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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Astrid H. M. Nordin, King’s College London and Graham M Smith, University of LeedsAt the 2021 summit of the G7, which was held in Cornwall in the west of England, one person figured prominently in conversations but was not part of the gathering: the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. A fair proportion of the group’s deliberations concerned developing a shared approach to China – the awkwardly named US-backed spending plan, “Build Back Better World” (B3W), which is designed to rival China’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI).
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There was also agreement on the questions of democracy and human rights, with the meeting’s concluding communiqué stipulating: “we will promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law”.
Hot on the G7’s heels, Nato leaders have ramped up the rhetoric and named China on a list of security risks, claiming that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.
As expected, Chinese officials hit back, accusing the G7 of manipulation and NATO of slandering its peaceful development. Yet, in the days before the statements from the G7 and Nato, Xi had been calling for China to “expand” its “circle of friends”. Could that circle be made to include those in the G7 and NATO?
Differing understandings of friendship
Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect.
For most countries in the G7, the understanding of what friendship might mean is based on a Euro-American tradition of thought that understands it as a voluntary and reciprocal relationship of equals. Importantly, on this view of friendship, friends remain together despite – or even because of – their differences. Indeed, differences are seen as productive and enhancing of the friendship. This view is exemplified by Plutarch’s comment that “I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.” Friends disagree in such a way that they remain friends and, if necessary, disagree again in the future.
However, this is probably not how Xi sees friendship. His understanding might instead fall back on a Confucian tradition – as it often does in his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that includes “friendship” as one of its “core socialist values”. In that tradition, good friendship is modelled on the hierarchy of older and younger brother in the traditional family. Here, the younger – or lesser – relation has a chance to grow by emulating the positive example of the more elevated friend.
The importance of the friend as a virtuous example to emulate is so strong that Confucius repeatedly urges in the Analects: “Do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are”. In this tradition, the superior party is duty-bound to care for and correct the lesser party in this process of moral growth, and the lesser party is impelled to heed their advice and direction.
This understanding of friendship is reflected in China’s internal and external political relations. Internally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sits above other societal actors – those who are mistaken are corrected and improved. This can be seen in initiatives ranging from patriotic education campaigns to mass incarceration in camps on China’s “new frontier”, Xinjiang.
Prominent Chinese intellectuals like Zhao Tingyang argue that the best way for China to “turn enemies into friends” is to lead by example. Xi’s call for friendship is simultaneously a call for the Chinese state to be better at portraying China in a positive light. However, this does not mean that hard power methods are out of bounds if push comes to shove, as demonstrated in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.
Can China and liberal democracies be friends?
Given these views of friendship, what chance is there for rapprochement and friendship between liberal democracies and authoritarian China? The Chinese model suggests a way of living in harmony with China. Chinese leaders and citizens generally do not see China as being a threat to other countries, but a generous and cultivated friend. Chinese leaders responded to the NATO communiqué by telling NATO to stop “hyping” the idea of a “China threat”. But for liberal democracies, a friendship where the senior partner directs things and the junior partner must change to be more like them is not the sort of friendship they want – especially when they might be cast as the “junior” partner.
In contrast, the Anglo-European tradition of thinking about friendship emphasises equality and cooperative difference. However, the rhetoric and actions coming from the G7 and NATO appear far from extending friendship based on any such appreciation of a real diversity and difference of culture, approach, and values. As clubs of the likeminded, they see China as a threat precisely because they can only conceive of being in a friendship with “people like us”. Friends can be different – but only within liberal democratic parameters.
These differences mean that both China and the liberal democracies could forever be estranged, locked in a contest for superiority. A friendship could be possible between China and liberal democracies. For this to happen, liberal democracies would need to be true to their traditions of equal but different friendship, allowing for genuine difference. Based on its own traditions, China may well find such relationships difficult to accept.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have declared two Russian diplomats personas non grata – in other words, they are expelling them from Australia.
The decision to expel the pair is a show of solidarity with the UK over the assassination attempt on two Russian nationals, former Russian colonel Sergei Skripal (who was recruited by British intelligence) and his daughter Yulia, in the small city of Salisbury on March 4.
In a joint statement, Turnbull and Bishop said the two diplomats were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, and are now required to leave Australia within seven days.
This is a rare move. However, it is not the first time Australia has expelled Russian diplomats implicated in covert intelligence activities. In mid-1993, Australia secretly expelled six Russian diplomats on “suspicions of spying”.
