Iran’s newly elected president, controversial firebrand cleric Ebrahim Raisi, took office on August 5. Elected in a tightly controlled contest in which many of his would-be contenders were eliminated by the Guardian Council’s vetting process, Raisi is taking over a country that has been subjected to fitful outbursts of unrest, backbreaking sanctions, vast economic mismanagement, an apathetic vaccination rollout, and increasing isolation from the West. At a time when Iran is in the throes of multiple overlapping crises, the incoming president will face some of the most formidable challenges the Islamic Republic has encountered since its birth in 1979. Despite the rhetoric, however, it should be clear that Raisi does not have concrete solutions to fix Iran’s problems. Instead, his rule will prioritize consolidation: above all, he wants to cement the Islamic Republic’s fragile control over the country by bringing in the deep state functions of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
A Consolidation of Power
As Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has experienced several health scares, higher echelons of power in the Islamic Republic have felt the need to chart these uncertain waters with the greatest possible cohesion, given that the survival of the regime may be at stake. Such cohesion is likely to be provided through the greater empowerment of the IRGC in Iranian politics. In other words, a conservative Supreme Leader, a conservative president, and an increasingly empowered Revolutionary Guards, the three pillars of the Islamic Republic, are more likely to provide the Islamic Republic with the policy coherence to face its most significant challenges. This sentiment was echoed by Abdollah Haji Sadeghi, Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC, who underlined the IRGC’s readiness to fully collaborate with the Raisi government.
Raisi’s close proximity to the IRGC is no secret, and it is already clear that his presidency will witness an even greater role for the Revolutionary Guards in politics. It should be kept in mind that the IRGC, with a military force of more than 100,000 handpicked soldiers, exists in parallel to Iran’s regular army and has spread its influence through all spheres of Iranians’ lives, maintaining deep influence on the economy and violently suppressing dissent. As Iran has been gripped with recurring protests of escalating intensity, the IRGC has deployed its forces to crush them, as it did during November 2019 protests. Since Raisi’s inauguration, most of the ministers he has picked have had ultraconservative backgrounds. The new Minister of Interior is IRGC General Ahmad Vahidi, one of the founders of the Ministry of Intelligence and a former IRGC Quds Force Commander. Furthermore, nearly half of the list presented to Parliament by Raisi were members of former conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government between 2005 and 2013.
To the extent that moderate factions still exist within Iran, they have been fully sidelined. The Iranian public has grown increasingly disillusioned with the moderate factions of the regime, and despite the reformists’ largely loyal stance to the regime throughout the protest movements of the last few years, the slightest specter of disagreement with the conservative forces at the helm of Iran represents a danger to the regime’s stability at this critical juncture.
If anything, Raisi has openly repudiated the administration of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, widely viewed as a moderate within Iran’s political system. Raisi has blamed Rouhani for a host of problems that the country has been afflicted with, claiming that “public trust has been marred” in the existing political elite of the country. Raisi also blamed Rouhani for the bleak economic situation, as well as for signing a nuclear deal with the United States and the major powers, only for President Donald Trump to abandon it and reimpose sanctions in 2018.
No Choice for the Public
Despite a historically low turnout at Raisi’s controversial election, Raisi has insisted that his electoral win represents a desire on the part of the people for “a change in the status quo”. Despite these words, the new president’s modus operandi for dealing with the nation’s most intractable problems appears to emphasize rhetorical content over practical solutions. While Raisi has acknowledged that Iran indeed faces serious economic problems, his suggested solution is that the nation must follow an autarchic resistance economy, through which Iran can have the potential to be self-sustaining and can eventually put an end to its reliance on oil. These policy prescriptions derive from Khamenei’s “Second Step Manifesto”, which recommends a resistance economy, seemingly at the expense of the greater prosperity that would result from free trade. Raisi also vowed to end corruption in the country through an operational roadmap for transparency. Here, at least, an element of rational thinking slips in; despite the ongoing tense negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program, Raisi understands that U.S. sanctions on Iran must be lifted in order to at least partially improve the economy.
On other issues, Raisi has faced major challenges. The sluggish vaccination rollout, which has exposed Iran to the fifth wave of coronavirus, has been complemented with a host of lockdown measures and a skyrocketing death toll, along with acute water and electricity shortages. Many of these issues are attributable to the pernicious influence of unelected bodies such as the IRGC and the Supreme Leader in politics. Khamenei, after all, banned the import of American and British vaccines, and while the ongoing drought is not entirely man-made, it was the IRGC which created the dramatic water shortages in restive provinces like Khuzestan through the construction of dams and poor water management. That the IRGC and the Supreme Leader will be working in greater coordination with the president will not be a panacea for the problems that these organs helped to create.
In a country where little is certain, it is a safe bet that the Raisi administration should be gearing up for more unrest to come. Constant unrest has been a major component of life in Iran for the past several years. From widespread labour strikes in various spheres of industry in the country to water protests in Khuzestan to electricity protests in Tehran, Iranians are indignant with the status quo. Added to this is the pent-up anger from November 2019, when the Islamic Republic killed more than 1500 protesters during the IRGC crackdown.
The Raisi administration can outwardly express its enthusiasm to tackle Iran’s deeply seated socio-economic problems. However, in the absence of clear-cut and reasonable solutions, unrest will continue to proliferate, and the Raisi administration is likely to resort to continued repression in greater coordination with the IRGC, paving the way for further unrest and more violence.
Vahid Yücesoy is a PhD candidate in Political Science/International Relations at Université de Montréal, Canada. He is a specialist of Iranian and Turkish politics and political economy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.