Why the Coming Iranian Elections Will Challenge the Biden Administration

In the past, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader inevitably gave a speech before a presidential election extolling how the revolution welcomed variety among the men running for office. This was never true, of course: Ali Khamenei and his minions on the Guardian Council, which supervises elections, have always tried to prune off those who didn’t have the right stuff, especially if they might threaten the system. But there was some latitude. Men of revolutionary stature, sometimes equal to or greater than that of the supreme leader’s, could go at it. Sometimes Khamenei even made too-inclusive mistakes, as happened in 2009 when the pro-democracy Green Movement shook the country. 

In the coming June 18 election, much smaller men will take center stage. There will be some variation. Among the contenders are: Saeed Jalili, a “living martyr,” a former soldier with the lower-class Basij militia, an ardently religious pilgrimage-loving populist who lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq War and rose to become a nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council; Abdolnasser Hemmati, the former Central Bank governor, an economist who’s spent his career tending to government and semi-public finances and became perhaps the regime’s most important money launderer and financer of illicit activities; and Ebrahim Raisi, a ruthless cleric who knows much more about crushing internal dissent than about Islamic law and who has long been mentored by Khamenei. These men have little in common except that they are united in their belief in the revolution, and all have proven their loyalty to the supreme leader.  

Even in an Iranian context, none of the candidates would really be called a “moderate” or “pragmatist,” and what constitutes a moderate or a pragmatist in the Islamic Republic is far from what that denotes in the West. Nonetheless, we can expect that the Biden administration will probably see something attractive—some “flexibility”—in the winner of the contest. After all, who would want to rejoin Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if it meant releasing tens of billions in hard currency to a regime whose leadership is composed entirely of terrorist-supporting “hardliners,” “militant Islamists,” “Shiite imperialists” and “theocrats”? The president and his advisers will be morally obligated to rebrand a few of their Iranian interlocutors (expect “pragmatic” to slip in somewhere) so that diplomacy and the substantial concessions that come with the JCPOA are more palatable and optimistic.  

With an Iranian “moderate” as president, President Biden surely would have athletically advanced again Obama’s engagement arguments. To wit: The atomic accord reinforces Iranian softliners; tens of billions of dollars released to Tehran plus the promise of billions more in foreign investment attenuate the regime’s radicalism. Obama didn’t really mind Khamenei extorting the West, which is what the nuclear negotiations have been about (the theocracy would delay going rogue in exchange for a lot of cash) since engagement would fundamentally change how the Islamic Republic acted. Materialism would triumph over faith. The United States would be cleverer—“not do stupid things” as Obama put it—by being less muscular. With Raisi, Khamenei’s preferred candidate for president, this approach becomes harder to do with a straight face. Thermidor seems farther away.

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