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The hazards of the Iranian presidency

Similar to the wives of Henry VIII, Iranian presidents rarely have a happy ending. The first was murdered; the second, exiled; the third, now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, survived; but the fourth, fifth, and sixth were excluded from public life. The same fate seems to await the departing Seventh.

Power struggles between the Supreme Leader and the President have been an endemic problem in Iranian public life since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. They have been particularly pronounced in recent years; Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both had high-profile arguments with Khamenei. Their approaches to the West ended in humiliation, while their relatively liberal policies enabled massive protests in 1999, 2017 to 2018, and 2019 to 2020. On their right, the eccentric former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared little better for his personal ambition and lack of respect for Khamenei.

Similar to the wives of Henry VIII, Iranian presidents rarely have a happy ending. The first was murdered; the second, exiled; the third, now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, survived; but the fourth, fifth, and sixth were excluded from public life. The same fate seems to await the departing Seventh.

Power struggles between the Supreme Leader and the President have been an endemic problem in Iranian public life since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. They have been particularly pronounced in recent years; Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both had high-profile arguments with Khamenei. Their approaches to the West ended in humiliation, while their relatively liberal policies enabled massive protests in 1999, 2017 to 2018, and 2019 to 2020. On their right, the eccentric former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared little better for his personal ambition and lack of respect for Khamenei.

After this week's elections – assuming there is no runoff later this month – Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi will almost certainly become president; the Iranian people have little to say on this matter. It's not important because of what he's going to do, but because he's different from his predecessors. Instead of competing with Khamenei, he will be the perfect accomplice in Khamenei's plan to make the Islamic Republic of Iran more "Islamic" and less "republic".

In contrast to his predecessors – all of whom are professional politicians – Raisi is a bureaucrat with impeccable references. He is a sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; has a PhD in Islamic Law and was recently promoted to the rank of Ayatollah; is married to the daughter of a senior cleric friend of Khamenei; and joined the regime at the age of 20 and rose to the rank of Attorney General and Chief Justice. His hardliner references are also impressive. In 1988, Raisi, as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, helped sentence more than a thousand dissidents to death, which put him on the EU and US sanctions lists. Between 1997 and 2004, Raisi headed the Iranian anti-corruption agency and imprisoned several reformist allies of Khatami. He has been recognized by senior clergymen and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for his performance as a prosecutor. And now conservative politicians, publications and social media channels are closing in on his candidacy.

Khamenei has effectively manipulated the system in Raisi's favor, with the Guardian Council – which the Supreme Leader effectively controls – banning almost all reformist candidates in local, parliamentary and presidential elections. In some ways, this reflects the 2005 primaries. Then, as now, the perceived failures of the reformist Khatami, who ran on a platform for freedom of the press and better relations with the US, was followed by a conservative backlash that culminated in the election of Ahmadinejad, a “principleist” who reversed reforms and pursued a harsh one anti-American foreign policy. Before Ahmadinejad's victory, the principists swept the local and parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2004 after reformists were banned from running. In the 2005 presidential election, most reformists were again excluded, and it seems likely that the IRGC crammed ballot boxes to help Ahmadinejad, who spent the next eight years undoing Khatami's reforms.

As in 2005, Khamenei is paving the way for a principal to reverse eight years of reform. The disastrous economic results of Rouhani's presidency – caused in part by the U.S. decision in 2018 to reinstate sweeping sanctions – have eased Khamenei's attack on reformists. Unemployment has skyrocketed, GDP has fallen by more than 10 percent and the Iranian currency, the rial, has lost two-thirds of its value. Economic unrest sparked massive protests, which the Trump administration hailed.

With Khamenei ready to give up the last semblance of democracy, the principleists are ready to sweep the country. But unlike 2005, the shift in power to them will not be easily reversed.

Khamenei is now 82 years old and has prostate cancer. He probably wants to cement his legacy. This requires an end to the back and forth between principleists and reformists and the power struggle between the president and the supreme leader. It also requires isolating those under 30 – more than 60 percent of the population – from Gharbzadegi or "West Struckness". While Raisi would likely be a willing partner on such a project, his confidants are ahead of him; Its social media director recently proposed a bill criminalizing the use of virtual private networks and, ironically, multiple social media platforms.

Raisi's ambition is another incentive for him to participate in every Counter-Reformation. He has been offered as a potential successor to Khamenei for years, and it is worth noting that Khamenei succeeded his predecessor during his presidency in 1989 – at the same age as Raisi and with less impressive academic credentials. If elected, Raisi will likely use his term in office to appease the hard-line factions with influence over the succession, namely hard-line clerics and the IRGC. But no matter what he wants, he will – like Rouhani – be a peasant in a larger autocratic scheme planned without him.

Iran is of course already one of the worst autocracies in the world. But it could soon become even more autocratic. Since 2012 Iran has been working on creating a "halal internet" that is separate from the internet. Over the past year, the regime has demonstrated its ability to cut off individual provinces from the global Internet while retaining access to locally hosted websites. In the future, Iran could use this opportunity to ban web services like Google and Instagram as soon as a politically viable window opens. Iran is also reportedly set to expand domestic surveillance and buy about 10 million new surveillance cameras from China. In recent years, Khamenei has even discussed replacing English with Mandarin Chinese in Iranian schools in order to make Western culture inaccessible; the plan would likely be implemented if Iran did not have a critical shortage of Chinese teachers.

In the meantime, senior and experienced IRGC commanders and members of the Supreme National Security Council, who have always said harsh words to Rouhani, will no doubt be glad to get rid of him so they can pursue their agenda without internal resistance. The list of grim possibilities is long. The IRGC is free to increase pressure on the United States by attacking US assets in Iraq; Meddling in the upcoming elections in Iraq in October; Using a fake ceasefire in Yemen as a cover to allow Houthi rebels to take de facto control of the country, as was the case in 2014; and the expansion of political control over Lebanon through so-called economic aid. And if the nuclear deal with Iran is restored, Iranian funds to wreak havoc will be expanded as the country regains access to $ 120 billion in frozen foreign exchange reserves or hundreds of millions of dollars in daily oil revenues. The regime could be further strengthened in 2023 after a UN ban on Iranian missile tests, as well as a series of additional sanctions and a freeze on the export of advanced missile technology to Iran, expires.

Raisi's election will strengthen factions in Iran that see the Iranian revolution as an ongoing task that needs to be consolidated domestically and expanded abroad. Even if Raisi himself is not actively participating in this Counter-Reformation – and it seems he will – he will at least enable the destruction of the opposition and the creation of an iron cage that will house the Biden government, his own government and possibly. even outlasts Khamenei itself.

It is too early to say whether Raisi will follow in Khamenei's footsteps to become the top leader as the one-time exception in the unfortunate track record of Iranian presidents. But right now it seems he has the support – and is ready to appease them – from the powerful factions that could potentially bring him down. That bodes well for his power. But it is a bad sign for Iran's reformists and its young people who will continue to be exhausted. The panoptic dictatorship they hope to move from will treat them harsher. And although the Biden government seems to have lukewarm hopes of détente with the Iranian regime, it is now becoming an even more formidable enemy. Raisi will make this possible, while the nuclear deal with Iran, with its lush financial relief and phase-out clauses, will make Raisi possible. It's a grim prospect.

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