Ra’isi is an absolute ideological and psychological clone of Khamenei.
Iranian Strategy During Ra’isi’s Presidency
Ra’isi is an absolute ideological and psychological clone of Khamenei.
As expected, Ebrahim Ra’isi has been “elected” as president of Iran. His election was foretold; the outcome of Ayatollah Khamenei’s manipulation meant to guarantee his preferred candidate’s election.
Since the foundation of the Islamic Republic, the president in Iran never has wielded actual decision-making power, neither formally nor informally. No president ever has had real say regarding the most crucial issues of Iran’s ideological orientation, national security, and foreign policy, especially regarding the nuclear file and Iran’s regional policies.
Thus, any in-depth analysis of the possible implications on Iranian strategy of Raisi’s election must be qualified by the assumption that the new president’s personality will not significantly impact Iranian policies either domestically or internationally. It is the Supreme Leader who remains the ultimate decision-maker in the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, Ra’isi can “interpret” the Leader’s will by adding further obstructions and unrealistic demands in Vienna.
Will Rai’si’s Presidency Derail the Nuclear Talks?
The election of Ra’isi is unlikely to affect the Vienna nuclear talks in a significant way. Ra’isi has not made any statement which differs from those of outgoing President Rouhani. The nuclear file is an issue of national importance, and thus it is the Supreme Leader who remains the ultimate decision-make in this matter.
The Iranians have not even tried to make the Biden Administration’s life easier. They raise new demands all the time, evincing intransigence without readiness to concede anything. (The US is ready to remove the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, whereas the removal of all other sanctions will be much more difficult, both technically and politically.)
Nevertheless, the very fact that Ra’isi is in office can obstruct the (already-stuck) negotiations in subtle ways. In 2019 he was placed under US sanctions because of human rights violations. The Iranians demand that the sanctions imposed and Rai’si (and on Khamenei) be revoked. However, the US cannot meet this demand even though these sanctions are purely symbolic, because there would be an exorbitant political price tag at home. After President Biden called Putin a “killer,” it will be much more difficult to be lenient with an Iranian president known for his role in the mass executions of political prisoners.
Why Did Khamenei Need to Manipulate the Election?
Why did Khamenei need to manipulate the election and why was he so keen on electing Rai’si as president and possibly as his successor? The answers to these questions are interconnected.
Although the president in Iran has no real say on strategic matters and is formally subservient to the Supreme Leader, he is not the leader’s pawn. He plays an important role, holding a key position in the political game. Nominally, the president is the head of the executive branch, responsible for the execution of policy approved by the leader. But Khamenei has experienced bitter discord with previous presidents, such as Khatemi and Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei probably realizes that Iran is facing new rounds of popular protest, given that Iran’s domestic problems keep accumulating without any solution in the offing, particularly against the background of the ongoing COVID pandemic. A general strike of oil sector workers has paralyzed the country’s economy, and a drought in Khuzestan has made residents desperate. The Iranian regime allows some degree of protest against the government on socio-economic matters. However socio-economic unrest can morph into ideological protest against the regime. In such case, the regime has no qualms about ruthlessly crushing protests. For that purpose, Khamenei needs perfect harmony with the president in office. The regime might have to resort more and more to oppression, making that harmonic relationship between the leader and the president even more needed from the former’s point of view.
Carrying forward the project of political repression while improving the social situation and reducing external risks will become Raisi’s main task.
The Next Supreme Leader?
Discussion of Khamenei’s succession remains one of the strictest taboos in Iran. No open discussion of such is allowed in Iranian media. Yet it seems increasingly obvious that Ra’isi is Khamenei’s favorite choice to succeed him. The two men share a broad range of similarities, starting with their modest clerical pedigree in Mashhad to their enlistment in the revolutionary Islamist movement in the sixties. Ra’isi is also very close to the leader ideologically and looks at Iran’s future from the same vantage points. If and when Ra’isi becomes Supreme Leader he will adhere to Khamenei’s orientation without deviating from the ‘path of the Imam’ (Khatt-e Emam).
The Iranian constitution stipulates that the leader must be a mojtahed (doctor of Islamic Shi’ite law). Although Khamenei himself is not an ayatollah in the traditional meaning of the term, he has clerical education. So does Ra’isi – in contrast to all other potential contenders for succession.
The Importance of Formal Regime Elements
Rumors about an imminent cancellation of the presidential office have been circulating since the first years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, but it has become a well-established part of the revolutionary system. The office of president was not immediately introduced in 1979, but it has since replaced the office of prime minister.
