Nader Habibi, Brandeis UniversityIran’s conservative rulers’ effort to orchestrate the outcome of the June 18 presidential election triggered a voter boycott – but the result may still bode well for ongoing negotiations over the lapsed 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran’s Interior Ministry on June 19 announced that the winner is Ebrahim Raisi, chief of Iran’s judiciary and close ally of the supreme leader. He was all but assured of victory after the candidates who could have posed a serious challenge to him – including three reformists – were disqualified and prevented from participating in the election.
But who is Ebrahim Raisi, and how will his presidency alter Iran’s domestic and foreign policies? As an economist and close observer of Iran, I believe we can start to answer these questions by exploring his past.
Raisi is a loyal regime insider with a long career in Iran’s judicial branch, which goes back more than four decades.
He was only 19 when the Islamic revolution deposed the shah in 1979. As a young Islamic activist, he caught the attention of several top revolutionary clerics, including Ali Khamenei, who became Iran’s supreme leader a decade later.
Named the general-prosecutor of Kataj – a small city near Tehran – at age 20, Raisi quickly rose to more prominent positions. In 1989, when Khamenei replaced Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, Raisi was promoted to chief prosecutor-general of Tehran.
This promotion reflected the high level of trust that Khamenei had in him. While serving in these positions, Raisi also attended seminary and religious studies under Khamenei and other influential religious leaders.
Executing dissidents and fighting corruption
During the first decade of his career, Raisi convicted a large number of dissidents and political opponents of the Islamic regime and sentenced many of them to death.
Regime critics and his political opponents have condemned his direct role in these executions, particularly the large number of political prisoners who were executed in 1988.
From 1994 to 2004, Raisi served as head of Iran’s general inspector office, which is responsible for preventing abuse of power and corruption in government institutions. It was in this position that he developed a reputation as a crusader against government corruption. Even as he was appointed as the first deputy chief justice in 2004 and finally promoted to chief justice in March 2019, he continued his fight against corruption by prosecuting many government officials.
His critics have argued, however, that his fight against corruption has been highly politicized and selective. They claimed that he targeted individuals who were affiliated with his political rivals such as President Hassan Rouhani.
Raisi first ran for president in 2017 but was defeated by Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani, who after two terms is ineligible to run again.
In this year’s election, Raisi was the favorite candidate of the conservative right wing of the Islamic ruling elite and also enjoys the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has absolute power over all branches of government. Khamenei also directly appoints half of the 12-member Council of Guardians, which oversees all political elections and has the power to disqualify candidates without any public explanation. Khamenei publicly endorsed and defended the disqualifications.
Likely return to the nuclear deal
One of the institutional weaknesses of Iran’s political system since the 1979 Islamic revolution is the potential for tension and disagreement between the elected presidents and the supreme leader.
That is, unlike in the U.S. system of government, the Iranian president’s powers are extremely limited. For example, a reformist president may want to engage more with the West or stay out of a foreign conflict, but the supreme leader could overrule or simply ignore him.
As a protege and close ally of the supreme leader, Raisi is expected to support Khamenei’s policies on both domestic and foreign policy – which means more coordination between the various branches of government. With the Parliament also dominated by Khamenei supporters, it also means that the conservatives will control all three branches of the government once again after eight years.
This harmony means Raisi will be a lot more effective as president because whatever policies he pursues will most likely be supported by the supreme leader.
And perhaps ironically, his victory could pave the way for a more compromising attitude on the side of Iran in the negotiations that are currently underway in Vienna for restoration of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which was derailed by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
The reason for this unconventional prediction is that both reformist and conservative factions in Iran are fully aware that a new nuclear agreement, which could end the severe economic sanctions imposed on the country, is highly popular. The team that signs the agreement will receive credit for ending the economic hardship the country is currently enduring. For example, inflation is over 50%, exports have plunged due to the sanctions and over 60% of the population is now in poverty, up from 48% just two years ago.
