Dennis Sammut, the Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of the web portal commonspace.eu
The June 18 election of Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran is in many ways a non-event. Given that most of the serious alternatives to him were barred from contesting the election, the result was hardly surprising. Raisi, who until now headed the country’s judiciary, is an insider of the Shia clerical establishment, and a trusted adjutant to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
In his thirty-plus years as Supreme Leader, Khamenei — not unlike his predecessor, the first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — has maintained a tight grip on power, intervening in every facet of government. Now, it seems that Khamenei has decided to tighten the noose around the political system, which was distorted and dysfunctional already, even further. The question is why, and why now.
The role of president in the Iranian political system is very limited. He is not the ultimate decision-maker on most important issues, ranging from defence and foreign policy, to economic and social policy. The president is sandwiched between the Supreme Leader, who in the era of Ayatollah Khamenei interferes increasingly in all aspects of governance, and a parliament, also elected under strict restrictions, which is often a platform for hardliners. The president, and the bureaucracy he leads, have often to implement policies with which they may not agree, but which have the support of the religious zealots.
Despite this, pragmatists, such as the outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, could, whilst holding the office of president, act as a voice of reason in the councils of government, and act as a bridge to various parts of society not endeared to the Shia clerical establishment, broadening the regime’s legitimacy.
So why have Khamenei and the Shia clerical establishment decided to install one of their own as president remains unclear. Is this a shift to a more hardline policy? Are they tightening control because they fear the future? Or is this a more complex move, in preparation for easing some of the tight ideological control, in which case they need a president in place whose revolutionary credentials are unquestioned. That will all be revealed as the Raisi presidency unfolds, but in the meantime there are pressing issues that involve Iran that the world is watching, including in Europe, where there is an increasing interest in Iranian issues.
Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Europe’s position on Iran has been somewhat more nuanced than that of the United States, believing that engagement is better than isolation. This does not mean that Europe has not been appalled by the gross human rights violations in Iran, or that Europe is not seriously concerned by Iranian adventurism across the Middle East and beyond. Furthermore, for those European countries that embrace secularism and the separation of Church and State, the idea of having a country run by a religious theocracy, as in Iran, is in itself anathema.
Still, Europe has opted to engage Iran, and at the moment there are four main areas on which Europe would like to engage Iran even further:
The first, and the priority at the moment, is the resolution in the impasse over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, where the EU is working to get Iran and the US back into full compliance. The sixth round of the Vienna discussions have just ended inconclusively, although diplomats insist progress has been made, despite the fact that the differences remain serious.
The second is Lebanon. There is great concern in the EU that the Lebanese state may be on the point of collapse. Iran, through its Shia proxy Hezbollah, is an important player in Lebanon. The EU wants to see Iran play a positive role in securing that country’s future, not least through the establishment of a legitimate and sustainable government.
The third is Yemen, where Europe is appalled at the humanitarian catastrophe that has followed the unleashing of violence by Iran’s Houthi proxy, and the subsequent war which has helped no one.
The fourth is Gulf security. This is becoming an increasingly important topic for the EU, and with the US repositioning itself to face the emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, there is recognition that Europe must step up, initially diplomatically, but eventually also militarily, its engagement with the region. Dealing with a disruptive Iran is the biggest challenge in this endeavour.
European envoys have been criss-crossing the region working on these four concerns. In Vienna, it is the EU that leads the talks on the JCPOA, and Iran looms large in EU-US discussions in the new era of US foreign policy under President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
To put it bluntly, Europe is not worried that Raisi will change Iranian foreign policy for the worst. The reason is that in essence, he cannot. Whoever was pulling the strings before — during the time of Rouhani — will continue to do so under Raisi. EU High Representative Borrell put it clearly, even if not convincingly, when speaking about the JCPOA after a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday (21 June):
“I do not have any reason to believe that the new President of Iran is going to take a different stand with respect to a negotiation that is in the interest of their people and of their country. I do not have any reason to believe it, but let us see.”
Raisi is a pragmatist and a loyalist. He is now president not to implement his own agenda, but to implement the agenda of Khamenei and his team. The first point on this agenda is survival.
Iran’s dire economic situation; its youth is restless, torn between a tired Revolution and a fast-changing modern world; and there is the society at large, which prides itself on the greatness of the country’s past and does not accept the modest circumstances of the present. All these pose an existential challenge to the leadership of the Iranian Revolution. Raisi has been brought in as part of a response to this. The question remains, however: how, and to do what? Time will tell.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.