Ebrahim Raisi is not a man who can boast the legitimacy of having been chosen by Iranians. In a semi-open contest four years ago he was humiliatingly defeated, and won this year only after Khamenei had secured the ejection of all other viable candidates. Writes Baria Alamuddin
I have long been of the opinion that it matters little who is president in Iran. It is a question of style over substance. Whether Iran promotes the greasy, dishonest smiles of Javad Zarif and Hassan Rouhani, or the angry bluster of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it is the same radical regime commanded by a supreme leader who believes himself to be spearheading a divinely guided war against the world.
However, even for a skeptic such as I, the appointment (let’s not say election) of Ebrahim Raisi represents a dangerous new chapter.
As Khomeini and Khamenei’s “enforcer,” this man has the blood of thousands of Iranians on his hands. It was to him they turned when copious quantities of innocent blood needed to be shed. In his career at the pinnacle of Iran’s judiciary he sanctioned brutal crackdowns in 2009 and during the 1980s and 1990s, and handeddown death sentences for teenagers. When questioned, Raisi boasted that his 1988 blood-drenched orgy of thousands of summary executions of young political prisoners was “one of the proud achievements of the system.”
Why are American and European diplomats tying themselves in knots over how to engage with Raisi’s regime? Ultimately it is the Iranian regime’s problem if the figurehead they choose to represent them on the world stage is a mass murderer. What message does it send Iranians if the world engages with a detested figure who has killed so many of them? Little wonder that the world scarcely registers the genocide of Syrians, Ethiopians, the Uighur and the Rohingya, and the butchering of Afghans by the Taliban as America flees for the exit. Have we no shame in failing to enforce basic standards for governments who exterminate their citizens?
Raisi is not a man who can boast the legitimacy of having been chosen by Iranians. In a semi-open contest four years ago he was humiliatingly defeated, and won this year only after Khamenei had secured the ejection of all other viable candidates.
For the first time in eight years, all the regime’s power centers — the Majlis, the Revolutionary Guards, the government, the judiciary — are in harmony, in the hands of hardliners. Raisi himself is an ideologue for exporting Khomeini’s revolution through terrorism and paramilitary aggression. This heralds a return to the expansionist, aggressive and fanatical Iran that has existed all along, but in recent years at least sought to conceal its rawest edges.
Raisi’s appointment matters because long before his presidential term is due to expire, Khamenei may already be roasting in hell. So this isn’t about acquiring the toothless position of president — this man is in the frame as supreme leader, poised to dominate Iran until he too drops dead, or the courageous Iranian people finally rid themselves of these predators. When demands for change inevitably erupt, Iran’s elite know that Raisi will zealously crush dissenting citizens like ants.
Raisi’s entire career has been premised on an aggressive refusal to compromise in implementing the Islamic Republic’s radical agenda. This is how we can expect him to govern; a strategy of maximalist confrontation. His complete lack of experience of the subtleties of international diplomacy makes him particularly dangerous. How will he react when Israel bombs Iranian military targets, or America cracks down against Iranian proxies in Iraq? All bets are off.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is hurrying to restore the nuclear deal before Raisi’s inauguration in August. This is not a sensible strategy because it puts pressure on the Americans to make all the concessions, while negotiators like Zarif will have no mandate for compromise. Key provisions of the Iran deal are set to expire, meaning that Raisi can continue creeping toward breakout capacity.
Just as Barack Obama found in 2015, the cost of sealing a deal will be to go soft on all other aspects of Tehran’s criminal and terrorist behavior, to avoid giving hardliners a pretext to renounce the deal. Who can forget those US officials who energetically persuaded banks and corporations to reengage with Tehran, even after it became obvious that unfrozen funds and new revenue streams were being diverted for terrorism?
The Raisi regime will reap the material benefits of the deal, but can also make political capital out of denouncing and disowning it. We can already imagine European diplomats running around like headless chickens trying to salvage the deal at all costs, whatever Raisi does or says.
Biden should instead patiently await Raisi and force him into a deal that he must personally endorse. It isn’t America whose economy is collapsing under the weight of accumulated sanctions. It isn’t America suffering chronic international isolation. It isn’t America (this time) that has chosen a lunatic with a fanatical worldview as president. If Iran’s hardliners aren’t willing to voluntarily relinquish their nuclear ambitions, then a more decisive approach will become necessary, but any attempts to beg and cajole an extremist such as Raisi to do the right thing will inevitably backfire.
When Raisi was asked whether he would meet Biden, he spat out his response with contemptible disdain. Likewise, the prospect of curbing Iran’s missile programs or reducing its vast expenditure on overseas paramilitary armies was given short shrift. Why are America and the West, along with Russia and China, going out of their way to normalize a regime that doesn’t want to be normalized?
Targeting Iranian propaganda outlets is a smart move that shows Iran it has more to lose by embarking on cyberwarfare and disinformation, but let’s see this matched with other smart policies that remind the regime how isolated and friendless it is on the world stage. This includes preventing Iran from shipping military equipment to rogue states such as Venezuela in America’s own backyard.
Before rushing to appease and conduct deals — behaving like business as usual — Biden should observe how Raisi intends to govern. Four years ago an incoming President Trump tore up a nuclear deal that he had no role in writing and saw no benefits in abiding by. If we don’t want a comparably unhinged incoming Iranian president behaving in a similar manner, particularly one responsible for rivers of blood gushing through the streets of Tehran, let’s not rush into something we will regret.
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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