With Raisi president, the conservatives and the supreme leader have greater incentives to reach an agreement with the United States for lifting the sanctions as they can no longer blame a reformist president for the economic hardships.
The success of this strategy, however, is far from guaranteed.
First, if Khamenei, Raisi and their hard-line supporters insist on maintaining Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, it seems unlikely to me that the economic sanctions against Iran will ease. Not all of them are tied directly to the nuclear deal, including sanctions against Raisi himself.
Second, the growing alienation and frustration of large segments of Iran’s population – especially after reformists were banned from running for president – may still lead to mass unrest and political instability.
Supreme Leader Raisi?
Raisi’s victory may have an even more significant impact on Iran’s politics in the long run because it might pave the way for him to become Iran’s next supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khamenei is in his 80s, and a succession to a new supreme leader is considered probable in the next four years. According to many regime insiders, Raisi became the most likely person to replace Khamenei by winning the presidential election.
If Raisi eventually becomes Iran’s supreme leader, he would have far more powers to shape all types of policies. Based on his background and values, he is likely to resist political and social reforms and try to gain legitimacy for the Islamic regime by focusing on economic development in a similar fashion to the authoritarian regimes in Asia, such as China, by focusing on economic growth while curtailing political and social freedoms.
Raisi – and eventually as the supreme leader – is unlikely to abandon Iran’s anti-Western foreign policy, but he has the potential to lower the tensions to a more manageable level in order to improve Iran’s economy.
In my view, he seems to have recognized that the continuation of current economic hardships poses the largest threat to the Islamic regime in the long run.
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Tensions are running high in the Middle East in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed Israeli agents were planning to attack US forces in Iraq to provide US President Donald Trump with a pretext for striking Iran.
Just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iran’s charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also warned his country would respond forcefully to any provocations.
Today, we have no problem, concern or apprehension toward encountering any powers. We will give our final words to our enemies on the battlefield.
Israeli military leaders are likewise preparing for potential Iranian retaliation over the November assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — an act Tehran blames on the Jewish state.
Both the US and Israel have reportedly deployed submarines to the Persian Gulf in recent days. (The USS Georgia is notably armed with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.) The US has also flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region in a show of force.
And in another worrying sign, the acting US defence secretary, Christopher Miller, announced over the weekend the US would not withdraw the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its strike group from the Middle East — a swift reversal from the Pentagon’s earlier decision to send the ship home.
Israel’s priorities under a new US administration
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like nothing more than action by Iran that would draw in US forces before Trump leaves office this month and President-elect Joe Biden takes over. It would not only give him the opportunity to become a tough wartime leader, but also help to distract the media from his corruption charges.
Any American military response against Iran would also make it much more difficult for Biden to establish a working relationship with Iran and potentially resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
It’s likely in any case the Biden administration will have less interest in getting much involved in the Middle East — this is not high on the list of priorities for the incoming administration. However, a restoration of the Iranian nuclear agreement in return for the lifting of US sanctions would be welcomed by Washington’s European allies.
This suggests Israel could be left to run its own agenda in the Middle East during the Biden administration.
One of Israel’s key strategic policies is also to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapon state. Israel is the only nuclear weapon power in the Middle East and is determined to keep it that way.
While Iran claims its nuclear program is only intended for peaceful purposes, Tehran probably believes realistically (like North Korea) that its national security can only be safeguarded by possession of a nuclear weapon.
In recent days, Tehran announced it would begin enriching uranium to 20% as quickly as possible, exceeding the limits agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.
This is a significant step and could prompt an Israeli strike on Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. Jerusalem contemplated doing so nearly a decade ago when Iran previously began enriching uranium to 20%.
How the Iran nuclear deal fell apart
Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950s, ironically with US assistance as part of the “Atoms for Peace” program. Western cooperation continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-Western shah of Iran. International nuclear cooperation with Iran was then suspended, but the Iranian program resumed in the 1980s.
After years of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (known as the P5+1), together with the European Union.
