A New Iran: Why The 2021 Presidential Elections Matter
Adele Carter, Amira Mahmoud, Cameron Price, Jujhar Singh, Juline Horan, Katherine Yampolsky, Vaania Kapoor Achuthan, Zaskia Torres, CENTCOM.
Week of June 14, 2021
Collage of Iranian Presidential Candidates
Iran is less than a week away from hosting its quadrennial presidential elections and the stakes are particularly high because current president Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who prioritized normalizing relations with the West, cannot run for re-election. The failure of his landmark achievement, a nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is likely to cast unfavorably on Rouhani's legacy and more importantly, the reformist legacy that has governed Iran for the majority of the last 20 years. Since the Iranian people never experienced the economic benefits of sanctions relief that were promised by the outgoing administration, it is highly likely that their faith in the reformist party has dwindled, leaving the door wide-open for a principlist candidate, also known as a hardliner, to be elected president. Despite there being five principlists and two reformists candidates running in the 2021 election, one candidate stands out as a probable winner: hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. If Raisi becomes president, the Iran Nuclear Deal will likely remain on the table due to the urgency to improve the failing economy (albeit under reduced “maximum pressure” sanctions), and the Middle East will witness further destabilization as a principlist president is more willing to increase Iranian support of proxies to pressure other regional adversaries. Given the high probability that Raisi will win, this report will help diplomats, foreign policy officials and the intelligence community guide their future policies towards Iran, especially as they relate to addressing the grave threats posed by a more nationalistic government and Iranian proxy groups under hardliner control.
Assessment of candidates, their policies and relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei
Raisi is a member of the Assembly of Experts, the council in charge of appointing and removing the Supreme Leader, and also currently serves as the head of the judiciary. Thus, Raisi’s likelihood to win comes directly from his favorable relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei and his conservative stance on policy, especially with regards to the JCPOA, giving him an absolute advantage. It is likely that the other four principlists—Mohsen Rezaii, Saeed Jalili, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi and Alireza Zakani—are running to merely give the illusion of a competitive election and potentially secure a cabinet position in the event that Raisi becomes president. His policies throughout the campaign aim to shift Iran’s previous focus on negotiations with the West and align more closely with that of the Ayatollah, emphasizing rebuilding Iran’s economy internally, combating corruption, and strengthening Iran’s image internationally. We assess that if Raisi were to be elected, these proposals are likely to reign true with support from both the Guardian Council and the Ayatollah. Along with the support from the Ayatollah, we assess that the Guardian Council likely exerts strong influence on candidates such as Raisi who are conservative and embody their ideology to improve the chances of a fundementalist candidate winning.
On the other hand, we assess that the reformist candidates—Mohsen Mehralizadeh and Abdolnaser Hemmati—have an uphill battle to the presidency because many Iranian citizens lack confidence in the reformist agenda after President Rouhani’s tenure. It is highly likely that the failure of the JCPOA was not the only event to hurt the reformist party, but rather a collective failure to deliver on commitments of reducing poverty, inflation, unemployment, and human rights violations. In the case that a reformist candidate wins, we assess that in office they will be more open to negotiation and compromise with the West, including re-establishing diplomatic ties with the US under the Biden administration. Additionally, it is likely that they will face pushback from the Ayatollah and Guardian Council, nullifying their political power.
Impact at Home
Although Raisi is the favored candidate to win the election, experts’ predictions of the likely winner have been incorrect for the last three elections and indicate a likelihood for last-minute changes or withdrawal. If elected, we assess with high confidence that his presidency will strengthen conservative positions in government to facilitate a smooth transition after Khamenei’s death, which is highly likely within the next eight years. Some report that Ayatollah Khamenei is grooming Raisi to be the next Supreme Leader. Thus, there is also the low possibility that Raisi will withdraw from the election to prevent tainting his reputation or legitimacy by being president after low voter turnout, and may instead wait in favor of occupying the most powerful position in Iran. Raisi became a household name in Iran after losing to the incumbent in the 2017 presidential elections and has since then cultivated his reputation, rising up the ranks to head of the judiciary. Raisi's image in the public eye is likely to be negatively affected if another loss at the ballot box is repeated, ruining his chances of becoming the true head of state, the Supreme Leader. The post-revolution power dynamics between the heads of state is likely to continue with the president of Iran answering to the Supreme Leader, the final arbiter of political, military and religious decisions in Iran's government, including approving the next head of state. After Khamenei dies, Raisi is likely to succeed him if he wins the election, just as Khamenei did when Khomeini died in the 1980s. We assess what makes Raisi Khamenei’s first choice is the fact that he encapsulates much of what Khamenei deems as the Revolution’s original and true values. Specifically, Khamenei’s fondness of Raisi is likely attributable to the fact that Raisi, much like Khamenei, is a critic of the JCPOA and is closely allied to the Revolutionary Guard.