Historically, Australia was of strong interest to Soviet and Russian intelligence.
There were several reasons for this, including Australia’s close security and defence ties to the US, the UK and other NATO countries, and its access to highly sensitive intelligence as part of the Five Eyes agreement.
Australia also has access to advanced military technology provided by its allies. It plays an important role in the US-led Asia-Pacific anti-ballistic missile defence.
In recent years, Australia’s intelligence community has expressed concern about the extent of Russian and Chinese intelligence-gathering activities in the country.
Posting a serving intelligence officer to work under a diplomatic cover is a common practice of various intelligence agencies, particularly those that do not have special agreements concerning the legal presence of intelligence personnel in a country of interest. Russian intelligence services, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service SVR (sluzhba vneshnei razvedki – political and economic intelligence) and the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU (glavnoe razvedyvatel’noe upravlenie – military intelligence), engage in such practices.
Diplomatic cover provides an intelligence operative not just with diplomatic immunity. It also gives an operative a legal right to engage with various groups of a targeted nation, from political and business elites to fellow diplomats, journalists, social activists, academics, and community groups.
Counterintelligence agencies have ways of identifying such operatives and tracking their activities, including contacts with key local stakeholders. Expelling identified, undeclared intelligence officers is common practice when a country wants to showcase a robust response and a clear political message to its political opponent. In this case, it is Russia.
Identifying the two diplomats as spies sends a powerful message to Russia and its intelligence services. But the world of intelligence is a never-ending game of shadows, with its own rules, codes of conduct and practices.
Australia expects that, in return, Russia will declare at least two Australian diplomats from its embassy in Moscow personas non grata. It is likely the Russians will use the same logic as Australia in choosing who to send home.
By keeping the pressure on Russia, the West is trying to alter Russia’s strategic behaviour, reducing the impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness has caused to the US-led rules-based order.
There is also a clear attempt to weaken Russia as a strategic competitor, as the world’s number-two military power, by making its economy bleed under sanctions. But what effect might this latest round of confrontation create?
Certainly, the expulsion of some 130 Russian diplomats/suspected intelligence operatives will curtail Russian intelligence operations across Europe, North America and Australia.
However, we should not underestimate the potential of Russian intelligence services. It is likely they will restore their intelligence-gathering capacity very quickly. Russia has a proven global intelligence-gathering capability, and the expulsion of some 130 agents will not undermine it in the long run.
Also, only 23 countries have followed the UK’s response against Russia. About half of EU member countries have not joined in the action so far. Some major powers in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, including China and India, have kept their distance. That makes this new round of Russia-West confrontation a war of yet another “coalition of the willing”.
Russia is unlikely to back down to pressure from the West, nor will it admit its alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on Skripal. The investigation into the attack continues, and no final conclusions have been drawn yet.
We should also recognise that the West has seriously underestimated the level of Russian resilience to sanctions as well as its ability to challenge the US-led rules-based order.
In terms of future steps, Australia might reconsider the level of its involvement in the upcoming football World Cup, which will be held in Russia in June-July this year. However, it is unlikely the Australian team will boycott the event.
More targeted sanctions may be imposed, but these actions are likely to trigger a counter-response from Russia. Already, Russia-Australia bilateral trade has gone down: the level of bilateral economic trade was A$687 million in 2016, down from A$1.837 billion in 2014. If Russia is to take further economic counter-sanctions against Australia, it may choose to target Australia’s agricultural exports.
Neither Australia nor Russia consider high-level political dialogue with one another a priority. Yet maintaining some form of a dialogue is important.
Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is a member of several key international organisations that are critical to Australia, including the G20 and APEC. Russia plays a critical role in the ongoing war in Syria and crisis in Ukraine, the war against Islamic State, in curtailing the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran, and in stabilising Afghanistan.
Cutting ties with Russia or suspending dialogue with it on some key international security issues such as combating terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or North Korea would not contribute to global stability.
The Australian government decided to show decisiveness, determination and strong resolve. Australia has once again shown its strong support and solidarity with its key allies such as the UK. But let’s hope the government shows the same consistency, resolve and determination next time other major powers undertake reckless activities, such as China’s strategic gaming in South China Sea.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at ‘the exile of the Christian Church in the West’ and asks if you are ready for it?
The link below is to an article (with photos) that looks at what life is like living with Ebola in West Africa.