With the expected election of Ebrahim Raisi as the next President of Iran, Iranian politics has made a definitive shift to conservatism. Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric who headed the judiciary, is widely seen to be a protégé of Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The election was marred by several issues and is widely believed to have been rigged. Iran's Guardian Council barred many contenders from running, including several women. Official figures say voter turnout was the lowest ever for a presidential election, at 48.8 percent, compared to more than 70 percent for the previous vote in 2017. This is noteworthy because Iran has always seen elections as a way to legitimise the Ayatollah’s rule.
Notwithstanding the Ayatollah’s support, Raisi has a long and difficult path ahead of him.
The first challenge will be to get Iran out of its economic troubles. The Iranian economy has been deeply affected by United States-imposed sanctions. Iran is witnessing the worst economic growth since the Islamic Revolution. About 80 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Inflation is estimated to be around 48 percent, putting even fruits and vegetables out of the reach of many.
There have been several protests against high prices and people are clearly unhappy with the government. Unemployment is above 10 percent. Added to this is widespread corruption, and Raisi himself campaigned against corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Iran hard, has worsened the economic situation.
But reviving the economy is tied to the second task of ensuring that sanctions on Iran are revoked. Iran’s theocracy cannot afford to have more people protesting against its handling of the economy.
This is no easy task given that Iran’s hardliners have always been opposed to the nuclear deal and dealing with the US. However, Raisi himself has been prepared to stand by the terms of the deal. He said in a recent debate that “we would definitely abide by the [deal] in the format that was approved with nine clauses by the supreme leader, as it a contract and a commitment that governments must abide by”.
In fact, he might well be able to negotiate with the US without being accused of selling out to the US, because he is a hardliner and has the Ayatollah’s blessings. The question is if US President Joe Biden will come under pressure from the human rights lobby in the US against dealing with Raisi, as he himself is under US sanctions over human rights violations. However, so far, Biden has shown himself to be realistic in foreign policy. So, with some give and take, the nuclear deal might be salvaged.
The third task might be to influence the succession battle of the 82-year-old Ayatollah, or perhaps even promote himself as the Ayatollah’s successor.
With the conservatives in power again, Iran might be tempted to be more aggressive in the region, calling the region’s delicate balance into question. However, Raisi has already said that there are “no obstacles” to mending ties with Saudi Arabia and he wants to improve ties with Iran’s neighbours. This is possibly because he wants to focus on the economy.
Iran’s other Gulf Arab neighbours have attempted to improve ties in recent months in preparation of the nuclear deal being revived. As for ties with Iran’s other arch enemy, Israel, which also interestingly has a new Prime Minister in Naftali Bennett, the forecast does not look too rosy. Bennett has already made critical comments about Raisi, calling him a “hangman”. So, a rapprochement can be ruled out for now.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has congratulated Raisi on his victory. India’s policy has been to engage with whichever regime comes to power in Iran. So, there is going to be little bearing on bilateral ties. Raisi’s election will have a positive impact on India-Iran relations only if he is able to get the sanctions lifted. Only then will India be able to do business with Iran and go back to buying Iranian oil and go ahead with its connectivity plans through the Chabhahar port and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC).
India will also need to cooperate with Iran on dealing with whatever dispensation takes over power in Afghanistan. India would also hope that Iran and its neighbours stay true to their word on improving relations because an intensification of rivalry walking the tightrope among all the powers in West Asia again is going to be arduous though India has managed adroitly so far.