Commentary. Breaking down the domestic and international consequences of Ebrahim Raisi's victory in the presidential elections. Power in Tehran will soon be concentrated in the hands of the ultra-conservatives.

Iran’s ultra-conservatives enter the ring, giving new urgency to nuclear deal

With these elections, Iran has re-entered the great game of global conflicts. All the power is in the hands of the hardliners of the Islamic Republic as never before: this is what the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the presidential elections, a foregone conclusion, ultimately means. The ultra-conservatives had already obtained a majority in last year’s parliamentary elections, they already firmly control the judiciary, they are supported militarily by the Pasdaran and under the direction of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the final authority for every decision. With Raisi, they have now closed the circle of power.

There are two consequences, one internal, the other international. The Supreme Leader, 82 years old, easily managed to place Raisi, a former head of the judiciary, at the head of the government, and he is also spoken about as his possible successor. The moderates and reformists, whose main figure was the outgoing President Hassan Rohani, were swept away even before the vote with the disqualification of their candidates by the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution. The result was set up in advance as never before, and never has the electorate gone to the polls so disillusioned, affected by the economic crisis, the pandemic and the lack of any change.

What does Raisi’s victory mean for the nuclear negotiations that are taking place in Vienna? There are those who argue that a government in the grip of the hardliners will have greater room for maneuver than that of the moderate Rohani, who after two terms and eight years in office will finally exit the scene on August 3. It was Rohani, along with Foreign Minister Zarif, who had concluded the 2015 agreement with the Obama administration that led to the temporary lifting of part of the economic and financial sanctions. The agreement, despite the Supreme Leader’s green light, was then strongly criticized by the ultra-conservatives, and Rohani was incessantly accused of trusting the United States too much. Under pressure from Israel, that agreement was then torn up by Trump in 2018, who in January 2020 ordered the drone killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Now, the chances of an understanding in Vienna may become more concrete. But there are two possibilities. The first is that the negotiations—in which the U.S. is not participating directly—will be accelerated by Rohani before he leaves the scene. The second is that everything will be postponed until after Raisi takes office. At this moment, the parties are under pressure: Rohani is now in his last days in office. But Biden is feeling the pressure as well, as he would like an agreement on the U.S.’s terms and must take into account the enormous pressure being exerted by Washington’s Middle Eastern allies, from Israel to the Gulf monarchies—some of which are part of the Abrahamic Pact—who are asking the U.S. for concrete results on Tehran’s missile program and the containment of pro-Iranian militias in the region, from Iraq to Syria, from the Lebanese Hezbollah to the Houthi in Yemen.

The latter is a key point, and this is proven by the fact that the Israelis are bombing the Pasdaran positions in Syria on an almost-daily basis, news that is usually glossed over in the media, which is ignoring the fact that Tel Aviv is waging its daily creeping war on Iran both with air raids and with the infiltration of agents and attacks on the nerve centers of the Iranian system (some details were recently revealed on TV by former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen).

The hardline wing of the regime is faced with two choices, one strategic and the other tactical. The strategic one regards whether or not it’s worth it to reach an agreement to have the sanctions lifted, which is not as obvious as it seems. But the tactical choice could also be an interesting one for the new Raisi government. Khamenei, Raisi and the Pasdaran might decide to let Rohani make the deal before he leaves the scene, so that he can take responsibility for the deal, and then enjoy the positive economic aftermath from the lifting or easing of sanctions. The Biden administration, in turn, could be tempted by an agreement with Iran with a view to reducing the American commitment in the Middle East, but also because Teheran could then re-enter the international oil and financial markets, partially abandoning the agreements with China, today vital for the survival of the Islamic Republic.

In the spring, Beijing and Tehran stepped up the pace, signing a 25-year comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement. In the last year and a half, Iran has sold China an average of over 300,000 barrels of oil per day, while the cooperation pact could provide a $400 billion inflow of Chinese capital to Iran’s moribund industry. Not to mention that in 2019, China, Iran and Russia conducted unprecedented joint military exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean, a move that raised serious concerns in Washington.

That’s why Iran is part of the “big game” launched by Biden at the G-7 and NATO summits: the global challenge against China. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

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