The Iranian Elections and How Teheran’s Relationship with Washington

The new elections kept in Iran showed an unfortunate scenario for several: Teheran’s turnout was the lowest of the Iranian history, and a more radical shift took place. Teheran’s electoral results gave the victory to the conservative judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi, charged to guide the country for a four-year-long mandate. The international perception of the president is negative, as several democracies consider Raisi a hardliner ultraconservative. His past as the prosecutor of thousands of political prisoners does not help to improve his public image. However, Washington might not consider the result the worst scenario, despite the US public aversion to the new president. Although the Iranian results represented a conservative shift, Raisi is less radical than one might suggest. Since the Americans are aware of it, important game-changers like the nuclear deal might still occur. After all, the US establishment always adopts an equilibrium scenario in the area. Washington might realise a more stable equilibrium by making concessions to Iran and becoming stricter with Turkey. 

A Raisi’s profile, his international perception and further investigation on his political persona

The 2021 Iranian elections provided concern and regret to several experts. The concern stemmed from the low turnout of the elections: only 48.8% of citizens went to the polls. It’s the lowest turnout figure since the 1979 revolution. Regret came from the political shift of the country. The Conservative judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi, the newly elected president, will take over the more moderate Hassan Rouhani, who could not run for a third mandate by the constitution. The Raisi’s tough attitude was visible over the past decades. He was the main responsible for the 1988 mass murder of thousands of political prisoners, which cost him his insertion on the US blacklist. Several NGOs and Human Rights groups reported Raisi’s involvement in the matter, as he was one of the key members of the then death commission. Amnesty International asked to prosecute him in an international court for crimes against humanity. Raisi’s past does not represent the only issue at stake. The US institutions openly regretted the results as Iran could not ensure an overall “free and fair electoral process”. Some lack of democracy in Iran is indeed visible because of the presidential candidature approvals. The Guardian Council, an influential Shiite-based council, supervises and approves each candidate, which makes the election religious-oriented. However, these public statements might not reflect the true intentions of the Biden’s administration. What one should investigate deeper is whether the Teheran-Washington relationships will change and in what manner. The US behavior towards Iran under Raisi is likely not to follow its public opinion on the new Iranian political scenario.

The first element that plays a role in the US intentions towards Teheran is Raisi. Raisi internationally appears as an ultraconservative hardliner, but the truth might be different. The main character of his persona lies in his opportunism, rather than his radical ideals. His (very modest) victory did not stem from his ability to attract voters but from his acquaintances in the political scenario, specifically within the Guardian Council. The Council ditched the most serious Raisi’s rivals. In doing so, the Council also discouraged the less radical voters to take part in the elections. The electoral turnout diminished, and the enthusiasm of moderate voters faded out. One should also reevaluate the ultraconservative character of Raisi in the light of his work as a conservative judiciary. The mass murder was factual, even if the involvement degree of Raisi in it is an object of debate. A 2016 audio recording showed how Raisi and other committee members asked the Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri to execute additional prisoners. Upon his denial, Raisi was the first to accept Montazeri’s decision, suggesting how devoted to power achievement he was. Rather than eliminating his adversaries, what seems to matter to him is appearing devoted to his superiors to keep his power. Once his superiors switched from the Ayatollah to people, his priorities changed. Since he thought he could run as a presidential candidate, he needed to get people’s favour. During his judiciary mandate, Raisi became not only famous for his political prisoner’s assassination but for rather progressive measures that raised his reputation. He committed to easing punishment for crimes like the inability to pay dowry or issuances of dud checks. Raisi’s ambitions are therefore visible in every aspect of his political persona. The US administration is fully aware of his attitude, and might realistically take advantage of it by establishing a break with Iran. Washington could lift its powerful sanctions against Teheran and make further steps towards the nuclear deal with Iran. The reasons the US might change their behavior pertain to their will to pursue a Middle Eastern equilibrium as stable as possible. A better equilibrium can happen by making concessions to Iran. Similarly, this equilibrium holds if Washington reduces the influence of the other growing powers in the region. One of the most threatening countries the US intends to focus on the most is Turkey.

The US strategy in the Middle East requires a different behavior with Teheran as the JCPOA

