The West Is Facing a Hard Test: Iran Elects a Sanctioned President

BySulaiman Hussain Alwadai

The US administration is still keen on reviving the nuclear deal despite the potential consequences stemming from it, such as it not securing regional peace and stability which US partners in the regions aspire for. Meanwhile, the  Iranian public voted for an Iranian judge subject to US sanctions for his involvement in human rights violations — in breach of US values  and based on its intelligence and political evaluations.  

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is facing multiple accusations, notably his involvement in the Death Commission made up of four officials who gave the green light in 1988 to execute nearly 5,000 political dissidents. Most of those executed either belonged to the leftist movement or opposed  the rule of Velayat-e Faqih. They were executed based on  a fatwa issued by the then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini who accused them of being linked to  the People’s  Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMO). It is worth noting  that the elderly, children and women  were among the victims of the massacre  carried out by the Iranian government  in a period of no more than three months.

Further, Raisi  played a key role  in the systematic crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement protestors. This crackdown was legitimized by the judicial system and was executed by the deep state resulting in the repression and killing of protestors. Raisi also took part in cracking down on the protestors who participated in the 2019 uprising. Protesters were sentenced to death on  various charges including espionage and “spreading corruption on Earth.” Many  judicial cases in Iran have provoked international rebuke.  The last of these cases was the execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam in a trial described as unfair because it was based on coerced confessions.

 The United States as the main global power — supported  by the Europeans — counts itself as a custodian of freedom and human rights.   Iran has always been accused of engaging in human rights violations, particularly by the United States, supported by US media outlets and public opinion.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the United States is chiefly concerned with great power conflicts of interest, whereas regional conflicts are of less importance. The focus of the last three US administrations was on waging wars to cement their hegemony —whether openly or secretly — with the  intent to stand up against  the Chinese dragon’s plan to dominate all global markets and contain  its global ambitions to prevent it from  controlling the East Asian region. This is in addition to countering its  Russian foe, which has started  to blackmail the West  via cyber skirmishes and creating political standoffs.

Even if one was to accept  the  premise that the US administration has its own priorities,  the following questions remain valid:   should Washington  aim to justify its potential interactions with Iranian President-elect  Ebrahim Raisi who is blacklisted by the US State Department for his human rights violations?   Is the Biden administration and  its European allies  aware of the  probable backlash which will  result from their foreign policy choices?   These questions are raised in light of the  ongoing Vienna  talks and Biden’s senior officials insisting on a  return to  the nuclear deal — even if this entails Washington lifting  some of the sanctions imposed on Iran.  This would be at the expense of defending human rights and  democratic beliefs.  

Definitely, the US administration does not act but in accordance with a pragmatic strategy. Hence, it in has some goals that it ultimately wants to achieve from  its negotiations with Iran. This can be inferred from the harsh tone in the recent remarks made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who threatened that the United States may pull out of the talks.  “There are some very significant differences that remain.  I can’t tell you whether we’ll succeed in overcoming those differences.  It mostly depends on decisions that are made in Tehran by the supreme leader,” Blinken said in an interview with RAI TG1.

Biden is in no need for direct contact with the Iranian president-elect because Iran’s final say regarding the talks rests with the head of state,  the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Yet, electing a president with a hardline ideological background from a circle loyal to the supreme leader  favors the Western negotiators because it cuts their road short.  Negotiations have been  oscillating between the  indications of diplomatic officials and the actions of the  actual decision-makers in Iran, i.e. the “hardliners.”

Undoubtedly, Khamenei has complete control over Iran’s sensitive foreign policy issues and its nuclear program.  He took great care to ensure Raisi takes over the executive branch.   He did this by assigning the Guardian Council — the  body tasked with  qualifying or disqualifying presidential candidates — to vet and disqualify all political rivals except for some  lightweight candidates.

Probably, the intervention of the supreme leader in this regard is to a great extent justified for a host of motives,  namely:  his need for a president who is not stubborn and his quest to prepare the ground for Raisi to possibly succeed him as Iran’s supreme leader. At the strategic level, the supreme leader’s decision  will lead to multiple ramifications, primarily:  raising tensions and discontent at home and pushing Iranian society towards further dissatisfaction.  This was apparent in the low voter turnout that  fell short of 50 percent of  Iran’s total eligible voters. It is worth noting that 12.88 percent of the voters cast blank ballots, which were hence rendered null and void.

In the same vein, Khamenei’s decision to choose Raisi may be driven by his desire  to dissuade the West from negotiating over  Iran’s ballistic missile program. This naturally dents the quest  of the US administration and its European allies to  revive the nuclear deal which they justified on the basis of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb although  Tehran enriched uranium at 20 percent and more only after the Biden administration was inaugurated. This was because Tehran was quite confident that Washington would want to restart the nuclear talks.

Anyway,  any interaction with Iran’s president-elect  will complicate — for Biden and his allies — the plans to build   on the provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal. Moreover, it  will hinder  their efforts to fulfil their promises to reach  a settlement, which will extend the existing agreement and address its  flaws, whether  related to Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for militias that have destabilized the region.  

On the other side, the European parties have been  criticized for not  giving significant attention to  the issue of regional stability, which is having a knock-on-effect on their own national security, compared to the attention they give to issues related to  their economic interests.  The United States focuses on the calculations needed to  deter China and  enable its NATO allies to counter  Russia’s threats. Further,  returning to the  containment policy  adopted by former US President Barack Obama and betting  on “internal change” in Iran  proved to be unsuccessful.   Therefore, the likelihood of this policy  succeeding  under the Biden administration is questionable.    

It is hard for Europe to find a smooth path  for its routine attempts to improve  the domestic humanitarian situation in Iran. It usually tends to pressure the Iranian government by imposing economic sanctions on it in response to human rights violations. Things, however, will worsen as long as the head of the executive  branch himself is accused of involvement in crackdowns, killings and repressing dissents.  In parallel, perhaps it is hard to find a way out  of the crisis regarding detained dual nationals in Iran who the European governments believe have not been subject to fair trials.  They also believe that  these dual nationals have been  coerced into making false confessions through torture and brutal forms of interrogation.

Overall, the “hardliners’” winning  Iran’s presidency —  who are hostile to the West and spearhead the anti-Western factions —will place  the country  in Russia’s and China’s camp at the expense of rapprochement with the West. This is why Europe and the United States are interested in reviving the nuclear deal. But the new Iranian president — who is in  total  agreement with the IRGC’s and the Quds Force’s destabilizing policies — will complicate Western foreign policies towards Iran.

Sulaiman Hussain Alwadai
Sulaiman Hussain Alwadai
Researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)