Iran to Swear In New President as Unease Grows Over Nuclear Deal

Iran to Swear In New President as Unease Grows Over Nuclear Deal

Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration is set to consolidate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s control over the Islamic Republic

For the first time in years, all branches of power in Iran are set to fall under the control of hard-liners when a protégé of the supreme leader is sworn in as president, bolstering their power and adding to growing unease that the Islamic Republic’s relations with the West could worsen.

President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, 60 years old, studied as a young man at one of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Islamic seminaries. He also served on a panel that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners. Later, he moved up through the ranks to lead Iran’s judiciary.

His inauguration Thursday, after an election in which most of his rivals were disqualified, is set to consolidate power among hard-line loyalists of Mr. Khamenei just as Iran and the West are attempting to revive a deal that limits Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

It is expected to be a significant shift from the past three decades. Iran’s recent presidents, regardless of their political bent, often staked out their own policy priorities, though the supreme leader always had the final say on vital matters of state, such as the nuclear program.

Analysts say Mr. Khamenei, 82, instead appears to be focused on curtailing infighting and preserving what he sees as the tenets of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as he ages and Iran’s sanctions-hit economy comes under growing pressure.

“Khamenei is taking a gamble,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East program at Chatham House, a think tank. “For 30 years he has been a balancer. Now he just needs to get things done.”

The to-do list is long, topped by the need to rework the nuclear deal.

First signed in 2015, the agreement provides sanctions relief in return for Iran limiting the scope of its nuclear program, which it says is focused on developing nuclear energy. The Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions. Unable to sell oil, Iran’s economy contracted 6% in 2018 and 6.7% in 2019, before recovering slightly to post a modest 1.6% growth rate last year. Since sanctions were reimposed, Iran’s currency has fallen 80% against the dollar.

At the same time, Iran has pushed a maximum-pressure campaign of its own, coming closer than ever to producing weapons-grade uranium and taking a more aggressive military stance across the Middle East. The U.S. and other countries accuse it of attacking ships in the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s support for pro-Tehran militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen has brought it into sharper conflict with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Attempts by American and Iranian diplomats to find a way to bring the U.S. back into the nuclear agreement after President Biden entered the White House, though, have stalled.

Messrs. Khamenei and Raisi support the effort to get them back on track. But talks in Vienna, which began in April, are stalemated after six rounds of negotiations, hindered in part by the transition of power in Tehran and rifts with Washington over which sanctions to lift and how to ensure Iran complies with the agreement.

Mr. Khamenei recently blamed the departing government for placing too much stock in diplomacy, saying last week that “trusting the West will not work as they are not going to help us and they will strike a blow whenever they can.”

With Mr. Raisi serving as Mr. Khamenei’s go-between, talks with Iran could likely prove trickier for the West than they were with his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. If an agreement with the U.S. and West is secured, it will likely be limited in reach and punctuated by periods of protracted confrontation, analysts say. An early indication is whether Mr. Raisi will appoint another hard-liner as his foreign minister.

“Raisi’s election is really a signal that Iran is less interested in meaningfully engaging with the West in the future,” said Mahsa Rouhi, a research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University with expertise in Iran’s security strategy.

There are also differences among Western governments over how to approach Iran, particularly after a weekend drone attack on a merchant vessel widely blamed on Iran and which killed two European citizens. The European Union sent one of its top officials, Enrique Mora, who has coordinated the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, to Tehran for Mr. Raisi’s inauguration, causing friction with other European powers that advised against it, two senior diplomats said.

U.S. officials were made aware in advance of Mr. Mora’s trip. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran.

Mr. Khamenei rose to the supreme leadership when revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989. Lacking his predecessor’s charisma, Mr. Khamenei consolidated power by placing hundreds of officials loyal to him in the armed forces, universities, government ministries and religious institutions with instructions to report back to his office.

Mr. Raisi, who is from the same town as Mr. Khamenei, Mashhad, was one of his key lieutenants. He oversaw the finances of one of the country’s largest charities and business conglomerates, helping to strengthen Mr. Khamenei’s grip before moving up through the country’s judiciary with the supreme leader’s support.

“I see Raisi as a proxy for Khamenei,” said Ms. Vakil. “Khamenei for the first time in 30 years has a mirror image of himself in the executive branch.”

If Mr. Raisi is a proxy, he is one with a weak mandate and faces growing dissent at home. He won June’s election on a turnout of 43% after millions of Iranians boycotted the vote in protest at the disqualification of all viable challengers. In 2017, Mr. Rouhani was elected with 73% of the electorate casting a vote.

A worsening economy and poor governance have already sparked pockets of protest, and there is widespread disillusionment with Tehran’s handling of Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak, the worst so far in the Middle East by cases per population.

Crowds across the southwestern provinces of Khuzestan took to the streets last month to protest water shortages, some chanting “Death to Khamenei” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic.” Smaller protests erupted in other parts of the country. At least eight protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.

Workers at more than 100 factories, including petrochemical facilities, have been on strike since July in protest at poor working conditions and insecure contracts, while hundreds of people were killed in a crackdown by security forces as protesters rallied against austerity measures.

Mr. Khamenei is aware of widening hostility to his rule, said Yaser Mirdamadi, an Iranian expert on Islamic studies at the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies. But Iran’s supreme leader is more concerned about the risks of opening a political system built around the clerical-led government he helped establish.

“He is not willing to reconsider his revolutionary position so he limits his circle of power,” Mr. Mirdamadi said.

The cost might be that whoever follows Mr. Khamenei as supreme leader faces a sharp fall in public trust, potentially jeopardizing the revolution he has tried to sustain.

“Khamenei has reduced the base of government, which is always a danger,” said Arash Azizi, an expert on the Iranian military. “If you don’t have the consent of the governed to a significant degree, governance becomes impossible, you can get overthrown, you can collapse.”

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