Jun 23, 2021 - World

Conservative consolidation in Iran won't necessarily bring stability

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran arrives for his opening press conference. Photo: Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

After eight years of near-constant attacks on President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, Iran's hardliners will control all levers of power after the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Rouhani's successor.

Why it matters: Some observers posit that the alignment between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the new hardline president will pave the way for more stability in Iran and eventually a greater willingness to engage in diplomacy.

Yes, but: The “unitary state theory" has failed previously, and the conservative camp is not entirely united.

  • Previously, Khamenei and the IRGC could stick their necks out by proxy, such as during nuclear negotiations, and still avoid the blame for any high-risk failures. Raisi’s presidency reduces this option.
  • And during the presidency of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the last time hardliners had complete control, Iran slid into conservative infighting.
  • Already, the presidential candidacy of IRGC general Saeed Mohammad triggered an unprecedented public split among senior commanders. Ultimately, Mohammad was disqualified and rallied behind Raisi.

The big picture: The conservative advance was aided by the failures of the reformist movement and the policies of former U.S. President Donald Trump, including his 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. But it was marred by strikingly low voter turnout.

  • Just 48.8% of eligible voters cast ballots — down from more than 70% in the last two elections — and that drops to some 42.5% when taking into account invalid ballots.
  • The runner-up to Raisi's 62% was actually the 12% of voters who cast blank or spoiled ballots, a big spike from previous elections.

Between the lines: The authorities in Iran have long valued high turnout in presidential elections as proof of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.

There was significant pre-election maneuvering to ensure Raisi's election, as part of the effort to position Iran for the day the 82-year-old Khamenei passes away.

  • Damaging leaks took Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif out of the running, and the Guardian Council later eliminated other reformist candidates en masse, including former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

What to watch: While Iran’s reform movement is on life support and in serious need of soul-searching, the conservative takeover would have a silver lining for reformists if the conservatives abstain from suppressing a movement that now seems to pose little threat.

  • However, a likely economic upturn after the revival of the nuclear deal could give the government enough capital to crack down even harder on political dissent.

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