Same old, same old
The election of Ebrahim Raisi hardly signals a major change, writes Yassamine Mather. Yet, while the left remains confused, opposition to the regime is palpable
The result of Iran’s presidential elections, held on June 18, came as no surprise. In a low turnout of just 48.8%, 62% voted for Ebrahim Raisi, while there were an unprecedented 3.7 million spoiled votes. That was more than the votes for Raisi’s two closest rivals: Mohsen Rezaei, a senior conservative general, picked up 3.4 million - mainly from the countryside and small towns - while the only ‘reformist’ candidate permitted to stand, Abdolnasser Hemmati, received just 2.4 million votes.
There are two main points to draw from the election. First, as far as I can tell, the supreme leader and his allies were not too concerned about the level of participation. Initial estimates of the possible turnout were as low as 42% - and that was before the pro-Trump Iranian royalists and the trashy TV station, Iran International, funded by Saudi Arabia, waged a concerted campaign to encourage a boycott. Their intervention created an inevitable backlash - actually increasing voter participation. Until a couple of weeks ago, when I started to listen to ‘clubhouse’ meetings that debated the forthcoming elections, I had not realised how many people inside Iran hate the royalists and the commentators of Iran International. They call them traitors and mercenaries. In those election meetings speaker after speaker expressed revulsion at those who in 2019-21 were calling for sanctions against Iran to be increased!
The second point is that, even before the intervention of the Council of Guardians, banning various ‘reformist’ candidates, it was clear that this faction of the regime had come to the end of its political life. The online debates in the last few weeks have shown to anyone paying the slightest attention that the difference between the two main factions has diminished: the hard-line Islamist ‘principlists’ are not as conservative as they used to be, while the ‘reformists’, who were never, of course, ‘radical’ in the first place, were trying to reconcile their support for an unelected all-powerful ‘supreme leader’ with ‘electioneering’. They clearly are not even as ‘reformist’ as they were under the first term of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2001).
Of course, outgoing president Hassan Rouhani was a late converter to ‘reformism’, having been very much a conservative in his earlier political life, and it could be argued that his second term, marred by incompetence and corruption paved the way for the death of ‘reformist’ politics in the Islamic Republic.
In fact during the election campaign, the more you listened to supporters of both ‘principlists’ and ‘reformists’, the more you followed their articles, the more you came to the conclusion that there were no major differences between them - the possible exception being their attitude to personal freedom, including ‘un-Islamic behaviour’. In fact Raisi tried to present himself as a ‘unity candidate’, bringing together the two main factions of the regime.
As a result (and given the support he got from the Guardian Council), the result was inevitable.
Historically Raisi has made comments about Iran’s self-sufficiency and the ‘resistance economy’ - an echo of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In reality the claim that a country in debt to international organisations and requiring World Bank and International Monetary Fund approval for its economic policies (including the sensitive issue of subsidies) could actually pursue such policies is just sloganeering.
However, during the election campaign itself Raisi did not say much about a ‘resistance economy’ - instead, promising to end sanctions by pressing for the Iran nuclear deal to be reinstated (see below) and making sure Iran can join the Financial Action Task Force.
He made it clear that he supports privatisation, echoing Khamenei’s approval of changes to article 44 of the constitution, which approved privatisation in almost every sector of the economy:
The government does not have the right to new economic activity outside [those activities] listed in the beginning of principle 44. It is required to transfer any kind of activity (including the continuation and profiting from pre-existing [business] activities) that is not covered by principle 44 to the cooperative, private or public non-governmental sectors, at the latest by the end of the fourth five-year development plan ...1
In other words, like all Shia clerics he is a supporter of capitalism and the market.
Regarding the current situation he has said it is a mistake to blame all of Iran’s economic woes on the sanctions imposed on the country by the US: “Inflation is one of the serious problems people are facing today. The price of basic products has gone up considerably.” In one broadcast he compared government officials blaming all problems on the US to “a goalkeeper who lets in 17 goals … and then says, ‘Without me it would have been 30 goals’!”
