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IFANS Focus The Implications of the 2021 Iranian Presidential Election Results and Outlook IN Nam-sik Upload Date 2021-07-05 Hits 302
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Ⅰ. How Did the Votes Move?: The Meaning of the Lowest Voter Turnout Ever
Ⅱ. Who is President-elect Raisi?: Hard-line Conservative Islamic Jurist without Secular Education
Ⅲ. Factors behind the Election Results: Moderate, Reformist Voters’ Concerns and Their Choices
Ⅳ. What are the Prospects for Future Discussions on the U.S.’ Return to the Iran Nuclear Agreement?: Remaining Possibilities



On 18 June, Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi won the country’s 13th presidential election. The election drew much attention with the parties involved discussing the U.S.’ return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), or the Iran nuclear agreement after U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The moderate or reformist candidate inheriting Hassan Rouhani’s presidency was defeated, and the leading conservative figure will take office in August. As a result, domestic and international observers show a keen interest in Iran’s future foreign relations, especially its dialogue with the U.S. regarding the nuclear agreement. One of the top foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration is the U.S.’ return to the Iran nuclear agreement and stabilization of the Middle East. Therefore, the result of Iran’s presidential election cannot be seen simply as a matter of Iranian domestic politics.
 

Ⅰ. How Did the Votes Move?: The Meaning of the Lowest Voter Turnout Ever

 The conservative held a dominant position in the run-up to the election because many of the leading candidates were eliminated from the preliminary candidate verification. Moreover, most of the centrist candidates were ruled out. The Guardian Council finally approved seven of the 552 candidates. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the No. 1 candidate in the preliminary survey, and other prominent figures, failed to run for election, raising chances of the election of Raisi. In particular, the centrist and reformist candidates’ presence was insignificant. Rumors of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif running for office continued. As Zarif refused to declare his candidacy, there were no strong candidates. Abdolnaser Hemmaty, the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, declared his candidacy representing the moderate. He appealed to voters with his moderate-reformist stance, citing solidarity with Zarif, but it was not enough.

This year’s election is characterized by a low voter turnout at 48.78 percent, the lowest since the Iranian Revolution. The figure is down 24.55 percent from 73.33 percent in the 2017 presidential election. With such voter apathy, Raisi won 17,926,345 votes, which is 61.95 percent of the 28,933,004 votes, in the first round. Mohsen Rezaei, a former member of the Revolutionary Guard, won 3,412,712 votes (11.79%) and Hemmaty, a moderate candidate, won 2,427,201 votes (8.38%). Considering Rouhani’s 23,636,652 votes (57.14%) in the previous presidential election, the moderate camp lost nearly 20 million votes. Above all, the number of blank ballots or those deliberately voted invalid amounts to 3.7 million votes. It is irrefutable that Raisi scored a landslide victory, but it is also worth noting that two-thirds of voters did not cast votes for Raisi.
 
 
Ⅱ. Who is President-elect Raisi?: Hard-line Conservative Islamic Jurist without Secular Education

President-elect Raisi, a close confidant of Iran’s supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Khamenei, is a fundamentalist cleric from Mount Horasan in northeastern Iran. From the age of 15, he studied Islamic law at the Qom seminary, the home of Shia Islamic theology. After the revolution, he served in several positions in Iran’s judicial system, primarily overseeing religious law. Controversy over his responsibility for purging political prisoners when he served in the prosecution in 1988 has continued to this date.

Raisi is a lifelong trained faqīh, an Islamic jurist, an expert in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic Law based on the Islamic scriptures of Quran and Hadith. He is known to have no experience in learning and practicing the field of secular studies, which is different from the incumbent President Rouhani’s academic background. Rouhani started with theology, but he has expanded his field of study with a Ph.D. in law in Scotland and has military experience. 

Raisi’s career in fighting anti-Islamic ideas naturally helped him form a close relationship with the Revolutionary Guard, leading to his close tie to Khamenei, the Supreme Leader protected by the Revolutionary Guard. He is also known to have been responsible for the imprisonments of numerous journalists, politicians, and pro-Western figures by stigmatizing them as anti-revolutionaries. For this reason, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Raisi over his human rights record.

Since he was appointed Chief Justice in 2019, Raisi has focused on rooting out corruption. Charges against influential figures ensued. Rising public grievances caused by the deterioration of the domestic economic situation could leave a fissure in the system. While the Iranian government raised its criticism against the Trump administration, the judiciary accused prestigious figures of corruption and attributed public grievances to the selected figures, not to the system itself. Therefore, Raisi’s victory is likely to lead to a coercive attitude toward anti-government forces in Iran in the future. However, it is too premature to judge how Iran under Raisi will establish regional relations, including hostile relations with the U.S., in the future because Raisi did not outline the direction of Iran’s foreign policy during the presidential campaign.

The most important factor in forecasting Raisi’s presidency would be his political ambition. In other words, it is about whether Raisi will succeed Supreme Leader Khamenei. When President Rouhani was re-elected shortly after the Iran nuclear agreement, and Iran’s inclusion in the international community was considered a fait accompli, Rouhani’s ascension to supreme power seemed likely. However, with the turn of events, rumors of Raisi’s succession to the Supreme Leader have been widely thrown around. In that case, his background as a cleric alone will not be enough to consolidate his power. This is because Raisi has experience in executing Islamic law without experience in steering state affairs. Some say that Khamenei demonstrated his willingness to make Raisi his successor through this year’s presidential election.


