by Yaakov Lappin
July 19, 2021
The “election” of hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last month has raised concerns about future moves that the Islamic Republic’s real decision-makers – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – may take in the coming months.
Raisi takes office in August.
“Raisi’s election as next president of Iran is a clear testimony of Khamenei’s decision to make Iranian conduct more extreme regarding foreign policy, the nuclear program, and terror,” Ram Ben Barak, chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, tweeted soon after Raisi was declared president. Ben Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad, was likely summing up the view not just from Jerusalem, but also from the capitals of pragmatic Arab-Sunni states around the Middle East whose security and interests are directly threatened by Iran, its network of terrorist proxies, and determined drive to become a regional hegemon.
“The Iranian constitution is like the Soviet constitution. The final decision maker is the supreme leader,” Harold Rhode, a former long-time advisor on Islamic affairs to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism last week. “It has many nice-sounding ideas, but [it] has a clause which states that all power resides in the Supreme Leader. He makes the decisions. The rest is window dressing.”
“This is a position that does not exist in the West,” Rhode added. “The so-called elections were a sham, and the Iranian people know this is the case, which is why the turnout was so low.”
In May, Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council disqualified most of the presidential candidates – thousands of them – allowing seven candidates into the last stage. None were well known reformists.
According to Rhode, the Iranian regime is leveraging Raisi’s election to pressure the U.S. into agreeing to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA), which former President Donald Trump exited in 2018.
“The Iranians are now sending the message that the U.S. needs to sign the agreement, because when Raisi takes over, all hell will break loose. They’re squeezing the State Department, which wants to be squeezed so they can use the fear of Raisi to get the nuclear agreement the State Department so desperately wants,” said Rhode. “So in an odd way, the administration needed Raisi to scare us into signing an agreement as soon as possible – irrespective of what is in that agreement.”
Already, the president-elect has declared that he would not negotiate over limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for regional terrorist-armies stood up and nourished by the Islamic Republic across Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other locations.
Ultimately, said Rhode, the Iranian regime remains committed to a military nuclear program, despite its willingness to re-enter the JCPOA, since “they have seen that state that gets nuclear weapons can basically do what it wants.”
He described the regime as possessing a sophisticated diplomatic mechanism, and a patient outlook.
Rhode, who studied in Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, said Iranians opposed to their regime feel abandoned by the West, which is keen to sign a deal with an Iranian government headed by Raisi. “I am strongly opposed to military action in Iran, because the U.S. can get bogged down,” he said. “But there are things the U.S. can do to be disagreeable to the Iranian regime that do not include war. Currently, what the Iranian people see is that America does not support them. Why should they revolt under those circumstances? They’ll simply be murdered, and given America’s past history, it is likely that America will stand by and do nothing as the regime arrests or slaughters the Iranians who threaten the regime.”
Raisi’s last position was head of the Iranian judicial branch. He is notorious for his role in the Iranian “death committee,” which, at the end of the 1980s, sentenced thousands of Iranian opposition members to death, most of them from the Mojahedin e-Khelk organization.
Raisi came under American sanctions in 2019.
According to Rhode, the Iranian regime attempted to boost legitimacy for the elections by allowing overseas voting. According to the regime’s mouthpiece, the Tehran Times, 234 polling stations were set up in 133 countries.
“They wanted to increase the voting percentages – but they still failed,” said Rhode. “In addition, this was an effort by the regime to further infiltrate overseas Iranian communities, creating a lists of where expatriates live and who they are,” he added.
The 60-year-old ultra-conservative cleric was “voted” president after winning 62% of the vote, but despite Iran’s best efforts, voter turnout remained low – 48.7% – representing a low level of legitimacy granted to the process by the Iranian people, many of whom are also disappointed by the failure of the previous reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, to improve daily life for them.
Completing the hardline purge
The latest Iranian elections were unique due to the regime’s determination not to take “any chances” and ensure, ahead of time, that Raisi would win, Col. (res.) Ehud (Udi) Evental, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, wrote in a recent Hebrew-language analysis.
As a result, Iran conducted an “especially aggressive filtering” of presidential candidates via the Guardian Council, wrote Evental, who served as the head of the strategic planning unit of the Political-Military and Policy Bureau of the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Khamenei’s decision is the peak of his recent political purges, appointing ultra-hardliners, and clinging fervently to the radical concept of the Islamic revolution while ignoring Iranian public opinion, Evental argued.
Another consideration appears to be the regime’s determination to ensure that a successor is already in place to replace the 82-year-old Khamenei, who is reportedly sick with prostate cancer, he noted.
“The bottom line is that domestically, Raisi’s election as president completes the take-over by the right-wing conservative camp over all branches of the state – judicial, legislative, and now executive – with increasing repression of competing political streams,” said Evental.
This could signal an impending escalation in the Iranian hegemony drive in the region, which includes the core objective of weakening Israel, and ultimately destroying it, while surrounding it with radical terrorist proxies.
A return to its nuclear program, should it occur, is expected to provide Iran with significant funds for its regional proxy program, especially Hizballah, said Evental.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
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