When a country’s autocratic leader changes, the process of selecting a new leader can bring about a fundamental change in the nation’s political system. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a political structure that is deeply dependent on an individual position called the “Supreme Leader”.
Based on its 1979 constitution, the Supreme Leader is the highest political office in Iran. After him, the President is the second leading official who, in the event of the death or inability of the Supreme Leader to perform his legal duties, assumes his responsibilities until a successor to the Supreme Leader is elected. Therefore, the 2021 presidential election in Iran could become critical for the transfer of power in the event of the death or resignation of the Supreme Leader during the next presidential term, due to the old age of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
Raisi and Iranians’ Thirst for Reform
In general, the change of Iran’s Supreme Leader after three decades could have a profound impact, both on Iran domestically and across the broader Middle East. Ever since the 2009 Iranian presidential election was marred by allegations of electoral fraud by supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s Green Movement, the Guardian Council (tasked with approving presidential candidates) has refused to confirm the nomination of any explicitly reformist leaders for the presidential election. While Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, slipped through, in 2021, the only group with any meaningful share in the election was the “hardliner” fundamentalists, the most prominent of whom was President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the Judiciary chief who ultimately won the election. Raisi has both the necessary conditions to influence the appointment of a successor to the current Supreme Leader of Iran: he is both a mujtahid (cleric) and the first deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts (the Assembly that elects the Supreme Leader of Iran). This position allows Raisi to either attempt to succeed Khamenei himself, or else play the role of kingmaker in determining the next Supreme Leader.
The 2009 election was a turning point of governing in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This momentous event caused upheaval throughout Iran. It also played a key role in inspiring an all-encompassing regional movement; two years later, the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, expressing many of the same themes as Iran’s 2009 protests. According to Azadi Andisheh, “The Green Movement was a reflection of the formation of a new imagination in Iranian society, whose main demand was respect for the rule of law, individual and collective rights and freedoms in the public sphere, and transparency and democracy.”
According to Charles Kurzman, the Green Movement was not the only main motive for the Arab Spring, but was one of several sources of inspiration for the Arab Spring. The Green Movement’s influence on the Arab Spring shows how developments in Tehran can extend their effects to the Arab world and beyond. Conversely, Raisi’s victory in the 2021 election could lead to a future Supreme Leader who shares his ideological convictions. The new leader’s worldview will also impact the future of Iran’s foreign policy, national security approach, and regional activities. In other words, based on the contents of the leaked audio recording of Javad Zarif, “Militarism” is likely to prevail over “Diplomacy” in Iran’s approaches.
Geopolitical Vagueness After Raisi’s Election
The near-complete dependence of Saudi Arabia on the United States, alongside the growing dependence of Iran on China and Russia, shows the pivotal influence of foreign actors over rulers in the Middle East. The Russians, for example, will do their utmost to keep pragmatic Iranian officials who support engagement with the West, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the political arena as much as possible. Evidence of this claim includes the suspected leaking of a secretly recorded interview with Zarif, in which he candidly spoke of the Iranian government’s shortcomings, just as the registration opened for candidates in the 2021 presidential election. This incident led to Khamenei’s annoyance with the foreign minister, effectively killing his chance for the presidency. In another example, according to the reports of the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency, following the victory of the hardliners in the 2019 parliamentary election, in the first eight months after the inauguration of the new parliament, the Russian ambassador and the Chinese ambassador respectively met with senior Iranian parliamentary officials nine and six times, suggesting attempts to secure influence within the Islamic Republic.
Therefore, the presidency of Raisi, who will play a vital role in electing Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor, could upset the trans-regional and international balance. Geostrategic importance, the poor economic and political situation, and the international isolation of Iran have made it an attractive partner for both China and Russia. Conversely, Iran’s central location gives it outsized influence over the security of Europe, due to its geographical proximity, and the United States, due to its vital interests in the Middle East.
In the analysis of Iranian political culture, Emad Afrough, an Iranian sociologist, argued that, “When Iranians run away from something, they often do so based on rational behavior, but when they are interested in something, they often make decisions based on just their feelings.” The manifestation of this behavior is visible in the last three elections in Iran. However, although Raisi won the election, the election’s lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran indicates a considerable loss of real legitimacy; the low participation among Iranians shows that they were very dissatisfied with the way the elections were held, especially with the overtly partisan approach of the Guardian Council. Even the most active provinces in the 2017 elections, such as Yazd, Fars and Tehran, decreased their turnout in the recent election considerably, from 93.4%, 71.64%, and 66.2% to 57.9%, 48%, and 34.38%, respectively.
Probably in the future, the replacement of the current leader, Ayatollah Khamenei with Ebrahim Raisi, or others from Iranian hardliner will further exacerbate the legitimacy crisis of the Iranian political system. Moreover, government failure, systematic corruption, elite rejection, severe recession, negative economic growth, and disregard for social freedoms will almost certainly lead to a “decline of democracy” in Iran. Such a decline is the ultimate Achilles heel for the Iranian political system, either under Supreme Leader Khamenei or a future successor. If the people’s demands for improved conditions are not met, a socio-political implosion, or even another revolution in Iran, is not unlikely. In addition, as noted earlier, the prospect of a hardliner successor to the leadership could have a profound effect on Iran’s foreign and security-military policy, making Iran’s geopolitical approach more aggressive and consequently more isolated. This will also affect the world powers and their interests in the region. All considered, a changing Iran has the potential to reshape the Middle East for decades to come – but not necessarily for the better.
Farzin Zandi is a geopolitical analyst and an Iranian international affairs journalist. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.