Iran’s elections and their result – a decisive victory for Ebrahim Raisi - open a worrying new chapter in the country’s history. They demonstrate the failure of US sanctions policy. Failure, that is, if the intention was to force Iran to become a more amenable member of the international community. Trump ended all hopes of that by reneging of the nuclear treaty and imposing devastating sanctions. The window of opportunity for Iranians to loosen theocratic repression, the promise of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms, has closed.
The political legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution is a strange, indeed unique, hybrid of clerical rule under a Supreme Leader operating through his Guardian Council, and the institutions of popular sovereignty with an elected Parliament and President. Iran developed parallel political systems, two sets of hands on the tiller, two political elites. But it is the clerics within the religious system, elbowing their way to economic and political power, eliminating their rivals in a fashion reminiscent of the French revolution, vetting access to key public office, who have retained ultimate control. Distinguished service in the revolution, in the terrible Iraq-Iran war from 1980-1988 and within the Supreme Leader’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or links to the new State’s founder and Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, open the way to membership of this clerical power club.
But the USA and the UK underestimate the influence of history on their relations with Iran. The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941, forcing the German-leaning Prime Minister, Reza Shah Palavi to resign, set a precedent. The UK/CIA coup of 1953 got rid of Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddegh, a reformist offering hopes of a democratic future who had the audacity to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – later BP. The coup brought to power the last Shah. The West supported him and his SAVAK torturers against Iranians seeking change. And lastly, as a reaction to the hostage crisis during the revolution, the West backed Saddam Hussein and Iraq against Iran, a war which cost an estimated one million Iranian lives.
When you travel from Tehran to the great mausoleum for Ayatollah Khomeini you pass acres of war cemeteries filled with the graves of young men, the ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq war, poignant photographs on their head-stones. When you meet anyone over-sixty a persistent cough is not a symptom of COVID but a long-lasting effect of Saddam Hussein’s mustard gas whose chemical precursors came from European factories. Yet ordinary Iranians well able to distinguish between governments and their citizens show visitors the customary warmth and hospitality of the Middle East.
Iranians today are living, and have been living, under a sanctions regime so severe it amounts to a form of war on the civilian population. An attack less damaging only than outright warfare itself. Soraya Lennie in her recent book Crooked Alleys Deliverance and Despair in Iran tells the stories of individual lives interwoven with the changes in the revolutionary regime. Her account of the daily pressures of sanctions, desperate relatives travelling to the United Arab Emirates to buy vital medication, Iran’s civil aviation falling apart for want of spare-parts and new airplanes, targeted assassinations by Israel and the USA, spiralling inflation, unemployment, protest and harsh repression, illuminates daily life and brings us close to the experience of ordinary Iranians.
Sanctions are a double-edged sword. They generate economic crisis which heightens popular resistance to government in Iran just as it would anywhere. The Arab-Spring-like ‘Green Movement’ of dissent, suppressed in 2009, brought two to three million onto the streets. Its leaders remain under house arrest. But the impact of sanctions also strengthen the hand of the hardliners looking for any stick with which to beat political leaders promising even the mildest of reforms. The volume of chants ‘death to America’ increase and contact with US diplomats and the West become almost treasonable. In the delicate balance betwen the two political systems, theocrats and reformist pragmatists, the reformists lose out. Before the elections, the Monitoring Agency of the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council was able to disqualify all but seven of the 592 proposed names. Theocracy selects then democracy elects the selected. For this reason many, despairing of change, have shunned the polls or spoilt their ballots.
It is widely assumed that the victorious Sayeed Ebrahim Raisi has his sights set on becoming Supreme Leader when 82 year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he is close, dies. At the moment he is only a Hojjat-al-Islam, a rank below Ayatollah. In the 1980s and 1990s he was Tehran’s deputy-prosecutor. A junior member of the ‘Death Commission’ he was complicit in mass executions that went on for five months in 1988. Thousands of imprisoned Mujahedin-al-Khalq (Iranian revolutionaries who supported Iraq in the war), members of the communist Party, Tudeh, and other political prisoners were shot or hanged. For this reason he is amongst those personally sanctioned by the USA, complicating further future relationships.
The new President was born in the holy city of Mashad, site of the important shrine of Imam Reza, the seventh Imam of Shi’a Islam and descendant of the Prophet. In 2016 Raisi gained control of its bountiful bonyad, a Shi’a charitable foundation, a ‘sprawling for-profit conglomerate’ worth at least $15 billion, controlling thousands of businesses, thus advancing his religious and networking credentials. Since his defeat in the 2017 elections, Raisi has used his Mashad base in the Ravasi-Khorasan Province of North East Iran to stir up opposition to Rouhani. Significantly, the Supreme Leader, who also controls the judiciary, made him Chief Prosecutor in 2019.
Negotiations on the nuclear treaty (JPCOA) opposed by the US Republicans, Netanyahu’s Israel and the Iranian hard-liners, will not get easier. The five European signatory States to the treaty gamely tried to tread water, but their banks and big businesses were too frightened of repercussions from Trump’s America to risk continued trading with Iran. Raisi described the 2015 treaty positively as ‘a national document’ while campaigning in 2017 and supports its re-establishment. On the one hand, he badly needs sanctions lifted. A collapsing economy undermined Rouhani. On the other hand, Raisi’s hardliner support base treated Rouhani’s dealing with the USA as akin to treachery. Even moderates will not easily forgive the drone killing of the national hero, General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Trump’s master-stroke destroying any residual trust in the USA and bringing the two countries further down the path to conventional war. Conservative voters on Friday were turning up at polling booths with his picture.
The Revolutionary Guard will continue promoting pro-Iranian militias where it can and the Supreme National Security Council will stick to its policy of destabilising Iran’s enemies in order to protect its borders. It will take all of Jo Biden’s experience to reverse the weakening of nuclear containment and American influence wrought by his predecessor. Given Biden’s commitment to Israel, Iran cannot expect much sympathy. Biden’s ‘America is back’ is a great sound-bite but, on their side, Iranians will wonder ‘for how long?’
See TheArticle 19/06/2021