The Islamic “republic” is meant to be representative regime where executive power is elected by universal suffrage. And the formal “republican” dimension is of utmost ideological importance to the regime, even if elections are limited only to approved candidates and elected executives do not wield real power. Therefore, cannot afford outright disdain for republican elements and just directly appoint his favorite candidates, or handover power to his son Mojtaba, and/or allow Iran to become a military regime openly ruled by the IRGC. Each of these three options will undermine representative “republican” image of the regime.
Khamenei insists on the presidency and universal suffrage because he prefers indirect rule. Even though Khamenei is the ultimate decision-maker and ruler, any criticism of Khamenei is forbidden. Khamenei never gives direct orders but only “recommends” or “advises – as it were.” This is because publicly giving a direct order entails sharing responsibility for its execution, which Khamenei constantly avoids. Nevertheless, it is Khamenei’s office where the most important decisions are taken, and no transparency or accountability applies to this office.
Roots of the Iranian Regime’s Ideology
Above all, Khamenei needs Ra’isi to preserve his intransigent ideological line. Analyses of Iranian foreign policy usually pay very little attention to underlying basic ideological principles, and this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand Iran’s strategy and predict its behavior without an understanding of the ideological roots of the regime and the central role that ideology plays in key issues, including the pursuit of Israel’s demise.
Since its inception in 1979, the regime has defined itself as velayat-e faqih – the guardianship of the Jurist (or the interpreter of Shari’ah law). This is the formal title that was awarded to Khomeini and eventually to Khamenei – the ultimate power in Iran. However, Iran also maintains some aspects of representative government, which stand in contradiction with Sharia legislation and velayat-e faqih.
Another important characteristic of the Iranian regime is not Islamic legislation but the regime’s self-definition as “revolutionary.” Pakistan and Afghanistan also call themselves an “Islamic Republic,” yet they are not Iran. The official title of Khamenei is “the great leader of the Islamic revolution.” Khamenei has reiterated on various occasions that “I am a revolutionary.”
Iranian Islamist ideology developed back in the 1940s with the activities of the Fadayan- Eslam Movement, led by Navvab Safavi. The latter traveled to Egypt and met there with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Bana. Fad Ayan-e Eslam embarked on assassinations against all whom they considered enemies of Islam. Some Iranian politicians and intellectuals became their victims. Thus, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood spread in Iran. It was no other than the young Ali Khamenei who translated books of one of the MuslimBrotherhood’s key leaders, Sayid Qutb, into Persian. As such, there always has been a direct link between the Sunni Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and Shi’i Islamism in Iran. Both movements have engaged in terrorism and trafficked in antisemitism.
The concept of revolution implies conflict and confrontation; the revolution ought to be permanent and never end. To that purpose, Iranian revolutionary ideology embraces many concepts that are reminiscent of Marxist rhetoric such as “the downtrodden ones” (mostaz’afin). This term also is notably reminiscent of Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”. The Iranian revolution struggles against world arrogance, imperialism, colonialism, hegemony, and oppression.
This enables apologists of the regime, which is brutally repressive towards all progressive elements (most visibly against the LGBT community), to proclaim affinity with progressive movements in the US such as critical race theory adherents, who are originally Marxist. Thus, both Sunni and Iranian Shi’ite Islamism share an ideological kernel that creates a commonality with Marxist-inspired currents in the West.
During the recent bout of violence in Israel in May, Iran unequivocally supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad. No statement of the Biden administration referenced this connection, let alone condemned Iran during the war with Israel. Again, when it comes to more “progressive” elements of the Democratic spectrum, sympathies of the radical left toward both versions of Islamism and its hatred toward Zionism are not accidental and have common ideologic grounds. Iranian propaganda depicts moderate Arab governments, namely the Saudi Kingdom, as “reactionary.” This is another trope which draws upon Soviet and Marxist terminology, now applied to moderate and pro-Western Arab regimes.
Iran’s revolutionary ideology has further strategic implications. Due to its built-in intransigence, this ideology makes the regime unreformable because any reform will modify Iranian society. Khamenei simply cannot concede any of the ideological tenets because in that event the regime will be left with slogans alone. In turn, Khamenei cannot allow ideology to become only non-compelling lip service, because that would be tantamount to the loss of deterrence both home and abroad. Ra’isi is indispensable for the preserving of such ideology, which in turn is necessary for the regime’s survival.
The survival needs of Iranian ideology prevent the opening of the Iranian economy to foreign investment. The hardliners want, of course, Western sanctions to be removed and it is not that they articulate objection to foreign investment. However, they realize that no foreign investment is possible without legal reforms and making Iran a more appropriate residence for Western ex-pats. But they also realize that an inflow of Western investment and companies automatically means more Western influence on Iranian society, which is their nightmare. In Khamenei’s own language, this would be a “cultural invasion.”
