The Guardian view on Iran’s election: a hardline victory is not the end

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president is a dispiriting moment for those in the west striving to revive the nuclear deal. The Iranian electorate is hardly more enthusiastic. Battered by the economic fallout from Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, the Covid pandemic and the inability of Hassan Rouhani’s reformist government to deliver on promises and overcome obstruction by the clergy and Revolutionary Guard, voters were offered only an engineered election in which Mr Raisi’s victory was all but certain.

While past elections were tightly controlled – and the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retained ultimate control regardless of the outcome – they have nonetheless been genuinely competitive. This time, leading reformists and centrists were removed as 600 candidates were whittled down; just four stood in the end. Mr Raisi’s 62% of the vote came on a turnout of 48%; in Tehran just 26% voted. While participation has at times been low, this was an all-time nadir for a presidential race in the Islamic Republic, and 3.7 million people spoiled their ballots.

Reformists will now struggle to regroup, asking themselves whether any progress can be made in a system so thoroughly rigged against them. Those outside the system will be equally gloomy. The leadership’s immediate response to public disaffection is likely to be more repression. Mr Raisi is already under US sanctions over his grim human rights record. He was one of a four-strong body responsible for the summary and extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 and oversaw the brutal crackdown on protests in 2019. He is trusted by the security establishment and a loyal protege of the supreme leader; there is speculation that the 82-year-old sees the head of the judiciary as his successor. Many analysts see this election as a fundamental shift in the balance of power away from elected officials and towards the clerics.

In the longer term, the leadership knows that it must build domestic support and that the only hope for Iran’s shattered economy is a revival of the JCPOA. But the US and Europe must decide what to do about the expertise and assets that Iran has gained through noncompliance since the US withdrawal, while Mr Trump has left Tehran with even less faith in US promises.

Optimists hope a more unified Iranian leadership may make it easier to implement a deal. Pessimists say hardliners will find it tougher to reach a settlement, and that there is even less hope of the better-for-better deal that is really needed. Mr Raisi has already said that there is no prospect of addressing Iran’s missiles or support for regional militias in international talks. Unlike Mr Rouhani, he shows no interest in courting foreign investment; there are fewer carrots to dangle. But there is suspicion that the glacial pace until now has been partly due to hardliners slow-rolling talks before the elections to prevent reformists gaining any credit, and hope that a deal might be reached before Mr Raisi takes power in August – which would allow him to reap the benefit of loosened sanctions, while blaming his predecessor for problems.

In the meantime, the removal of some US sanctions eases the way for the UK to pursue the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals held by Iran. Medical and humanitarian shipments could aid the Iranian people and allow the UK to repay some of its £400m debt, owed from a deal with the Shah of Iran before his overthrow in 1979. The unpromising environment for dealings between Iran and the west is all the more reason why any opportunity must be seized.

Source: The Guardian