Raisi claims that the campaign against corruption he started as head of the judiciary will play a significant role in reviving the economy. The slight problem is that, for all his talk, he did not mention the role of religious foundations or of those close to the supreme leader - where, according to some accounts, corruption is as bad as within the sections of the new bourgeoisie close to the ‘reformist’ faction.
On the nuclear deal, Raisi was previously committed to the 2015 agreement, which specifies that Iran must limit its nuclear programme in order to avoid sanctions. He said: “We will be committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as an agreement that was approved by the supreme leader” - a claim repeated in the presidential debate of June 12 2021, when he added: “The nuclear deal should be implemented by a strong government. You cannot execute it” - a reference to the position of Abdolnasser Hemmati.
As I have said before, the US is aware that, irrespective of who is president in Iran, it is the supreme leader who decides what happens on the nuclear question. The Biden administration is no doubt keen to make negotiations with Raisi’s foreign minister as short as possible, having spent the last few weeks finalising details of a possible deal that is currently being scrutinised in various capitals.
Most of us remember Raisi for his involvement in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. Thousands, mainly leftwingers, were killed on the orders of then supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The final execution orders were signed by a commission that included Raisi himself, when he was deputy prosecutor general. On Monday June 21, replying to a reporter who asked him about the issue, Raisi said: “It is my honour that I fought against hypocrisy”, adding that executions were based on a “fair decision” and were “necessary save lives”! He went on: “In Tehran, there were 100 to 120 assassinations a day by the revolutionary forces ... it’s my honour that I fought against hypocrisy.”
This is a reference to the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a group supported by Donald Trump, and by extension was used by Raisi against the entire (and genuine) left too. However, all those executed were already in prison, serving long sentences, so the claim that the mass murder of prisoners was necessary to save civilian lives is simply absurd.
The slaughter took place after eight years of war, when Iran’s Islamic Republic had been forced to accept a humiliating peace with Saddam Hussein (at the time supported by the west). Khomeini said that signing the peace deal was the equivalent of “drinking poison”. So he took his revenge on political prisoners who had nothing to do with the war.
After Raisi’s comments, the spokesperson for the US state department gave a vague reply about Raisi’s role in political executions - and then passed on quickly to the next question. This surprised some Iranian reporters and commemorators. Clearly these people have serious illusions about western ‘democracy’. The US has put or kept in power some of the most cruel dictators of the last century and its attitude towards Raisi will depend on state interests. If the US administration can get a nuclear deal, it will forget about Raisi’s past. But if it cannot or does not want to strike a deal, it will no doubt go on about his role in the executions.
Unfortunately, illusion about western powers has permeated sections of the left too. When it comes to Iran’s foreign and regional policy, you can often hear ‘left’ activists using exactly the same arguments and the same terminology as are used by imperialism and its many media outlets. Iran’s regional policy is ‘interventionist’, ‘adventurist’, ‘dangerous for world peace’ …
I am hardly a fan of its foreign policy, which is aimed at advancing sectarian Shia politics in, for example, Iraq and Lebanon, or in Syria, where support is given to a dictator. However, we have to express our own opinion about such issues - repeating word for word BBC or CNN propaganda is just as appalling as supporting the Tehran regime.
We need to remind everyone that it was the US/UK-led wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq that played a significant role in making Iran a regional power. It is imperialist aggression that remains the main danger on a global scale. Third-world tin-pot dictatorships, such as Iran’s Islamic Republic, are not in a position to present a serious danger when it comes to regional peace. For instance, Iran has been unable to retaliate after successive Israeli attacks against its military and nuclear plants, Nor could it do much after the assassination of nuclear scientists, military leaders, etc. It was the rise of Islamic State - no friend of the Islamic Republic - that paved the way for chaos, the rise of sectarianism and various Iranian interventions in the region.