Published in the Jerusalem Post.
Iran’s new president may become its next supreme leader.
Much has been written about Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who has been branded as a hard-liner compared to the departing “moderate” President Rouhani, and how he will influence Iran’s return to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear agreement). Raisi had earned the hard-liner status by playing a pivotal role in executing thousands of opposition prisoners in 1988 as part of the Death Committee. During the Green Revolution in 2009, he brutally suppressed the protesters who attempted to throw off the shackles of the repressive Islamic government, while the Obama administration pointedly ignored their struggle.
But the American designation of any Iranian government official as a moderate is not only false but dangerous. Rouhani was never a moderate. He was the most moderate hard-liner tolerated by the Guardian Council in 2013 that approved presidential candidates and which the supreme leader controls. Hundreds of Iranians try to enter the presidential race each cycle, but only those vetted to be reliably obedient to the leadership of the “revolution” are allowed to become candidates.
As the Foundation for Democracies’ Iran expert Reuel Gerecht has said, “Rouhani is one of the architects of the national security state [in Iran]. He’s got so much blood on his hands, he’ll never be able to wash it off.”
Back to Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-liner of hard-liners who was elected to his first term as president. The former head of the judiciary is not opposed to rejoining the JCPOA, as long as he, the supreme leader, and the leadership of the IRGC can get sanctions relief to reverse the devastating effects on the regime of the Trump-era sanctions. They are all quite cognizant and satisfied that they will be returning to basically the same deal that guarantees Iran an industrial-size nuclear program with international approval in less than 10 years. We should hire the Iranians to help us negotiate with the Chinese.
What makes this election so consequential is that Raisi is not only close to Ayatollah Khamenei but is also the likely favorite of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which chooses the next supreme leader. Raisi is close to the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which acts more and more as a state within a state, with disproportionate and growing influence. Khamenei would like his son to follow him as supreme leader, but he does not get to choose his successor.
According to CNBC, “In 2019, Saeid Golkar of Al Jazeera called Raisi “the most likely successor of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” as supreme leader of Iran. In 2020, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times described him as “frequently mentioned” as a successor to Khamenei.”
That makes Raisi’s influence as president more consequential than Rouhani’s ever was. Unlike when Khamenei criticized Rouhani over the JCPOA and the re-imposition of sanctions by Trump, there are likely to be far fewer public disagreements between the ailing supreme leader, the IRGC, and President Raisi.
According to the Atlantic Council’s Iran expert Raz Zimmt, “Raisi’s presidency may be characterized by a higher level of coordination with the supreme leader’s office because, unlike former presidents, Raisi expresses positions that are even more aligned to Khamenei’s views on domestic and foreign issues. Similarly, Khamenei seems to have a clear interest in ensuring Raisi’s success as president – assuming the former truly considers the latter a leading candidate to succeed him.”
Raisi’s job will be made infinitely easier as the Biden administration is already chomping at the bit to return to the JCPOA and celebrate a return to the JCPOA as an American victory. If only.
The US has already blinked, removing some Trump sanctions. The Iranians, who are master negotiators, are just waiting for the sanctions house of cards to completely crumble in exchange for an Iranian nuclear deal heavily in their favor.
Raisi will play his part acting tough. The US and its European sycophants will feign frustration. A few changes will be made to the JCPOA, and the selling of the deal in Ben Rhodes fashion to a compliant media will seal the American and European return to the Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, the Russians and Chinese will see this as a sign of American weakness for future dealings with them.
Rhodes, it should be remembered, was infamous for bragging about how he bamboozled and manipulated the press to advance the Iran deal during the Obama/Biden administration. The media were so in bed with the former president and his agenda that they didn’t even object when Rhodes’s comments became public. Today’s mainstream journalists may be even more willing to accept a return to the deal without any investigative reporting on why missile development, terrorism, Iranian human rights abuses or hegemony into the Levant are not addressed.
It is not if, but when will the supreme leader pass away, whether from his metastatic prostate cancer or some other ailment not shared with the Iranian people. When that happens, President Raisi will most likely ascend to the dictator’s throne of the Iranian Revolution as supreme leader. As the rock band The Who sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Israel is watching carefully, and so should the United States. If Israel still believes in the Begin Doctrine, never to let an enemy state have nuclear weapons, the ascendancy of Raisi and the end of American sanctions increases the chance for a preemptive Israeli strike in Iran and a large-scale regional war drawing in all players.
Let us hope that Biden’s allegiance to former president Obama’s legacy does not blind him to the likely consequences of a deal that President-elect and future supreme leader Raisi will appreciate.