A familiar victory: Iran’s divides under a new president

Raisi’s election victory will not make Iranian politics any less volatile. Instead, it signals another of the cyclical changes in Iran’s politics that have taken place since 1979.

Iran’s presidential election delivered its long-anticipated result. Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who currently serves as the country’s chief justice, was declared the winner at the weekend thanks to a historically low turnout and the absence of any serious rival. He won around 30 per cent of all eligible votes, roughly the same proportion by which he lost his 2017 bid for the presidency. The large share of spoiled ballots – nearly 13 per cent, compared to the average 2 per cent in previous elections – highlighted the sense of public disenchantment with the contest. In some provinces, such as Alborz, there were more spoiled ballots than votes for Raisi. These figures are especially significant given that there was no organised campaign (in the country or abroad) for people to cast spoiled ballots in protest.

Raisi and his hardline enablers will not be concerned about his low levels of popular legitimacy. Rather, they are celebrating their perceived success in pushing aside Reformists and Moderates to tighten their grip on the whole body of the state. Many see this as the first step towards ensuring that Raisi can succeed Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, thereby maintaining revolutionary control over the country – but this pathway is likely to be less smooth than they imagine.

Raisi is a curious choice for the presidency. He is not a charismatic political leader. Many hardliners did not even consider him the “most righteous” – a religious term they use for evaluating their candidates – to be president. Unlike his seven predecessors, Raisi is not an eloquent public speaker. This perhaps is due to the fact that, since he began his career at the age of 20 in post-revolutionary Iran, he has always operated in the shadows as part of the security apparatus. Raisi’s past makes him the first Iranian president whom national and international human rights groups want to be investigated for crimes against humanity even before he has begun his term. This dynamic is sure to complicate dialogue between Iran and the West in the years ahead, even if his administration is likely to support the restoration of the nuclear deal for now.

During his campaign, Raisi manifested contradictory personas. Notorious hardliners associated with the security apparatus – such as Mojtaba Amini, who was one of the leaders of the 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran, and Reza Taghipour, a former minister of communications who is an advocate of severe internet censorship – enthusiastically worked on his campaign staff. On social media, the hardliner rank and file are celebrating what they call a new effort to ‘purify’ the revolution. These groups are likely to look to Raisi to consolidate revolutionary control over the state. But, in his victory speech, Raisi announced that he would serve the “whole republic”, even those who refused to vote. In his rhetoric during the election campaign, Raisi was careful not to adopt a radical hardline discourse. He met with the leaders of the Reformist press, promising that he would be open to criticism in exchange for their tacit endorsement. His wife – whose father, Ahmad Alamolhoda, is considered ultra-radical even by hardliners – met with the members of the Zoroastrian minority in Yazd.

Raisi and his hardline enablers will not be concerned about his low levels of popular legitimacy

In what is perhaps the biggest shift in grassroots political allegiances for many years, religious and civilian leaders of Iran’s minority Sunni population, including prominent figure Molavi Abdolhamid, endorsed Raisi for president. By doing so, they ended two decades of unwavering support for the Reformists. Disappointed with the Reformists’ failure to provide basic social and political rights, Sunni leaders made a strategic decision to back those who have the power to make a real difference in their lives.

Raisi’s tactics indicate that he is counting on co-option as much as coercion, with many of the country’s elites now focused on avoiding further oppression or looking to maintain crony relationships that grant them access to state rents and resources. The Reformist movement is extremely weak following the presidential vote and the perceived failure of the Rouhani presidency. However, Raisi knows that he will need to reach beyond the hardline camp to address the immense political, economic, and social challenges the country faces.

Indeed, Raisi’s victory will not by any means end to Iran’s contentious politics. Instead, it signals another of the cyclical changes in the country’s political landscape that have taken place since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, in 1979. After the Majlis (parliamentary) election in 1992, Khamenei’s political camp – then known as ‘the Right’ – forced their rivals out of all three branches of government. Then as now, the Guardian Council engineered an election victory by disqualifying the Left’s candidates. Yet this consolidation of power led to a split within the Right and a grand ideological metamorphosis of the Left into the Reformists, who then made a comeback in the 1997 presidential election. In 2009 no one could have imagined that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi – whose feud over the result of the presidential election that year sparked the Green Movement protests, which were brutally suppressed by the security forces – would both boycott the 2021 election. Given the instability of Iran’s political environment, it would be premature to assume that Raisi’s victory represents a definitive movement towards hardline control of the state.

New divisions are already opening up within Raisi’s Principlist camp. During his term as chief justice, he spent more time targeting his own political allies than Reformists or Moderates. The top two corruption trials conducted under him pertained to his predecessor, Sadegh Larijani, and his internal rival and current Majlis speaker, Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Meanwhile, a significant number of Principlist voters are becoming disillusioned with their leaders. In 2020 a group of Principlist figures and former members of the Basij force penned a harshly worded public letter to the supreme leader asking for fundamental political reforms in the structure of the regime. All this fits with the post-1979 pattern in which the ascendant radical camp splits and some of its members become moderates after experiencing the system’s ideological flaws and operational glitches – yet are eventually ousted by the remaining radicals. Raisi may have won this presidential election for the hardline camp – and he is certainly no Moderate – but the familiar cycle of political contestation looks set to continue.

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the projects director for Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s MENA division and a visiting scholar at the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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