Tomorrow, the Islamic Republic of Iran will vote on a new president, and the race is shaping up to be a fractured rivalry between the country’s reformist camp, led by current President Hassan Rouhani, and Ebrahim Raisi, a reticent, 56-year-old cleric who heads the wealthiest charity in the Shia world — and who also happens to be favored by the country’s Supreme Leader. The result of the May 19 presidential election will not only have profound domestic socioeconomic effects, but will potentially impact the Islamic Republic’s calculus toward regional friends and foes, as well as the newly elected Trump administration and its confrontational attitude toward Iran.
Roughly speaking, engagement versus isolation is the choice that awaits the Iranians and the world depending on which candidate gets the job. If Raisi wins on Friday, Iran will swerve its foreign policy toward resistance and confrontation, where internal spoilers would once again gain momentum in reversing Iran’s “attitude of engagement” toward the world. A Rouhani win, however, would maintain a policy of engagement and moderation both domestically and abroad. While some in the West may argue that the “face of the moderates in Iran” is simply a facade, the reality is that the vast majority of Iran’s 80 million citizens support engagement and moderation, even if these policies have brought limited results to date.
Many of those who served in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s conservative cabinet have been recruited by Raisi. This apparatus, if elected, is designed to reverse much of the past four year’s engagement efforts under the Rouhani administration. Such retrenchment would move Iran’s policies toward a more combative and Ahmadinejad-era like agenda that will strengthen the revolutionary forces inside Iran.
It is critical to note that despite his vague agenda, feeble political portfolio, and quiet demeanor, Raisi’s actions during his time in the judiciary and harsh stance on anti-liberal social rights have gained him a dark resume among the country’s liberal, moderate, and majority-young population.
Raisi is notorious for his involvement in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners in Iran, and many of the country’s young population were re-acquainted with the cleric’s nearly three-decade-old conduct last year. In 2016, Ahmad Montazeri, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri’s son, released audio recordings from his late father. In the tapes, the grand Ayatollah told Raisi and other members of the “Death Commission” that “the greatest crime committed during the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you.”
During the campaigns, Rouhani tapped into Raisi’s dark past by stating that in the upcoming election, “people will once again show that they won’t tolerate those who only knew execution and imprisonment for the past 38 years.” Angered by Rouhani’s comments, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei gave an alarming speech that indirectly threatened the 69-year-old president and his provocative remarks against Raisi. “Whoever threatens the country’s national security values will be slapped,” said Khamenei.
In a region ablaze in conflict, sectarian divides, and threats of radicalism, the equation of Trump versus Raisi is indeed more dangerous than a Trump versus Rouhani dynamic. With a Raisi win, this will be the first time sine the Bush-Ahmadinejad era that the world would see a confrontation versus confrontation duo in their first terms.
As Iran’s election season draws to its conclusion, Trump is gearing up to visit the region. Saudi Arabia will mark the U.S. president’s first stop on his first foreign trip. Ironically, Trump’s travel to the Kingdom will take place on May 19 — the same day that Rouhani or Raisi will claim Iran’s presidency to forge what they both promise to be a “better future” for all.
Trump and the Saudis — with their 31-year-old defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, taking a harsh lead — have outlined an uncompromising, confrontational attitude toward Iran. In a rare interview this month with Al Arabiya, bin Salman said that there is “no room for dialogue with Iran,” condemning the Shia nation for its intentions to “conquer the Islamic world” and “spreading its extremist ideologies.”
Immediately after Salman’s remarks, the Islamic Republic’s defense minister rebuked the verbal attacks. Other Iranian politicians spoke out as well.
“It’s mind-boggling that the Saudis are accusing Iran of ‘exporting terrorist ideologies.’ It’ll be good for them to note what country is fighting ISIS [the Islamic State] in Iraq? And what country is supporting them? The Saudis know the answer,” said former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and reformist politician Sadegh Kharazi.
Such incendiary tit-for-tat will only fully ignite if Iran’s next president triggers further hostility backed by the country’s revolutionary forces. In Iran, extreme moves are supported by the hardliners and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spoilers — those who are evident supporters of Raisi.
There is no doubt that Iran’s policy toward Saudi Arabia under a Raisi presidency will be more confrontational and marked by hostile sectarian rhetoric that will further intensify the Supreme Leader’s agenda in Yemen and Syria. All of which will likely deepen the ongoing conflicts with the Saudis in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
It is important to note that ultimately Iran’s policy toward Syria is in the hands of Khamenei. The nominal presidential administration has limited real influence over the Revolutionary Guards and the military’s relationship to the Assad regime or others in Yemen. Therefore, even under a more moderate Rouhani administration, there will likely be little substantive change to Iran’s approach to Syria and other regional conflicts.
That said, under a second Rouhani term, while the Saudi and U.S. agendas may remain confrontational, Iran’s government will continue to explore policies that aim to fully pull Iran out of isolation and demilitarize the country’s image on a global stage. During his campaign Rouhani has spoken of a full lifting of sanctions, even those unrelated to the nuclear accord. It is unclear, however, what leverage Rouhani will have to press for such a change in long-standing Western sanctions policies absent a change in Iran’s regional activities in areas of concern beyond the nuclear file.
While the Iranian Supreme Leader holds the final word on all foreign policy decisions, the president still has influence in framing narratives and serving as the face of the nation internationally. After the 2015 nuclear accord, even those Iranians who do not favor the government of Iran regarded Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as a hero. Their optimistic attitude toward Rouhani and his foreign minister stemmed from their desperate yearning to belong to the international community and to break away from the decades-old militarized image of Iran.
“We vote for whoever looks kinder,” said Amir, a 30-year-old photographer from Tehran. He asked not to share his last name for security reasons. Amir, like the majority of the youth and 50 million voters inside Iran, feels the pressure of the stagnant economy, yet like many of his fellow Iranians he wants to belong to the world. A Rouhani victory at this stage is the hope of millions who are tired of living under a closed, militarized, and feared Iran.
Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist who has reported and produced for CNN, CNN International, NPR, NBC Los Angeles, Huffington Post, Al-Monitor, and Al Jazeera America.