The need for balance in certain areas is common in international relations. Over the nineteenth century, the UK adopted the same strategy in Europe. No European country had to become stronger than the others. The pivotal issue comprised balancing power and influences among the European realities. If a state had become more powerful, it would have gotten bolder. Such a scenario would have implied instability. Similarly, the US adopts a balance strategy in the Middle East. Depending on the scenarios, the US supports or impedes ME countries. The reasons are simple: the more territorial stability in the Middle East, the more the US does not need an intense involvement in the area. Having Iran represented an incognita for years, the main American focus was on Teheran since 1979. Washington does not know how to behave with Iran in the light of the religious-oriented revolution. However, the recent scenario seems to have taken different shades. Washington does not consider Iran as the most unsettling or powerful regional entity to combat. The elements for such a game-changer lied in the Iranian economic issues because of the US sanctions and the epidemiological situation. According to the Iranian Foreign Minister, the US sanctions were extremely effective in trashing down Teheran’s economy. The US caused $1 trillion dollars worth of economic damage. The Trump administration imposed approximately 1200 sanctions (mostly on oil) over time since 2017. These sanctions hit really hard. Both the unemployment rate and inflation reached their peaks in decades. The Iranian economic crisis went alongside with the more recent epidemiological scenario represented by the COVID-19 outbreak. Iran was one of those countries which received the worst hit by the virus. While the past wave (November) reached approximately 400 daily casualties and 25000 new infected, the variant delta worsened the current scenario. However, the exacerbated crisis provoked by the American sanctions urged an intense citizen’s effort to survive. Iranians cannot afford quarantines or social distancing when the major challenge is feeding their families. Thus, the COVID-19 infection keeps spreading at an unsustainable rate. The current Iranian struggle is visible. Given the American balance strategy, Washington might therefore concede to Teheran a certain room for economic recovery. Iran doesn’t represent anymore a threat to the Middle Eastern stability, so Washington might invest resources and time for more efficient tactics. The US understands this very well and showed already proof of a more flexible approach compared to the past. Unlike Trump, the Biden’s administration looks willing to re-discuss the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reinsertion in case Teheran complied with it. The JCPOA was a 2015 agreement signed between Teheran, Washington, the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany. The deal provided two aspects. For one, Teheran had to reduce their enriched uranium stocks by over 90% and permit IAEA personnel to inspect the nuclear sites. The other signing members committed instead not to impose economic sanctions on Iran. However, the US-Iran relations reached a phase of tensions during the Trump’s administration. Trump withdrew the Iranian Nuclear deal to reimpose further sanctions on Teheran’s oil, which was previously prohibited by the JCPOA. Trump sustained that there were irregularities in the way Teheran was dealing with cutting down the enriched uranium sites. These suspects were enough to provoke a strong American reaction and economically fight Iran. On the other side, Biden intends to rejoin the nuclear deal and show some (temporary) mercy to an economically devastated Teheran. Even if the US did not join the deal yet, the mere statements are of relevance. The process might take some time because Teheran would like Washington to lift the Trump’s sanctions first, while Biden expects Iran to comply entirely with the JCPOA first. Regardless of the outcome, the American unconventional behavior is illustrative. The reason, as said, lies in the American desire to optimize resources to keep stability in the area. Washington sees the wisdom in having a diplomatic truce with Iran. This approach takes place regardless of the Iranian political scenario and the new allegedly ultraconservative presidency. Despite the appearance and the public statements, Raisi seems not to be an issue in the relation shift towards Iran. The Iranian economy and the US flexibility towards Teheran suggest the US switch their attention to somewhere (or someone) else.

The US-Turkey relations might divert the American attention from Iran

The main political player that Washington should challenge in the Middle East is Turkey because of its ruthless international game. The recent Turkish attitude in the Middle East represents a threat to the US. Ankara attempts to switch its position from its middle power role to a more regionally committed role. Erdogan showed his aggressiveness and ruthlessness in different areas of the MENA. Ankara’s role is visible during in Azerbaijani-Armenian tensions, in Syria and in Libya. The growing participation of Ankara in the Middle East undermines the stability in the area. Turkey took quite an ambiguous position and frequently altered its support for powers in the area. For instance, Ankara purchased assets of the S-400 air defence system from Russia despite the rivalry between the NATO members and Moscow. Given the above US balance strategy, Washington cannot ignore Ankara’s deeds. In fact, although the two allies have strict ties within Nato, they are experiencing moments of tension. During a meeting between Trump and Erdogan, the former US president expressed his dissatisfaction with two aspects: the Turkish S-400 purchase and the treatment of Kurds. Even if Trump defended Erdogan on the Kurds matters, the American establishment seemed to have brought up the topic on purpose. Washington also punished Ankara’s behavior with material manners. The 2020 American retaliatory sanctions against Turkey took place in response to Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 defence missiles from Russia. However, the recent Turkish-American relationships are not that simple. Washington needs Ankara’s friendship because Erdogan still represents a powerful containment tool against the Russian Federation. Ankara controls the Black Sea straits. This is a strategic geopolitical asset that the US cannot ignore when it deals with Turkey. Hence, Washington needs to handle a very fragile balance. It’s difficult to identify to which extent to hinder Turkey. The US needs to contrast Ankara and keep it close at the same time. Thus, the Biden’s administration is quite reluctant in joining the JCPOA without lifting the sanctions first. A too definitive position might compromise the stability of the region, as Ankara would become more defensive.

Despite the negative perception of the American public, Washington looks indifferent to the new Iranian president. Raisi is less radical than he seems, and his political persona will be determinant in the US international relations. Conversely, the Iranian crisis determines a shift in the American approach to Teheran. The debate on re-joining the JCPOA is illustrative of this US new strategy. Washington realized that Turkey (and not the Struggling Iranian country anymore) represents the main challenger. However, the Turkish strategic position and its NATO membership make any action of the US hard to adopt. The American hesitation in taking action is identifiable in its only weak intentions to open a real dialogue with Teheran.

Written by Giuseppe Loveno Garofalo


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