Iran’s eighth president, Ebrahim Raisi, faces the most daunting domestic, regional and international challenges confronting the Islamic republic since its founding in 1979.
Although backed by the powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the clerical institutions and the Revolutionary Guard, Raisi does not enjoy the support of the majority of Iranians or the confidence of regional and global governments.
His inauguration on Thursday tightened the grip of hardliners on all levers of power in Iran but renders them responsible for both positive and negative developments going forward.
An ultra-orthodox, mid-level Shia cleric whose previous post was chief justice, Raisi secured 62 per cent of the vote in an election rendered controversial by the disqualification of serious rivals by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates.
Consequently, turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history, with nearly 52 per cent of voters boycotting the poll and 13 per cent of ballots invalidated.
Human Rights Watch labelled the election “neither free nor fair” and expressed concern, shared by many Iranians at home and abroad, about “human rights and accountability”, given that Raisi served on a four-member commission which condemned to death thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Although he has denied he played a part in authorising executions, his role could be exposed in the upcoming trial in Sweden of assistant prosecutor Hamid Nouri on charges of committing crimes against humanity in this brutal episode following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
While Marxists and communists were among executed prisoners, many belonged to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant group which fought on Iraq’s side in this conflict and remains the clerical regime’s chief expatriate opponent.
Raisi has declared that his priority is to tackle Iran’s economic woes, which the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, blamed in a June report on “systemic corruption and mismanagement over the past decades”.
The council agreed, however, that these problems deepened in 2018 when the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement, under which Iran agreed to limitations on its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of Western sanctions.
The World Bank says the Iranian economy contracted by nearly 5 per cent in 2020 alone, due to a decline in oil revenues and the costs of battling Covid-19. Access restricted by US sanctions to foreign currency reserves, depreciation of Iran’s currency, high inflation and job losses have harmed “vulnerable households”, said the bank.
Economic deterioration has given rise to popular alienation and social unrest. Recent protests have been sparked by electricity cuts and water shortages during an extraordinarily hot summer.
To secure economic recovery, Raisi has pledged to get sanctions lifted. The only way to achieve this goal is to resume EU-brokered negotiations in Vienna for the return of the US to the nuclear deal and for Iran to revert to compliance. After six inconclusive sessions, talks were suspended until he appoints negotiators.
According to a report on Thursday’s by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, “the hardliners should have the institutional support they need to restore the agreement”. They could, however, the group says, “be tempted to overreach, precipitating the [nuclear] deal’s collapse”.
US experts on Iran argue this is also true of Washington, which has insisted its return is conditional on Iran’s acceptance of follow-up talks over Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional interventions, issues Tehran has refused to discuss.
Meanwhile, a drone attack on an Israeli-managed oil tanker and the brief hijacking of an Emirati vessel, both blamed on Iran, have escalated tensions in the Gulf. Although Tehran has denied involvement, regional and Western powers have blamed Iran, which has vowed to respond to curbs on its oil exports and retaliate for suspected Israeli attacks on its nuclear facilities and scientists.