The JCPOA tightly restricted Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, this breakthrough soon fell apart with Trump’s election.
In April 2018, Netanyahu revealed Iranian nuclear program documents obtained by Mossad, claiming Iran had been maintaining a covert weapons program. The following month, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and a re-imposition of American sanctions.
Iran initially said it would continue to abide by the nuclear deal, but after the Soleimani assassination last January, Tehran abandoned its commitments, including any restrictions on uranium enrichment.
Israel’s history of preventive strikes
Israel, meanwhile, has long sought to disrupt its adversaries’ nuclear programs through its “preventative strike” policy, also known as the “Begin Doctrine”.
In 1981, Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed Iraq’s atomic reactor at Osirak, believing it was being constructed for nuclear weapons purposes. And in 2007, Israeli aircraft struck the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria for the same reason.
Starting in 2007, Mossad also apparently conducted an assassination program to impede Iranian nuclear research. Between January 2010 and January 2012, Mossad is believed to have organised the assassinations of four nuclear scientists in Iran. Another scientist was wounded in an attempted killing.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the killings.
Iran is suspected to have responded to the assassinations with an unsuccessful bomb attack against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in February 2012. The three Iranians convicted for that attack were the ones recently exchanged for the release of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from an Iranian prison.
The Mossad assassination program was reportedly suspended under pressure from the Obama administration to facilitate the Iran nuclear deal. But there seems little doubt the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was organised by Mossad as part of its ongoing efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.
Fakhrizadeh is believed to have been the driving force behind covert elements of Iran’s nuclear program for many decades.
The timing of his killing was perfect from an Israeli perspective. It put the Iranian regime under domestic pressure to retaliate. If it did, however, it risked a military strike by the truculent outgoing Trump administration.
It’s fortunate Moore-Gilbert was whisked out of Iran just before the killing, as there’s little likelihood Iran would have released a prisoner accused of spying for Israel (even if such charges were baseless) after such a blatant assassination had taken place in Iran.
What’s likely to happen next?
Where does all this leave us now? Much will depend on Iran’s response to what it sees (with some justification) as Israeli and US provocation.
The best outcome would be for no obvious Iranian retaliation or military action despite strong domestic pressure for the leadership to act forcefully. This would leave the door open for Biden to resume the nuclear deal, with US sanctions lifted under strict safeguards to ensure Iran is not able to maintain a covert weapons program.
Canberra policymakers will be conducting a root-and-branch reassessment of Australia’s foreign policy following Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election and ahead of an incoming Democrat administration.
Top of the list of items for review will be a leaden-footed China policy. Chinese trade reprisals for perceived Australian slights are doing real harm to Australia’s economic interests.
However, there are other areas of concern that demand attention in anticipation of Joe Biden’s presidency.
High on this agenda will be Middle East policy, which has suffered from the Trump administration’s transactional approach to a region in which America surrendered its traditional “honest broker” role in favour of an “Israel-first” approach.
US Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken might say, as he did at a Hudson Institute event earlier this year, that “I think we would be doing less not more in the Middle East”.
However, in the world’s most volatile region, history shows this aspiration is easier said than realised. Successive US administrations have endeavoured to pull back from the Middle East. Circumstances conspire to make this difficult.
From an Australian perspective, a Biden administration will inevitably shift the tone of America’s responses to Middle East challenges. This includes attitudes to the Palestinians.
Biden will not be showing the same tolerance for Israel’s settlement expansion as his predecessor, nor would he countenance unilateral Israeli annexation of territories under occupation.
The new administration will return to a two-state formula in its approach to Middle East peacemaking. This is a phrase that was sidelined during the Trump administration.
Canberra policymakers will need to be agile as these shifts work their way through American Middle East policy, which will be less ideological and more focused on what might be described as core principles.
These principles will involve greater emphasis on human rights. This is not good news for serial human rights-abusing countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians, for that matter.
