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Progressive Iran-watchers on Saturday reacted to the election of Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s conservative judiciary chief, with concern and appeals to the Biden administration to choose conciliation over confrontation with the Islamic Republic, beginning with a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal and the easing of crippling economic sanctions.
“The ascension of Raisi to the presidency will be widely viewed as a victory for hardliners in Iran and the U.S. who seek confrontation over conciliation between the U.S. and Iran.”
Al Jazeera reports Raisi won just under 62% of Friday’s presidential election amid a lower-than-usual turnout of 48.8%. While outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—who was constitutionally barred for running for a third term—congratulated voters “on their choice,” millions of Iranians refrained from casting their ballots after Raisi’s strongest competitors were disqualified from the race.
Raisi—who is sanctioned by the United States for his role in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s—will take office in August as Iran reels from an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has claimed over 82,000 lives and the related effects of decades of U.S.-led sanctions that have devastated the country’s economy.
The Raisi administration will also have to contend with a new hardline Israeli government whose leader, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is expected to pressure U.S. President Joe Biden to eschew a return to the scuppered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated in 2018.
Biden, who campaigned for president on a promise to rejoin the JCPOA, earlier this month lifted some sanctions on a handful of former Iranian officials in a bid to jump-start stalled nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department issued guidance allowing pandemic-related items including face masks, ventilators, and Covid-19 vaccines to be sent to sanctioned nations including Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.
Human rights defenders expressed alarm over Raisi’s election.
“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” Amnesty International secretary-general Agnès Callamard said in a statement.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said that “Iranian authorities paved the way for Ebrahim Raisi to become president through repression and an unfair election.”
However, Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and publisher of Informed Comment, argued that Donald Trump is also partly to blame for Raisi’s victory, as the former U.S. president’s withdrawal from the JCPOA “put the previously unpopular hardliners in the catbird seat.”
In 2018, Trump breached the agreement and put Iran under a financial and economic blockade of unprecedented severity. As he intended, these moves crashed the Iranian economy and created public unrest. The U.S. strangulation of the Iranian economy did not accomplish what Trump was aiming for. It did not cause the government to collapse. It did not make [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei come begging to Trump for a photo op and a new treaty. It did make people in Iran angry… [and] produced a hatred and suspicion of the United States, which after all broke its word. It bolstered the hard line forces inside Iran who would stand up to the U.S. And it robbed centrists and pragmatists of hope.
Cole also said that “a Raisi government will likely also spell more trouble for President Biden in Iraq, where Iran-backed Shiite militias mortar bases hosting the some 2,000 U.S. troops on a daily basis.”
In a statement, the nonprofit advocacy group National Iranian American Council (NIAC) said that “the ascension of Raisi to the presidency will be widely viewed as a victory for hardliners in Iran and the U.S. who seek confrontation over conciliation between the U.S. and Iran.”
“Biden… can continue his predecessor’s pressure-only approach that decimated moderates, empowered Raisi and his fellow hardliners, and closed the door on broader diplomacy. Or he can restore the agreement Trump worked so hard to kill [and] ease the pressure on the people of Iran.”
—Ryan Costello, NIAC
“The authorities of the Islamic Republic will have to grapple with the fact that so few Iranians felt compelled to vote due to anti-democratic machinations and to the efforts to silence and delegitimize voices that fall outside of the exceedingly narrow spectrum of what is deemed acceptable political debate,” the group said.
While NIAC attributes “ultimate accountability for the suffering of ordinary Iranians” to the country’s rulers, “starting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” the group argued that Americans “must also hold our own government to account for any role it has played in helping to undermine the aspirations of the Iranian people.”
“The lesson from the past four years—where an ascendant Iranian movement for moderation and engagement marked by record-breaking voter turnout in successive elections and a landmark diplomatic agreement with the U.S. was snuffed out and replaced with what we have today—is that U.S. coercion and interventions with Iran benefit the most authoritarian elements of the Islamic Republic,” NIAC said.
NIAC policy director Ryan Costello, writing for Responsible Statecraft, said that U.S. proponents of Iran regime change will likely cheer Raisi’s victory. Costello noted that Elliott Abrams, the Reagan-era “death squad diplomat” who most recently served as Trump’s special representative for Iran, published a 2017 essay entitled, Why I’m Rooting for the Hardliner in Iran’s Elections: Two cheers for Ibrahim Raisi!
The gist is that, to regime change proponents, the election of a hardliner like Raisi—who Iran hawks believe would bring the Islamic Republic closer to the brink of collapse—should be welcomed, despite his horrific human rights record.
However, NIAC said that “the best and only effective response” to Raisi’s election is for Biden and his administration “to remain vigilant in pursuing the full restoration of the Iran nuclear deal as a first step towards direct diplomacy that can improve lives, prevent war, and create circumstances far more conducive for Iranians to secure their aspirations.”
The election of Raisi will be met with the same calls from those who oppose diplomacy as an excuse to revert to the dangerous status quo that helped bring us to this point. Instead, the Biden administration must remain resolute and seek a break from the disastrous conditions that helped contribute to this result. Only diplomacy can resolve the serious challenges we face with Iran regarding non-proliferation, regional security, and supporting the human rights of Iranians.
In addition to direct talks, the Biden administration should be considering any and all steps necessary to reduce the burden of sanctions on the Iranian people and on Iranian civil society that has so vastly increased these past four years, and ensure that any such measures are squarely targeted at bad actors rather than the broad Iranian populace.
Costello concluded that Biden “can continue his predecessor’s pressure-only approach that decimated moderates, empowered Raisi and his fellow hardliners, and closed the door on broader diplomacy. Or he can restore the agreement Trump worked so hard to kill, ease the pressure on the people of Iran, and restore some semblance of faith that diplomacy can deliver for each country.”
“Only the latter has delivered any success,” he added, “for both the United States and the people of Iran.”