Ultimately, Iran's senior leadership will likely dictate any policy decisions based on the country's national interests. The president serves as the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the nation's premier policy-making body, and has some decision over its makeup. Therefore, the president will likely appoint those with similar views and strategic decisions that require consensus amongst the council as well as Khamenei’s blessing. Whether Raisi is elected or not, any hardline candidate is unlikely to derail Iranian participation in the Vienna talks, given that Ayatollah Khamenei supports and sanctions the current negotiations. Despite Raisi’s anti-American and hawkish positions, he is unlikely to oppose the JCPOA itself due to his longstanding concern with improving the nation's economy, which has frequently served as a crucial determinant of the success of any Iranian president. Thus Iran is likely to attempt to resurrect the nuclear agreement to tackle other major challenges, but only on its own terms.
In Iran, if Raisi is elected, we expect public repression to increase, as he will likely limit personal freedom and deter women’s rights, to adhere to strict Sharia Law. It is also likely that forerunner Raisi will not have wide public support, due to his role of suppressing dissent in 1988 and his legacy of human rights abuses. Instead, while a high voter-turnout is unlikely, it would indicate mass support for a reformist candidate or regime influence, with monetary or material incentives, to increase legitimacy. But, as indicated by the 42% voter turnout during parliamentary elections in 2020, the lowest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, we assess with moderate confidence that voter turnout in the election could be 40% or lower, given the public’s disenchantment with government mismanagement, oppression of dissent, and economic trouble. Regardless of the winner, the future president’s focus on the economy, which has suffered due to COVID-19 and US sanctions, will likely improve the employment of everyday Iranians. While an alternative winner to Raisi is unclear, other potential winners are also likely to hold similar beliefs to his, and will likely pursue similar policies. It is also highly unlikely for the two reformist candidates to win, as they lack the name recognition and support from Iran’s leadership.
Security in the Middle East will likely be threatened due to the possibility of a hardline president supporting proxies such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Houthis to carry out acts against their adversaries. Overall, relations between Iran and other countries in the Middle East will most likely become more strained, especially as several Arab nations continue to sign treaties with Israel, such as the Abraham Accords. This act of state balancing is highly likely to provoke Iran, leaving it with no choice but to continue pressuring their adversaries by supporting proxy groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. Given that Iran lacks the conventional means to compete with other nations in the Middle East militarily, supporting proxy groups is their primary means of defense. Additionally, we assess with high confidence that direct hostility between Iran and Israel will also continue, due to the ongoing shadow war that will carry on until Israel is certain Iran cannot develop its nuclear arsenal. We also assess that the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia in their proxy war will most likely worsen, due to competition for regional dominance. The rivalry will most likely develop into further conflict and competition with the election of a more hardline president, who will likely want to continue supporting the previously mentioned proxy groups in order for Iran to gain power, influence, and defense. This will likely cause Saudi Arabia to respond by giving more support to their own allies in order to assert their dominance. Finally, the election of a hardline conservative will likely exacerbate the conflict between Sunni and Shia populations in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Middle East as long as Iran continues to rely on the proxy wars between Sunni and Shia as chess pieces in their geopolitical game of confrontation with the West.
Presently the US is pushing to revive the JCPOA before the new president is elected as it is unclear at the moment how a hardline president will respond to the negotiations. On the one hand, it is likely that a new hardline president will impede the negotiations concurring with their anti-West stance. On the other hand, the ongoing economic crisis in Iran, resulting from sanctions as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, is likely to pressure the upcoming president to continue these negotiations, as Biden is likely to continue to reduce sanctions insofar as Iran does not break the terms of the JCPOA. Since no other candidate other than Hemmat has spoken about the JCPOA, we cannot assess with any certainty which direction the candidates are leaning towards. Given this uncertainty, it is in the best interest of the US to attempt to expedite the negotiations, although it is unlikely that the negotiations will be able to meet the June 18th deadline. We note however, with mid-to-high confidence, that if the negotiations were to continue under the new president, the effectiveness of these negotiations is likely to diminish, and a more hardline Iranian president will most likely pressure Khamenei to demand more concessions from the Permanent Five and Germany (P5+1), as well as the European Union, in order for Iran to rejoin the deal. Moreover, a principlist president is highly likely to oppose incorporating Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for regional proxies in a new deal. The presidency is also likely to mark a shift in Iran’s domestic and foriegn policy from relying on negotiations with the West to fostering self-sufficiency of Iran’s “resistance economy,'' strengthening ties with China and Russia, and expanding its “axis of resistance”- referring to Iran’s network of state and non-state groups that resist Western influence including Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the Houthi movement in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the PMF in Iraq.