Climate issues will weigh, too. This will be awkward for laggards on climate like Saudi Arabia.
A Biden administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view of inroads Russia and Turkey have made in the Middle East. Both countries have factored themselves into regional calculations in ways not apparent when Biden served as vice-president in the Obama administration.
Moscow and Ankara are now significant regional players down into the Gulf and west to North Africa in their extraterritorial meddling in fractured states such as Libya.
Regional architecture is vastly more complex and, if possible, more challenging than it was four years ago.
This brings us, inevitably, to Iran.
Biden has made clear that among his early foreign policy priorities will be to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.
An agreement to forestall an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump irresponsibly abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.
In a September 13 essay on CNN.com, Biden said:
If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.
In the process, the US would lift crippling oil sanctions imposed by Trump. These have done considerable damage to Iran’s economy.
However, debate on rejoining the JCPOA without concessions from Iran will be fraught.
A Biden administration would come under considerable pressure to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA after rejoining. This would include an extension of the original 15-year moratorium on Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device.
US negotiators would be expected to pressure Iran to wind back its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Washington would also seek to curb Iran’s exports of precision guided missiles to allies in the region and further afield.
Tehran has said such issues would not be on the table in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. These are highly complex matters.
What does make sense are indications a Biden administration would seek to involve other interested parties in a renegotiated JCPOA.
Biden’s foreign policy team has been talking about adding regional players like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would certainly help address nuclear proliferation concerns.
In an interview with the New York Times this month, Biden warned of the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the event that Iran acquires a breakout nuclear capability.
The last goddam thing we need in that part of the world is a build-up of nuclear capability.
Canberra will not have issues with this approach.
Australia’s response to the Trump administration’s abandonment of the JCPOA was cautious. The government conducted a review of Australia’s support and then quietly shelved any objections it might have had.
In any case, Australia hardly rates as anything more than a bystander, albeit one that has maintained diplomatic representation in Tehran since the days of the shah.
This has been useful, as was demonstrated recently by the role Australia’s ambassador in Tehran played in the release of Australian-UK researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert from a two-year incarceration.
With Australia’s trading relationship with China so stressed, further developing existing markets and seeking new opportunities will be a preoccupation.
While Australia’s trade with the Middle East is relatively small, it is significant. Two-way trade with the region, mostly in the Gulf, amounts to about 2.5% of total trade. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the most prospective markets for Australian goods and services.
The Gulf region is also home to four of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. At A$11 billion, the UAE’s investment in Australia is worth noting.
An Australian review of Middle East policy will inevitably involve assessments of what a Biden administration will mean for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has announced it will draw down its troop presence from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. This follows a “peace agreement” with the Taliban struck in February.
Biden has been agnostic on Afghanistan. He was a dissenting voice in the Obama administration against a surge in troops in 2008-2009, but lost that argument.
He is thought likely to favour retaining a small, residual counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan. On his record, he would be most reluctant to increase numbers.
In Australia’s case, its combat troops have long gone. It retains a small training contingent with the Afghan army. This is likely to remain the case under present circumstances.
Finally, in October, Canberra made an important decision about its role in the Middle East. This received little attention at the time.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced Australia would end its naval presence in the Gulf, where the navy had been conducting patrols.
As part of its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Reynolds said “an increasingly challenging strategic environment” was “placing greater demand on ADF resources closer to home”.
Given China’s continued rise, that would seem to be an understatement.
Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s release from an Iranian prison after more than two years’ detention is certainly a welcome development.
However, the circumstances raise some uncomfortable questions for Australian and Western diplomats related to Iran’s penchant for using hostage-taking as a bargaining chip for the release of its own citizens detained abroad for suspected or proven crimes, including terrorism.
There seems little doubt Moore-Gilbert was released as part of a prisoner exchange. Iranian state media has shown pictures of the academic with Australian embassy officials in Tehran, juxtaposed with film of three Iranian men being welcomed by Iranian officials, apparently at Tehran’s airport.
