Iran Stops Pretending

The rigged “election” of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president has the potential to be a turning point for the country. But its significance will be fully understood only in hindsight.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's hard-line president-elect
Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Tipping points in the fortunes of opaque, authoritarian regimes are often predicted but never predictable. The rigged “election” of Ebrahim Raisi, an uncharismatic, 60-year-old hard-line cleric, as Iran’s next president has the potential to be such a moment, although its significance will be fully understood only in hindsight. Will Raisi’s anointment be remembered, as some historians have asserted, as a brazen authoritarian overreach that destroyed the Islamic Republic’s remaining legitimacy and hastened its demise? Or will it be just another milestone in the life cycle of a theocracy that has defied predictions of reform and collapse, potentially paving the way for Raisi to succeed his patron, 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as Iran’s next Supreme Leader?

For the United States, Raisi’s election, viewed through the prism of ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, heightens the Biden administration’s sense of urgency to conclude a deal before an inevitably more rigid Iranian administration is inaugurated on August 8. Although power in Iran will remain in the hands of the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards, Raisi’s presidency will further complicate the Biden administration’s stated goal of negotiating a “longer and stronger” follow-on deal with Tehran.

For many inhabitants of the Middle East, though, Raisi’s selection is important for reasons that go beyond its impact on Tehran’s nuclear program. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, scholars and policy makers debated whether the road to peace in the Middle East went through Jerusalem or Baghdad. Today it is clear to many liberals in the Middle East that the politics of Tehran are inextricably linked to the politics of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Sanaa, and beyond. Although the malaise of the modern Middle East has many fathers, as long as Iran, one of the region’s largest and wealthiest nations, is ruled by a theocracy that actively uses its sizable energy revenue to fund and train armed militias that espouse its intolerant revolutionary ideology, a more stable, tolerant, prosperous region will remain a distant dream.

Raisi’s subdued personality and criminal record bring to life Hannah Arendt’s observation about the banal nature of evil. He’s been a national figure in Iran since 2017, when he ran against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani in the country’s presidential elections, losing by a two-to-one margin. Although state media have unduly given him the elevated title of ayatollah—a senior Shiite scholar—his most important qualification is being a trusted acolyte of Khamenei, who appointed him the head of the country’s largest religious foundation and later the head of the judiciary.

For many Iranians, Raisi is most well known for his actions as one of the four judges who oversaw the torture and mass execution of approximately 5,000 members of an Iranian opposition group—including women and children—in the summer of 1988. Like a gang recruit who earns his stripes by committing wanton violence, Raisi, a hanging judge at 28 years old, cemented his revolutionary credentials.

Raisi argues that he was simply following orders, and appears both unapologetic for and oblivious to the heartbreak he wrought. An elderly couple whom I interviewed years ago in Tehran tearfully recounted to me how they had been forced to pay for the bullet used to execute their daughter—a 21-year-old medical student—in order to retrieve her body and give her a proper burial. (Such “bullet fees” have grown as high as $3,000 in recent years.)

In contrast to previous elections, when Iran would showcase to the global media its tightly controlled electoral pageantry, the few foreign journalists visiting Tehran this time reported a combination of apathy and anger. Perhaps the most authentic expression of Iranian popular indignation—familiar to anyone who has lived in Iran—was inadvertently aired by NPR, whose reporter asked an elderly woman in a Tehran park whom she favored. NPR’s translator softened her comments, claiming she said of the mullahs, “They can go to hell.” Persian speakers heard something considerably more obscene: “Fuck those mullahs. They’ve been lying to us for 40 years! I’m voting for my cock.”

Despite the media fanfare of Iranian elections, Raisi, like all Iranian presidents, will play a negligible role in shaping the country’s foreign policy. Under Khamenei’s leadership, the Islamic Republic’s identity will continue to be premised on opposition to America and Israel, and Tehran will continue to arm and fund its proxies and allies in the failing states—including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Venezuela—that constitute its so-called Axis of Resistance.

