The first thing you need to know about the recent elections in Iran is that even though they have produced a new president, there are no real winners. “Designed” – yes, a term used in Iran – to pave the way for an Ayatollah-endorsed leadership succession, the polls reached what has long escaped the enemies of the Islamic Republic: effective regime change in Tehran. Only, with hardliners now firmly in the driver’s seat, this is not the kind of change many in the West have been looking for.
Arrived at dusk, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seeks a successor. For the 82-year-old head of state, the ideal successor is a docile loyalist who could emulate his own run from the presidency to the country’s highest position. On paper, this is precisely what is happening. However, as always, the devil is in the details.
Ebrahim Raisi, who is currently chief justice, received nearly 62% of the vote on Friday. But the way this feat was achieved leaves any “victory” in the Pyrrhic, at best. Widely regarded as the primary beneficiary of the Guardian Council’s elimination of all prominent moderates and reformists from the race, the extent of the candidate purge was such that Raisi himself reportedly urged the watchdog to reconsider his decision. The picture is even bleaker when you consider that as Chief Justice Raisi in 2019 presented several members of the Guardian Council to Parliament for approval.
Concerns over the legitimacy of the race will undoubtedly come to haunt Raisi, especially since the runner-up was none of the other handpicked candidates. More than 12% of Iranian voters chose instead to vote invalid – three times more than in any previous presidential election. This is all the more significant considering that just two weeks before the elections, Khamenei issued a fatwa denouncing white protest ballots as being religiously prohibited.
Reformers are also the big losers in this game. Having cleared only one nominal candidate, camp leaders instead tried half-heartedly to mobilize a final wave behind Raisi’s only competitor, Abdolnaser Hemmati, a toothless former central banker who raced on an independent platform. He came fourth, with just over 8% of the vote.
This lack of competition meant that, for the first time, non-voters outnumbered voters in an Iranian presidential election. Only 28.9 million out of more than 59 million eligible voters voted, a record turnout of 48.7%. The figure falls further to 42.5% if invalid votes are excluded. In comparison, the turnout was over 70% in the three previous presidential elections.
The unprecedented electoral boycott takes on even greater significance when one considers that the Islamic Republic has long presented its elections as a litmus test of its legitimacy. And, most importantly, this year’s boycott was local. So what does all of this portend for Iran and the world?
Just days before the election, Raisi’s stepfather, the outright Friday prayer imam of the holy city of Mashhad, lambasted those who refused to vote with the intention of harming the political system as being “infidels”. Powerful elements of the Iranian state nurture these feelings because they ultimately view legitimacy as being derived from the divine and not from the electorate. Now firmly masters of all the levers of power, they owe their political ascendancy to the failures of the Iranian pro-democracy movement and former US President Donald Trump.
The outgoing administration of Hassan Rouhani initially did not want, and could not, seriously pursue its ambitious agenda for the economy and the dire rights situation in the country, focusing its energy on negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, seen as the key to change. That gamble collapsed when Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the UN-approved deal in 2018. His reimposition of sanctions decimated the pro-reform middle class in Iran and strengthened the radicals.
Those who “organized” the Iranian elections have an establishment candidate in Raisi who owes everything to Khamenei. The assumption is that this will ensure greater coordination between the Supreme Leader and the President. Having failed to implement generational change, Reformers are now likely to be in disarray for an extended period of time. In the meantime, we can assume the emergence of more radical and young voices on the right, especially as Raisi meets the pragmatism imposed by his new function. These assumptions, along with many other assumptions – including about Iranian conservatives’ reluctance to engage with the United States – will be tested and tested when Raisi takes office in early August.
Beyond Iran’s change of political orientation, Raisi’s choice will also make it difficult for the West to engage with the Islamic Republic. The president-elect was closely associated with the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988, and Amnesty International has already called for an investigation into his alleged role in crimes against humanity. Yet, given that the red carpet is generally rolled out for other autocrats in the region, the prospect of serious Western political engagement with a Raisi administration should not be dismissed. It will probably only get more difficult.
- Mohammad Ali Shabani is editor-in-chief of Amwaj.media, a platform focused on Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula