, Assistant to the President for Economic Affairs and Head of the Planning and Budget Organisation); Farhad Rahbar for the Ministry of Science portfolio; both Hossein Taeb (Director of the IRGC Intelligence) and Mohseni Ejei (Assistant to the Chief of the Judiciary and Minister of Intelligence in Ahmadinejad's government) along with Ali Abdollahi, who is now Raisi’s assistant for security affairs in the Judiciary Authority for the Ministry of Intelligence portfolio; Ezzatollah Zarghami (the former director of the Radio and Television Corporation) for the position of Minister of Guidance, and Parviz Fattah (the Minister of Energy in Ahmadinejad's government) for the position of Energy Minister; Rostam Qasemi (Minister of Oil in Ahmadinejad's government and the ceding candidate in favour of Ebrahim Raisi), Masoud Mir Kazemi (Minister of Commerce and subsequently Minister of Oil in Ahmadinejad's government) for the oil portfolio, along with General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (Commander of the IRGC Air Force) for the defence portfolio, Sadegh Mahsouli. (Minister of the Interior in Ahmadinejad's government), Mojtaba Zonnour (Assistant Minister of the Interior in Ahmadinejad's government), Sowlat Mortazavi (Political Assistant to the Interior Minister in Ahmadinejad's second government) for the post of Interior Minister. All this in addition to the circulation of the names of Saeed Mohammad, Hussein Dehghan and Alireza Afshar, who gave up their candidacy in favour of Ebrahim Raisi for other ministerial portfolios.
- There are five candidates so far for the position of Iranian Foreign Minister in the next conservative government: Saeed Jalili, Ali Bagheri Kani, Manouchehr Mottaki (foreign minister under Ahmadinejad), Hossein Amir Abdollahian (former assistant foreign minister of Iran), and Mohammad Sadegh Kharazi. Among those five names, three are well-known in the region, and two are less known names, namely Ali Bagheri Kani and Mohammad Sadegh Kharazi. Bagheri Kani serves as assistant to Raisi in the Judicial Authority for international affairs. He is the son of religious authority Mohammad Bagheri Kani, a former member of the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership. The Kani family has a marriage relationship with the Khamenei family. Kani is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and has studied at Imam Sadiq University. As for Mohammad Sadegh Kharazi, he is also one of Khamenei’s sons-in-law, and has extensive diplomatic experience, as he had served as ambassador to France and participated in a team led by Zarif in the nuclear negotiations, which reached an agreement with the administration of former US President Barack Obama. Saeed Jalili, who waived in favour of Ebrahim Raisi days before the polls, and was praised by Raisi, will be one of the most important candidates for the foreign portfolio. However, other assessments indicate that Raisi is heading towards appointing Saeed Jalili (who is considered the Supreme Leader's representative in the National Security Council) as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, as successor of Ali Shamkhani. Apart from those details, the assumption by any of those names of the foreign affairs portfolio means a fundamental change in the policies of the Iranian diplomatic services in favour of the IRGC, and the rise of the current opposed to the opening to the West and also to engaging in balanced regional negotiations with the Arab neighbours.
- The portfolio of the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council is considered one of the most important portfolios at the level of foreign policy, given that the Council is involved in managing the nuclear file, as the most important file within the axis of Iranian foreign policy, in addition to exercising an active role in other diplomatic files. Based on this, the assumption that the secretariat of the National Security Council will be handed over to Saeed Jalili will reduce Ali Bagheri Kani’s chances of obtaining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs portfolio in the government of Ebrahim Raisi, as the latter has reservations about putting all the mechanisms of interference in the nuclear file in particular and foreign policy in general within the powers of the Saeed Jalili team.
- At the level of foreign relations, the Conservative government will presumably see a decline in rhetoric to heal the rift with the international community in favour of a more ideological one. This is supported by each of the names put forward for assuming the influential portfolios in foreign policy, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council Secretariat, and the discourse that Ebrahim Raisi outlined within a broader discourse that can be described as the conservatives' vision of diplomacy. Several developments, including the EU’s position on Ebrahim Raisi’s human rights precedent and the US position regarding the presidential elections in Iran, suggest the deterioration of Iranian relations with the Western society, especially if one takes into account the loss of the lobbies that were maintained by the reformist and moderate currents in the Western political space.