The greatest benefactors of Raisi’s election will be the external opponents of the Iranian regime and the Iran nuclear deal, most prominently the Republican Party and the government of Israel. The talking points write themselves. “Iran’s new president,” tweeted Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, “known as the Butcher of Tehran, is an extremist responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians. He is committed to the regime’s nuclear ambitions and to its campaign of global terror.”

Yet Raisi’s election appears unlikely to seriously jeopardize the Biden administration’s ability to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which Donald Trump exited in 2018. Because Iran’s economic decline cannot be reversed absent a removal of U.S. sanctions, it would make sense—although it is not a foregone conclusion—for Tehran to revive the deal before Raisi is inaugurated on August 8. This would allow the regime to blame the deal’s shortcomings on outgoing President Rouhani while allowing Raisi to reap the economic benefits of sanctions relief.

Beyond a return to the 2015 agreement, however, Raisi’s selection signals that Iran will resist the Biden administration’s desire to negotiate a follow-on agreement that also addresses Tehran’s missile program and regional ambitions. This could create a conundrum for Biden: If the U.S. tries to coerce Iran with new sanctions, Tehran could respond by resuming its nuclear activities and attacking—via its proxies—U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East, mindful that the Biden administration seeks to reduce America’s regional presence.

Hubris is the Achilles’ heel of virtually all dictatorships; the iron will that once fueled an authoritarian regime’s consolidation of power invariably morphs into greed and entitlement. Although Khamenei’s will to stay in power remains strong, he is afflicted with a combination of insecurity and overconfidence: He was mindful enough to know that his heir apparent had no chance of winning a competitive election, yet he was confident enough to believe that he could get away with engineering his victory.

Khamenei’s health—he’s 82 and widely believed to have prostate cancer—is one of Iran’s most tightly held state secrets, yet he has outlived younger men who were once thought to be his successors. Although Khamenei may want Raisi to succeed him, handovers of power in authoritarian states are inherently unpredictable. Raisi’s already limited popularity—evidenced by record-low voter turnout—will probably diminish further once he takes office and is held responsible for a broken economy that he is incapable of fixing, and political and social repression that he will intensify.

One of the keys to Khamenei’s longevity—he’s been ruling since 1989—has been his ability to use Iran’s unelected institutions to bolster his power while at the same time using Iran’s “elected” institutions to avoid accountability. He can outsource political repression and crackdowns to the Revolutionary Guards while also holding Iran’s president responsible for the country’s failing economy. Yet engineering the election of his mentee, Raisi, will make it difficult for Khamenei to continue scapegoating Iran’s president for his own failures.

Another unknown is whether the Revolutionary Guard—which long ago eclipsed the clergy as Iran’s most powerful institution—will continue to defer to aging clerics as their commanders in chief, or whether they will seek more overt control. Given Iran’s young and increasingly irreligious polity, an Iranian version of Vladimir Putin—a military or intelligence officer who replaces Shiite nationalism with Persian nationalism—appears more likely to rule future Iranian generations than another geriatric cleric.

“The essence of oligarchical rule,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “is the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors.” Modern-day Iranians are living inside the theocratic experiment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 revolution, who believed that Islam was a cure-all and economics was “for donkeys.” Just as Khamenei was chosen to be the custodian for Khomeini’s vision, he sees in Raisi a trusted disciple to carry Khomeini’s mantle.

Every decade, a new generation of disillusioned Iranians reaches the conclusion that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed via the ballot box. Rather than stay behind and risk their lives as dissidents, those who can afford it choose to leave. Iran’s former minister of science and technology once estimated that brain drain costs the country $150 billion annually—more than its oil revenue. Raisi’s election is a reminder that Iranians’ aspirations for a better life are at odds with a regime that currently appears unreformable and unbreakable. As long as Iran’s security forces remain united and willing to kill en masse, and Iran’s society remains disunited and unwilling to die en masse, the tipping points will continue to tip in the regime’s favor.