The Iranian media says she was exchanged for an Iranian “economic activist” and two Iranian citizens, who had been detained “abroad on trumped-up charges”. The report does not name the men.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given a carefully worded statement in response to questions about a prisoner swap.
If other people have been released in other places, they are the decisions of the sovereign governments. There are no people who have been held in Australia who have been released.
That may be true as far as Australia is concerned. But a report by The New York Times, quoting Iranian social media channels associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), identifies the three Iranians as Saeed Moradi, Mohammad Khazaei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh.
The three had been detained in Thailand since 2012 on charges of planning to plant bombs in Bangkok and assassinate Israeli diplomats there. One of those men had reportedly lost his legs when a bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely.
In a similar context, the release last year of two Australians being held in Iran, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, coincided with an Iranian research student at the University of Queensland, Reza Dehbashi Kivi, being permitted by Australian officials to return to his home country.
Dehbashi Kivi had allegedly been seeking to export radar equipment for detecting stealth planes in contravention of US sanctions. The ABC reported at the time the US was seeking his extradition.
Quiet diplomacy usually works best
The Australian government is depicting Moore-Gilbert’s release as a win for quiet diplomacy in assisting Australians arrested abroad.
There is no doubt a calm and measured approach is the most effective way of resolving knotty consular cases – even when the charges levelled against our citizens seem highly doubtful, as was the case with Moore-Gilbert.
This approach worked with the release of journalist Peter Greste from detention in Egypt in 2015, although there is no evidence of any prisoner exchange or other quid pro quo in that case.
In the Moore-Gilbert case, the apparent prisoner exchange would have required the agreement of the Thai government, and possibly clearing the arrangement with Israel as well, given the Iranians held in Thailand had reportedly been plotting attacks against Israeli interests. Quite an effort for “quiet diplomacy”.
Australians travelling abroad are constantly reminded they are subject to the laws of the country they are visiting. If an Australian is detained abroad, the most consular officials can usually do is ensure that person is treated fairly and humanely in accordance with local laws.
Thumping the table and making demands, even if the charges seem totally outrageous, is usually totally counter-productive.
A fraught relationship
The situation for Australians who get into trouble in Iran is particularly fraught. Australia’s relations with Iran are tense at normal times. The Iranian security authorities see Australia as close not only to the US, but to Israel, and are therefore suspicious of Australians.
If an Australian is a dual-Iranian national, Iranian law treats him or her as an Iranian citizen, further complicating the task of consular officials when individuals are detained.
Iran has reason to be particularly suspicious of US and Israeli hostility at the moment.
In July, there were reports of a series of explosions at sites linked Iran’s missile and nuclear programs.
Media reports suggested Israel was responsible. Israel has a history of unattributed attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, including use of the Stuxnet computer virus, which US officials have confirmed was developed in partnership with the US.
Moreover, under the Trump administration, the US has had a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s economy, which has drastically curtailed Iran’s oil exports. Israel’s Defence Forces have also been instructed to prepare for the possibility Trump may order a military strike against Iran in the final days of his presidency, according to Axios.
Other Westerners still being detained
Complicating Australia’s relationship with Iran even further are the different power centres in Iran.
Iran’s IRGC has the power to overrule all civilian authorities, including President Hassan Rouhani. It was significant that Moore-Gilbert was arrested when seeking to leave Iran after attending an academic conference to which she had been formally invited. This implied official approval to enter and leave the country.
Diplomatic and consular officials in Tehran must also deal with the Iranian Foreign Ministry in cases involving detained foreigners. The foreign ministry is often powerless in cases in which the IRGC has an interest.
So Moore-Gilbert’s release at this time is remarkably fortuitous, particularly as Iran currently holds more than 10 Westerners or dual-national citizens captive.
However, if it is confirmed that the deal is a direct prisoner exchange, criticism here and among our allies that Australia has aided and abetted Iran’s hostage taking strategy is bound to grow.