Commentary |
9 August 2021

New man in Tehran aims for supreme power

Originally published in The Australian.

Rodger Shanahan
Rodger Shanahan

A new Iranian president was inaugurated last week. The conservative Ebrahim Raisi comes into office with a less than powerful popular mandate. Having received just 38 per cent of the vote in his failed 2017 election run, the most notable statistic from his comprehensive victory in an uninspiring field of candidates was not his share of the votes, but the fact that only 48 per cent of Iranian voters cast votes. It was the lowest turnout ever in a presidential election in Iran.

The challenges facing Raisi in his new role are immense.

While the supreme leader is the real centre of power in the Islamic Republic, the president retains responsibility for the day-to-day running of domestic political issues such as the economy, health and resources. And each of those areas present enormous challenges.

Iran has suffered more than 90,000 deaths from Covid-19 and last Monday it recorded a new record of more than 37,000 new cases in a single day. According to the World Bank the Iranian economy contracted by 12 per cent in the past two years and the official unemployment rate is just below 10 per cent. Youth unemployment is several orders of magnitude higher. Iran is also suffering from a drought and longer-term concerns over water availability have led to riots in some provinces in which a number of people were killed.

And while foreign policy is ultimately not the purview of the president, Iran’s regional outlook is equally challenging. Negotiations over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are proceeding at a snail’s pace. The Taliban are on the move on Iran’s eastern flank and Washington retains a persistent military presence on its western flank.

Israel and Iran are playing a dangerous tit-for-tat shadow war on the high seas, targeting ­merchant vessels belonging or linked to each respective country. On July 29 an explosive drone of Iranian origin struck the MV Mercer Street and killed a Briton and a Romanian citizen, further internationalising the issue.

And Israel has also been prosecuting a campaign of attrition against Iranian forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime through a constant series of airstrikes over many years that targets Iranian facilities in Syria that the Israelis believe may pose a threat to them, as well as taking the opportunity to prosecute high value targets when the opportunity presents itself. In late July a Lebanese Hizbullah commander and an Iranian commander in the Iranian-backed Afghan Shia militia group Liwa Fatimayyun were believed to have been killed in Israeli airstrikes.

For all of this, the bigger issue though is likely to be the requirement to deal with the succession plan in the event the 81 year-old Supreme Leader dies during Raisi’s term in office. It is normal for Iranian presidents to be re-elected to a second four-year term so Raisi is likely to be at the helm for the next eight years, and there is a good chance that Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule will come to and during that time.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has only had two supreme leaders in its 42-year history, with Khamenei in charge for more than 30 of them, so the transition to the third leader will be critical to the continued functioning of Iran’s unique theocratic model of governance.

Choosing the new supreme leader is the preserve of the Assembly of Experts, of which Raisi is one of the deputy chairs. He is also highly fancied as a candidate to replace Khamenei. And while the position of supreme leader is not one that can be handed over, there is a strong argument that Raisi is being groomed by Khamenei to take over from him and that the presidency is simply part of the preparation — Khamenei was himself a two-term president.

The Iranian political landscape is opaque at the best of times, but given the rarity of selecting a new supreme leader, most influential players’ interests are best served by allowing as smooth a transition as possible. There is no doubt that Raisi aspires to the position and his presidency is likely to be marked as much by his need to address Iran’s domestic challenges as president as it is by his continued manoeuvring to ascend to Iran’s highest office.