Revolution also implies the export of revolution and assistance to “freedom-seeking” movements across the globe. This principle is the ideological justification for Iran’s support of armed proxies and for its ties to regimes like those in Cuba and Venezuela. Nowadays these movements include Hezbollah, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias, Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas. However, the latter two are Iran’s actual clients more than its proxies.
The Strategy of Pragmatic Idealism
The revolutionary element impacts all elements of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, from human rights abuse at home to support for terrorist proxies abroad.
Some analysts depict the Iranian regime as pragmatic, implying that there is a contradiction between ideology and pragmatism or rationalism. However, this is a binary understanding that does not really apply anywhere in the world. There is no purely pragmatic geopolitical actor who has no ideology at all. By the same token there never has been a regime that would be the embodiment of pure ideology with zero pragmatic calculus. Such concepts as national interest, pragmatism, and rationalism are never abstract mathematical constructs, but always context-dependent and influenced by changing circumstances.
Support for Palestinian organizations and Hezbollah is an essential part of both Iranian ideology that is religion-centered, and it is equally perceived as being in Iran’s national interest. However, the Iranian regime does not ignore contingencies that could jeopardize Iran’s other national interests if an ideological policies become problematic. Even if the regime prioritizes a certain policy over another it still upholds its ideological goals.
Ali Khamenei has been the head of government in Iran since 1989. Since then, he has done nothing that could make him considered an irrational warmonger. He is a rigid but very cautious ideologue. The regime understands that the Iranian people are not interested in more wars. The scars of the 1980s (war with Iraq) have not yet healed, and therefore Iran’s regional conduct seeks to avoid uncontrolled escalation, let alone a full-fledged war with the US or Israel. This is Iranian “pragmatism”: Implementing ideology on the ground, with caution, and in a way that the Iranian effort is low-cost. This “pragmatic” approach involves ruthless crushing of civil protest at home, and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and US bases, and attacks against Israel through proxies.
Khamenei wants his successor to maintain this “centrist” ideological approach intact: Neither the temptation to reform and liberalize, nor the too-warlike worldview of some IRGC diehard officers. Ra’isi is an absolute ideological and psychological clone of Khamenei. This is why the latter wanted Ra’isi to become president, and why he probably intends to anoint Ra’isi as his successor.
Khamenei and Ra’isi are Rational Pragmatists, but Dangerous
One can say that nearly everything that Khamenei does is “pragmatic” in the following sense: Khamenei knows the regime is unreformable, and therefore his options are limited. Ra’isi’s presidency probably will not change much for Israel and Arab countries, but the inability of the President and the Leader to resolve the country’s most acute problems is dangerous in itself. The more regime is wary of its survival and the more legitimacy it loses, the more powerful the urge to obtain a nuclear bomb will become. No one will dare to attack a regime with nuclear weapons at its disposal. This assertion highlights the absurdity of tagging the Iranian regime as pragmatic or rational by Western criteria. In working to guarantee its survival, the regime is rational, but this is still a regime that shot down a plane with Iranian passengers and that supports Hezbollah and Hamas.
One operative conclusion from this understanding of Iran is rejection of the notion that there are two rival political camps in Iran with opposite approaches towards the West. This is simply wrong. There is only one system with unitary goals. Ra’isi is the best embodiment of aggressive Khomeinism, which publicly tramples the most basic human rights and dignity of the Iranian people. Neither Israel nor Israel’s Arab allies have any reason whatsoever to hope that the regime will become “moderate.”
The Houthis continue firing Iranian-made drones and missiles into Saudi Arabia. Talks between the Saudis and the Iranians have not yielded any result. The recent Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned ship killed two crew members. These incidents clearly show that the regime has no intention whatsoever to moderate or to curb its subversive activities. Israel will have to make the Iranian regime pay for its attacks, irrespective of international or even American outcry. Only Israeli action (and not verbal threats) will make an impression on Iran.
And note: Iran is vulnerable. Aside from its asymmetric capacities and proxies, Iran is a very weak state with long and porous borders. Its special forces may be good at killing Iranian dissidents, but its armed forces hardly can withstand a focused strike by a modern army.
Whoever is wary of the consequences of Israeli overreaction to Iran’s recent deadly attacks should ask why the fear of war and escalation emerges not when innocent people are targeted across the Middle East by Iran’s thugs but only when Israel is about to react to those killings?
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