Ⅲ. Factors behind the Election Results: Moderate, Reformist Voters’ Concerns and Their Choices

In short, it was the concerns of moderate, reformist voters that shaped the outcome of the election. During President Rouhani’s second term, Iran’s economic situation severely deteriorated. The aftermath of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement in 2018 was critical in particular. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement immediately led to the restoration of “snapback” sanctions, and most oil exports and financial interactions were suspended. Iran’s economy faced the same level of sanctions imposed before the July 2015 nuclear agreement. It was the revival of the resistance economy.

However, the economic hardships the Iranian people faced were much worse than before the nuclear agreement. There was a great sense of deprivation caused by the Iranian people’s frustration over returning to the isolation from the international community and failure to function as a normal country. In fact, from 2015 to 2017, large European and Asian companies actively invested in Iran with the Iranian people’s rising expectations. The Republic of Korea, for instance, more than 2,000 small and medium-sized companies were also starting full-fledged business activities in Iran. Moreover, Iran’s gas hydrates were major imports for the South Korean oil industry.
 
As mentioned, the restoration of U.S. sanctions reversed the situation, and economic cooperation with Iran’s major trade partners, including South Korea, was suspended. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 complicated the picture. Iran’s quarantine measures failed to flatten the COVID-19 curve and showed the most severe confirmed and fatality rates in the Middle East. Moreover, Iran’s 13th presidential election was held after last year’s general election while public grievances spiked in the wake of aggravating circumstances.

Moderate, reformist voters were unlikely to vote for hard-line conservative Raisi. However, that did not mean that they would vote for Hemmaty, who claimed to represent the moderate. Hemmaty struggled with dwindling support from the public. Moderate, reformist voters’ apathy towards Iran’s presidential election seems to be more in line with the fundamental function of elections that enable voters to hold the incumbent accountable for their performance in office. As elections are to entrust decision-making power to elected representatives, it is ultimately the elected leaders or bodies that should be held accountable for the mishandling of state affairs. However, other external factors, including the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and the COVID-19 pandemic, should also be factored into the current picture. Hemmaty appealed that he is well-versed in finance and economics and capable of addressing economic challenges, persistently calling Raisi’s background in theology into question throughout the presidential campaign. However, voters’ apathy towards the election clearly showed the paradox of voting.
 

Ⅳ. What are the Prospects for Future Discussions on the U.S.’ Return to the Iran Nuclear Agreement?: Remaining Possibilities

The door is still open, but it will take some time until the two sides revive the nuclear deal. Considering Raisi’s background as a conservative cleric and Raisi’s supporters are discontent with the Rouhani government’s nuclear deal, there could be some delays before the resumption of talks on the U.S.’ return to the nuclear agreement. However, some predict that the Supreme Leader’s willingness to untangle the current situation could come into play before Raisi’s inauguration in August. In case efforts at persuading the U.S. to return to the nuclear agreement falter, Iran’s economy will likely fail to gain momentum to rebound, and President Raisi, known to be the Supreme Leader’s protÉgÉ as mentioned, will face challenges from the beginning of his presidency. Therefore, the Rouhani administration could endeavor to resume talks with the U.S. to clear cloud away for the incoming Raisi administration.

It appeared that Raisi’s top priorities during his presidential campaign were anti-corruption and economic recovery, and his pledges rarely outlined Iran’s foreign policy. Anti-corruption policies can be implemented with coercion and pressure, but economic recovery would not be easy unless the U.S. lifts sanctions. Considering its characteristics and size, Iran’s economy will likely fail to rebound from the latest slump with limited trade with China, Russia, and Turkey pursuing the resistance economy doctrine. If the Biden administration refuses to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, the agreement could collapse. This could be a Pyrrhic victory for the new Raisi administration at the expense of significant economic losses only to save its face. Moreover, if Raisi fails to fulfill his campaign pledge to resuscitate the economy, Iran’s political system itself could be in jeopardy. 

With Biden winning the presidency, it is no use playing the blame game over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and holding the Rouhani administration accountable for the mishandling state and economic affairs. Instead, president Raisi would have to bear responsibilities or even endure criticism once he takes office in August. 

Before Raisi’s election victory, the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard blamed the Rouhani administration for its incompetence and mismanagement of state affairs. However, as the silent majority, two-thirds of all voters who did not vote in this election can always be the source of political pressure, the new administration will likely move cautiously and endeavor to stay at the bargaining table with the U.S. Since it is right after the election, the U.S. and Iran would want to have a two or three-week period before they start talks. Moreover, it is anticipated that the U.S. messages sent out to Iran during this period will dictate the success or failure of future negations. 

The Biden administration reaffirmed its determination to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, underscoring that Khamenei would have the final say in reviving the nuclear deal, although President-elect Raisi is a hard-line conservative cleric. That makes sense. However, there would be some readjustments to the Biden administration's foreign policy priorities and implementation timeline. Since President Biden's inauguration, revitalizing the Iran nuclear deal has been considered Washington's most pressing foreign policy challenge. However, President Biden and his team would have to consider possible political complications stemming from different stances between the Rouhani administration and Raisi's incoming administration. If there is no progress until Raisi's inauguration in August, the two sides need to adopt a long-term perspective on the issue. Moreover, the Biden administration's implementation timeline will be set following the Raisi administration's cabinet composition, particularly the appointment of the foreign minister, officials, and nuclear negotiators. As there is also a possibility that the Biden administration would want to resolve North Korea's nuclear problem and join talks with Iran on the nuclear agreement simultaneously, it is advised that the Korean government thoroughly examine the Biden administration's foreign policy implementation timeline in handling the Iran nuclear agreement. 


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