The landslide victory of Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi in the presidential election held on June 18, 2021 indicates that conservatives (Principlists) will now be in control of all three branches of the government—executive, legislature and judiciary. Yet, the tenure of Ebrahim Raisi as the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not likely to be a smooth sail, considering the immense challenges that lie ahead on the domestic front as well as the foreign policy front. In the very first press briefing, Raisi withstood Iran’s existing position on the nuclear issue, missile programme and regional activities; additionally, he affirmed the prospects of restoring diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. On the domestic front, the main challenge for his government would be to improve the economic condition of Iran and the standard of living of its people.
By Prabhat Jawla
The new presidency of ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi will have to bite the bullet to solve the problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran, something conservatives have discerningly avoided in the past. Since Hassan Rouhani took over the presidency after the tumultuous eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conservatives had conveniently resorted to laying the blame on Rouhani for every crisis that Iran faced, for instance, the decision to raise fuel prices and cutting of associated subsidies in November 2019. The conservatives comprised two-thirds of the committee that decided to raise the prices, yet the blame for the price-hike and resulting death of protesters was hurled onto the Rouhani administration. The shooting of the Ukrainian airliner in January 2020 is another such instance. Now, given that the conservatives control the presidency, the parliament and the judiciary, the Raisi government can no longer avoid these critical issues that Iran faces.
The issue of low voter turnout in the election indicates the apathy of Iranians about the reforms in the country. Such apathy is bound to come out through public protests unless the public feels the necessary economic recompenses. Although protests have been an integral legacy of the Islamic Revolution, the frequency and intensity of the protests have increased in the last few years, with the economic protests of 2017–18, protests over hike in fuel prices in 2019, and in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in January 2020.
To some extent, the grievances behind these protests can be ascribed to the Donald Trump administration’s “Maximum Pressure” policy, but this does not undermine the importance of addressing serious policy issues within the Islamic Republic. As such, the new conservative administration can no longer afford to blame Rouhani or Trump. Though the increased use of force has worked to curb the protests so far, the Raisi presidency will have to make palpable and effective policy decisions, otherwise, it would only make conservatives a target of public resentment.
The economic effects of the pandemic have been exacting even for the world’s largest economies. However, in the case of Iran, the pandemic exacerbated the existing economic woes. With the Joseph Biden administration in the White House, the Rouhani government had started negotiations to resume the 2015 nuclear deal. Half a dozen rounds of talks have already been conducted, however, no substantive outcomes have emerged so far.
The recovery after the initial COVID-19 shocks has been moderate, and lack of investment either from the inconsequential private sector in Iran or the foreign investment only added to the existing challenges. Iranian economy had been in recession for three years mainly due to the US-imposed sanctions; the pandemic-induced oil shocks seem to have worsened the situation. Nonetheless, the structural problems within the Iranian economy would remain a crucial issue of concern for the Raisi government.
In his first press conference, President-elect Raisi insisted that the economy would be his principal concern, alongside poverty alleviation, something he had been highlighting in his populist-oriented campaign. “[t]he message of the Iranian nation was the necessity of a change in the economic situation”, noted Raisi. He also pointed out, “Our domestic policy and priorities in this administration will be to improve the business situation and the living conditions of the people.” In the short term, the Raisi government can expect some relief through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), however, it cannot be an all-purpose remedy for Iran’s economic problems.
Not merely Raisi’s ultraconservative image or his closeness to Supreme Leader, but his reputation regarding human rights would also be his immediate challenge outside Iran. Also, Raisi would be the first Iranian President to be sanctioned by the United States, a label that Raisi hopes would be lifted along with sanctions. As a prosecutor, Raisi was part of the notorious “Death Commission” that allegedly carried out mass executions of political prisoners in 1988. Human rights groups worldwide have been pressing on this issue, which could be a big challenge to overcome for the new President. “Everything I’ve done in my time of holding office has been to defend human rights”, Raisi said, defending his actions and role in the Commission.
Raisi also withstood his ultraconservative credentials by stating a clear “No” as a response to a question about holding talks with President Biden. Soon after his victory, Raisi even paid a visit to the incumbent foreign minister, Javad Zarif, during which the JCPOA was the main issue under discussion. On the nuclear deal issue, Raisi restated Iran’s position vis-à-vis JCPOA, promising continuity from the previous administration. He also added, “Our nation has shown resistance to the pressures, and the world should know that our government’s foreign policy does not start with the JCPOA because it will not be limited to the JCPOA.” Notably, decoupling the economic benefits and the JCPOA negotiations, he remarked, “we will not tie the economic situation and the conditions of the people to the negotiations.” Nevertheless, once the deal comes into force, the Raisi government is likely to sweep through to take the credit of months-long negotiations.
Raisi embraced the question of pursuing cordial relations with Saudi Arabia. He asserted, “Relations with all countries of the world, especially relations with neighbouring countries … there is no obstacle on the part of the Islamic Republic regarding the reopening of embassies between the two countries in relation to Saudi Arabia.” This should not come as a surprise as Riyadh and Tehran had been talking in Baghdad, but Raisi’s commitment to fostering relations with Riyadh is a crucial development. Meanwhile, he also adhered to Iran’s position on ballistic missiles and its regional activities. “Regional and missile issues are not negotiable”, emphasised Raisi.
The Raisi government is likely to face severe challenges on both internal and external fronts. The new conservative presidency cannot afford to ignore or blame the problems that plague the Islamic Republic. Given the numerous grievances of the public, the protests are likely to continue, and unless tangible benefits are provided to the people, Raisi would be directly exposing his government and the larger conservatives’ bloc to public anger. On the foreign policy front, the challenges would go beyond the question of the JCPOA and include Iran’s missile programme and its regional activities. So far, Raisi has not signalled any significant changes, but his personal image would be the immediate foreign policy challenge for the new presidency.
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