- This will be reflected on the nuclear agreement file more than any other file as the central file that determines the course of Iranian relations with the international community. Within this path, Raisi announced in more than one situation his rejection of the Rouhani government’s approach to the nuclear file in general, and the nuclear agreement in particular, preferring the approach adopted by the conservative institutions, which was manifested in Parliament’s draft obligating the government to take escalatory steps and repudiate the obligations under the nuclear agreement. It is assumed that the coming period will witness an exacerbation of other files such as the file of human rights and the file of missile programmes to overwhelm the nature of relations between Iran and Western societies, especially considering the precedent of Ebrahim Raisi in violating human rights and the augmentation of the role of the IRGC in his government, which could impede the Iranian-European rapprochement and largely prevent the continuation of European mediation attempts. This will reflect negatively on the fate of the nuclear agreement unless an urgent consensus is reached thereon.
- The Raisi government is not expected to be able to leave the table completely, under the economic pressures resulting from the US sanctions, and pressure on it by the Chinese and Russian allies to engage in constructive negotiations on returning to the nuclear agreement. Accordingly, the positions expressed by Raisi and those close to him show their affirmation of some initial conditions in order to return to the nuclear agreement, without this implying their rejection in principle of the nuclear agreement. It is expected that the government of Ebrahim Raisi would prefer that the existing government take the necessary steps to return to the nuclear agreement so that the conservative government would find itself within the agreement, and not bear the trouble of compromising the principles. While this path seems preferable to the conservatives, it may face obstacles from the revolutionary institutions that can be overcome if we assume that there is pressure by the Russian and Chinese allies so that engaging in the nuclear agreement would help it implement financial policies to improve the living situation and economic indicators by abolishing part of the sanctions.
- At the regional level, relations witnessed a faltering pace after the incident of the storming of the Saudi embassy by militants that were shown by reports to be close to Ebrahim Raisi’s circles. The relationship worsened after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear agreement and is not expected to witness improvement in the near term. Ebrahim Raisi's stances towards rapprochement with the Arabs do not indicate an improvement in this area. Despite the assertion that Iran is ready to return to relations with the KSA, linking this to a change in the Kingdom’s policies towards various files, including the Yemeni file, in addition to Raisi's affirmation of support for the resistance axis in the Arab region, indicate that the new president is positioned within the discourse that governs the mentality of conservatives and hardliners regarding regional diplomacy.
- While focus on the KSA and not addressing the Arab bloc as a single bloc can be considered evidence that Iran does not intend to follow a unified policy towards all Arab parties, putting too much focus on this interpretation does not seem logical despite the need to pay attention to it. The conservative current's policies towards the Arab bloc are not characterised by a friendly approach, and the hegemony of the IRGC over the government of Ebrahim Raisi, especially in the file of regional policies, does not bode well for such openness on the Arab side.
- Contrary to relations with Western societies and relations with the Arab neighbourhood, relations with the Eastern bloc are expected to witness greater expansion during the era of Ebrahim Raisi, who declared that among his priorities was working on implementing the strategic partnership agreement between his country and China. What makes the expansion of relations with the Eastern bloc likely are the dominance of the strategy of heading towards the east on the mentality of large parts of the alliance supporting Ebrahim Raisi on the one hand, and the Iranian need to find sources of support for the Iranian economy in light of the decline/lack of desire to open up to the West. However, openness to the Eastern bloc, both at the military and economic levels, pushes the conservative government to seek to bridge the rift (at the formal level at least) with the international community in order to be able to cancel the sanctions that prevent the expansion of trade relations between Iran and both China and Russia.
In general, the dominance of conservatives over foreign affairs portfolios is expected to lead to a reduction in the conflict between the diplomatic and revolutionary agencies (as happened during the government of President Rouhani), and a greater harmony between the two approaches, without this implying the elimination of this conflict, which appears in part subjective and stemming from the nature of the trends. Based on this, it can be expected that a combination of doctrinal and ideological orientation (in particular at the regional level) and orientation towards the East will grow within the Iranian diplomatic behaviour during the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, especially if we take into account the dominance of such a vision over other sovereign institutions that influence diplomatic decision-making and foreign policy making in the Iranian regime.
Notice: All publication rights of this article are reserved for the Emirates Policy Center (EPC). No part of this publication may be reproduced or quoted, in part or in whole, without direct and prior permission of EPC, with the exception of limited quotations that take into consideration the principles of scientific research, for specific educational or research purposes, with the need to refer to EPC as the original publisher.
EPC | 13 Sep 2021
EPC | 08 Sep 2021
EPC | 07 Sep 2021