Recent changes in Israeli domestic politics have prevented Israel from commenting on these elections. However it is likely that Israel would want Raisi to win with the hopes that a hardline president would not be open to normalizing relations with the US, thereby improving the Israel-US alliance under the Biden administration. It is important to note however that the narrative around Israeli-Iranian enmity transcends politics, and is often along religious lines. Given the heightened tensions between Palestine and Israel, which while politically motivated, often uses religion to exacerbate the divide between the two, Israel is likely to see Iran as a threat irrespective of who wins, as whether they are hardline conservative or liberal, they are still followers of Islam. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s interim Prime Minister under the 2021 coalition agreement, is likely to uphold Netanyahu’s confrontational policy toward Iran, that is, opposing the Biden administration reviving the Iran Deal. As the two hardliners, Bennett and Raisi, come to blows, tit-for-tat attacks by both countries will likely increase. Finally, relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are likely to strengthen, particularly as their respective relations with the US are weaker now, which is likely to further isolate Iran in the region, especially if a hardline president is elected.
On April 9th, 2021, Saudi Arabia, after 5 years of no communication with Iran, revived talks between the two countries. This is most likely out of fear that the election of a hardline president such as Raisi would put a greater target on Saudi Arabia. This is likely to be indicative that the threat of a hardline president is real, and with deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and the US, Saudi Arabia is likely to pursue some form of neutrality with Iran. Overall, with the Abraham Accords and the revival of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we observe an increase in neutrality and normalization within actors in the Middle East. We warn however that this is not to be mistaken for allyship, but rather is a precautionary measure to prevent intercountry conflict as presently no country in the Middle East can bear the cost of war.
Given the high level of voter apathy and the predicted low voter turnout, tactically, we assess that there is little need for other states or actors to attempt to undermine or sabotage the elections or any specific candidate, with the possible caveat of Israel. Instead, it is likely that states and actors concerned with the Iranian elections will choose to focus their short-mid term policies and behaviours based on the results of the election, on the ultimately successful candidate, and on the continued progress (or lack thereof) of the JCPOA renegotiations. We assess with high confidence that the US is not likely to sabotage or undermine the elections, given their interest in maintaining stability in the region. The US is likely to continue to use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach with Iran in order to preserve relative stability in the CENTCOM region, especially between Israel and Iran. Saudi Arabia, like the US, has yet to and is unlikely to take any action to undermine or sabotage the elections, as we assess with medium confidence that the Saudis will try to pursue the JCPOA agreement with whoever is elected, in order to maintain regional stability and to undercut Iranian attempts to bolster their position in the region through their nuclear program. On the other hand, Israel is highly likely to undermine the Iranian elections through covert operations in order to increase instability within Iran and put pressure on nuclear negotiations, similar to the targeted operations such as the Natnz attack and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhirzadeh. Thus, despite the new Israeli coalition, it is highly likely that Israel will continue to try to derail the JCPOA negotiations through similar targeted covert operations. It is highly likely that Benny Gantz will remain the Israeli Minister of Defense, increasing the chances of such covert operations happening again.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) CENTCOM team assesses that in order to maintain regional stability and improve relations with Iran, diplomats should continue negotiations in good faith. Threat assessment specialists, on the other hand, should remain on high alert regarding the threat of the Al Quds force and Iran’s regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, and must not interpret the nuclear negotiations as a reduction in threat of these entities. CTG also recommends that humanitarian organizations and emergency responders be prepared to see and respond to potential protests in reaction to the elections. Given the high likelihood for protests to occur and for them to become violent, we recommend organizations such as Amnesty International, Search for Common Ground, and the Red Cross to be all hands on deck to mitigate any violence that may occur and to provide general aid. We urge the US to finalize its plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the peace talks as soon as possible in order to ensure regional stability. Finally, given the lack of freedom of press, we recommend that the press be prepared to report as much as possible about the situation on the ground, especially if protests in response to the elections occur. The CENTCOM Team will continue to use open-source intelligence to monitor and analyze the upcoming elections, and use WATCH and TH to report on any significant developments relating to the outcome of the elections.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 Collage of Iranian Presidential Candidates: from left to right, top to bottom- Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election; Abdolnaser Hemmati, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election; Saeed Jalili, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election; Mohsen Mehralizadeh, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election; Ebrahim Raisi, Ebrahim Raisi, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebrahim_Raisi; Mohsen Rezaee, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election; Alireza Zakani, 2021 Iranian Presidential Elections, Wikipedia, June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Iranian_presidential_election, by Vaania Kapoor Achuthan, via Canva.
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