What Raisi’s Presidency Means for the Region

Iran Will Seek Funding to Refinance and Strengthen Proxies
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi delivers speech at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, on June 22, 2021. (Getty)

In his first statement as Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi rejected the possibility of meeting with US president Joe Biden, or even negotiating Iran’s ballistic missiles program and support for regional militias and proxies. An indication of an ultimate hardline policy in Iran, his statement was not surprising. Raisi is well known to be Ali Khamenai’s protégé and main candidate, and his background spells a grim scenario for the Iranian people and the people in the region.

However, his election – mostly referred to as a “forged” election, which was boycotted by the highest number of Iranian voters in the history of the Islamic Republic – will probably have minor repercussions on the nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the US. The real repercussions will be felt in the region.

In Vienna

The US negotiators in Vienna know very well that Iran will come back to the negotiating table after the elections. What Iran needs today – the hardliners and so-called reformists – is money; that is access to hard currency. The Iranian economy is in shambles and the lifting of sanctions – mainly oil sanctions – would help drastically. For Tehran, this is the main objective of the negotiations and the desired result of the agreement. What Iran will do with this money depends on who will spend it. Raisi’s election indicates that most of it will go to Iran’s regional military operations rather than serving the Iranian people.

With that in mind, the Biden administration might need to revisit the process of these negotiations. The main two questions that need to be addressed are one, how to make sure the money Iran will access does not end up in the hands of its regional militias, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, and two, whether the sanctions against the new Iranian president should be lifted.

On the security level, a new nuclear deal agreement should not result in empowering destabilizing militias in the region, some who directly harm US interests. But on the more humanitarian level, Raisi’s history should not be forgotten. He was not branded as “the butcher” for no reason.

Raisi was one of the four members of the death committee responsible for the 1988 mass execution of thousands of Iranian prisoners of conscience over only a few months. The murder of around 30,000 Iranian prisoners is a crime against humanity that should be punished.

In a statement published right after his elections, Amnesty International Secretary General said that Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran… Under his watch, the judiciary has also granted blanket impunity to government officials and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds of men, women and children and subjecting thousands of protesters to mass arrests and at least hundreds to enforced disappearance, and torture and other ill-treatment during and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of November 2019.”

The statement called for “Ebrahim Raisi to be investigated for his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law, including by states that exercise universal jurisdiction. It is now more urgent than ever for member states of the UN Human Rights Council to take concrete steps to address the crisis of systematic impunity in Iran including by establishing an impartial mechanism to collect and analyze evidence of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Iran to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings.”

Whether this statement – among many other public statement by human rights groups and Iranian dissidents – will reach the US negotiators in Vienna, one still needs to wait and hope. However, the public outrage will probably continue, as Raisi’s presidency is expected to see more serious and spread human rights abuses and violations.

In the Region

It is no secret that Raisi is one of major supporters of Iran’s regional proxies, mainly Hezbollah and the Houthis. This will mean two problems for the region. First, the Iranian regime’s priority will be to refinance and empower its terrorism in the region, hampering all the efforts stabilize Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Second, violence will become the main tool to maintain power.

With the increase of discontent and criticism against Iran and its proxies in the region, from Lebanon all the way to Gaza, Syria and Iraq, the desire to silence opposition will be translated in more acts of violence and oppression. The assassinations against opponents will continue and spread and weapon will be used internally, against the people of these countries.

Therefore, the important question for the West today, particularly to the US, is how to ensure the safety and the space these people need in order to create their own change. In addition, the US needs to ensure that these militias will not use this empowerment to target US interests in the region, and US allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE, and Bahrain.

Right after the elections, Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said in a statement, “Iran has always been a main, strong and real supporter of the Palestinian resistance and our national cause” as he congratulated Raisi.

Vehicles queue-up for fuel at a petrol station in Lebanon's capital Beirut on June 11, 2021, amidst severe fuel shortages. (Getty)

In Lebanon, as if it was their own victory, Hezbollah in Lebanon celebrated Raisi’s winning in the presidential election. At the end of the day, Raisi has been the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) favorite candidate, and Hezbollah – as part of the IRGC – considers this its own victory. Hassan Nasrallah described Raisi in a congratulatory statement as a shield against Israel and other aggressors. “Your victory has renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for the resistance against aggressors,” Nasrallah said.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese people – including the Shia community – are still parked in their cars, in very long lines, in front of gas stations, complaining about fuel shortages and inflation, mainly due to Hezbollah’s policies and smuggling operations. Hezbollah is hoping that Iran’s access to hard currency after the deal with the US is signed will only benefit them – not Lebanon. Eventually, the group will be able to refund its services and buy discontent when and where it is possible.

They remember what Raisi said four years ago, when toured Lebanon’s border with Israel with Hezbollah officials. His statement, “soon we will witness the liberation of Jerusalem,” still rings in Lebanon. He also commended Hezbollah on its efforts to strengthen Islamic culture in Lebanon.

If anything, Raisi’s presidency will probably mark grim scenarios for Lebanon and other regional countries. They will take every aspect of political and the social fabric by force, and whatever makes each of these countries unique, will disappear under Iran’s arms. A big part of the region will be morphed – by force and finances - into Iran’s broader empire of hegemony and might.

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Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.