Why the Coming Iranian Elections Will Challenge the Biden Administration
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems inclined to promote a candidate who will quash dissent over someone who could work with the West.
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.
European diplomats, the Biden administration, and the engagement-fond Western commentariat were really hoping that Mohammad-Javad Zarif, the American-educated foreign minister, would run and win. Opponents of Obama’s nuclear agreement were dreading that possibility, given Zarif’s capacity to play to a Western audience—especially the American journalists whom the foreign minister has cultivated for years. Although committed to the Islamic revolution, Zarif is, compared to most other senior Iranian officials, witty, warm, and passably gracious—in manners, a moderate.
Zarif certainly appeared ready to run. Then his lengthy leaked interview with an Iranian journalist—apparently part of an oral history project—caused a kerfuffle. He complained bitterly about his powerlessness and the omnipotence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, taking issue pointedly with the late commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, with whom Zarif regularly had stressed his productive and friendly relationship.
In all probability, that leak was self-generated (the minister is sufficiently savvy to know that such an interview would ineluctably go public). In other words, the foreign minister was trying to capture the “reform” vote, at least what’s left of it since the violent crackdown on the Green Movement left reformists dispirited, fractured, imprisoned, or exiled. Without a patronage network or any populist appeal, Zarif, who is from a religious but non-clerical family, had no natural political base. Zarif was likely trying to entice the many young Iranians who probably didn’t care much for Suleimani, an avatar of the regime’s sectarian imperialism and an important player in Khamenei’s increasingly gruesome crackdowns (he was probably the guardsman closest to the supreme leader), but Suleimani nevertheless elicited contradictory emotions among many. Vast crowds turned out for his funeral and memorials. And, most decisively, Khamenei loved him. Zarif may well have thought Khamenei, who is well aware how his foreign minister plays in the West, would ride to the rescue as he has done often when complaints about Zarif among “hard-liners” mounted. This time he didn’t.
And that in itself is revealing: The foreign minister would have been the perfect presidential candidate for those abroad who want to trade with Islamic Republic. He would have been an excellent choice if Khamenei wanted to extract, in the nuclear negotiations and beyond, the maximum amount of money with the least effort or compromise with Washington. On a lesser scale, Khamenei could have given instructions to the Guardian Council to approve Ali Larijani, who also wanted to enter the race. Despite being a former commander in the Revolutionary Guards and a pretty hardcore ideologue (he’s always had a big bugaboo about the revolution-killing slippery slope of allowing women more social and civil rights), some Europeans, especially the European Union’s former foreign-policy head, Javier Solana, remember him fondly as a nuclear negotiator. “A man you could work with,” as Solana put it.
Credentialed with a Ph.D. in Occidental philosophy, born into a prominent and well-connected clerical family in Qom, with ties throughout the Shiite world, Larijani would have been a good second choice for the supreme leader if manipulating the West was among his primary concerns. Khamenei would have had the small problem that Larijani is charisma-free, aristocratic (by revolutionary standards), priggish, and not a vote-getter (in the 2005 presidential election, he captured 5.8 percent of the vote as the favorite candidate of the “conservatives”). Exuberant vote-rigging would have been required, but vis-à-vis the West, the choice would have made sense. But the longest serving speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Ardent, competent revolutionaries with decades of experience like Larijani are now being kept outside the inner circle.
A historian of authoritarianism would advise against this approach. But the revolutionary mullahs have been casting aside whole classes of people with each decade: the college-educated, the young, the Islamic left, a lot of the clergy, and now even the poor, for whom the revolution was waged. And so the odds appear to be with Raisi.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will be uncomfortable with Raisi as president. They aren’t Rob Malley, the president’s primary emissary to the nuclear talks in Vienna and a severe left-wing critic of American foreign policy since World War II, who has a tiers-mondiste soft spot for Iran. Though Raisi’s villainy has many hallmarks, his most notorious actions surround the 1988 slaughter of political prisoners, some of whom were children—according to the dissident cleric Ali Montazeri, who’d been Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s designated successor until this 1988 murder spree led him into open protest. Raisi was a remorseless judge damning the incarcerated. Raisi’s temperament seems little changed. He’s an awkward candidate, utterly devoid of the common touch.
Another presidential candidate might still upset Raisi in the election if he can generate sufficient popular momentum to dissuade Khamenei from declaring Raisi the winner, but little time remains for that kind of combustion. No candidate on offer is charismatic. Voter apathy, especially among those who would need to propel a dark horse, will likely be sky high. Saeed Jalili, whom Khamenei has long liked, might be a contender. Although an old-fashioned, archetypal Islamist, Jalili is trying, however surreally, to capture the youth vote. And Khamenei likes to pretend (he knows the truth) that the youth are still with him and the revolution.
It’s still possible that Larijani might be dropped back into the race if Khamenei decides to rescind the Guardian Council’s (that is, his) decision to disqualify him. Sometimes the establishment effectively bucks the supreme leader. It appears the establishment was taken aback by Larijani’s rejection. The Biden administration is probably rooting for Hemmati, the economist-turned-banker-turned-illicit financier. He seems more secular, which always attracts Western affection. And his wife, so it now appears, doesn’t care for mandatory hijab, which might actually be a vote-getter. Women have been a volatile element in Iran’s presidential elections since 1997, that is, when elections haven’t been rigged. And Hemmati in the first television debate really tried to sound like a “reformist,” openly seeking the protest vote, especially from those who fear Iran is headed toward the economic dustbin of history. It’s a hard sell, however: Few probably believe the system is capable of reforming itself through the ballot box, and Hemmati has been a creature of the regime for decades. He emphatically isn’t a disgruntled revolutionary who’s seriously questioning the theocracy’s accomplishments.
If the supreme leader fears for his own mortality—he is 82 with cancer—then making a cleric like Raisi president is compelling. There is zero doubt that the cleric would oppose any change in the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Guards have unofficially become his big boosters, openly preferring him to their own kind who are running. It’s not at all unimaginable that the supreme leader would choose him as his successor if Khamenei believes, as he certainly appears to, that the country and cause are under mortal threat from Western culture and Iranians seduced by it. Ditto the Guards, who are still uneasy with a praetorian system shorn of theocracy. (A telling difference between Sunni Islamist military men and their Shiite counterparts.)
Raisi as president would signal that Khamenei isn’t worried about the United States—at least not nearly as much as he is about internal threats. Zarif or, even Larijani, could seduce the West; Raisi would zealously stamp out nationwide uprisings, and those remain a certainty after the 2019-2020 fuel price protests, which rapidly turned ugly and brought forth the poor and the ethnic minorities. And although Raisi hasn’t commented much about foreign affairs—he worked his way up the regime’s security/prosecutorial institutions and the super-rich Astan-e Quods-e-Razavi Foundation in Mashhad, which gives the supreme leader vast, unaccounted- for wealth—he’s opined enough. He is virulently anti-American. The Iranian president doesn’t have much power. However, in times of crisis, especially with a new supreme leader, it would be far better to have a president with a proven killer instinct.
The odds are good that Biden and company will swallow the ugliness of transferring billions of dollars to uncamouflaged militant Islamists. Obama and company may have had moments of guilt about transferring billions as they watched the Guards oversee the demolition and slaughter of Sunni Syria. It is educational to look back at the administration’s commentary on the war from 2012–2016: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Putin/Russia frequently took hits; the clerical regime rarely did. Arms control, the prospect of internal Iranian evolution through American engagement, U.S. retrenchment, and whatever else was in Obama’s mind about Iran and the region easily overcame any strategic and moral calculations about enriching the Iranians as they radicalized the northern Middle East and Yemen, killed tens of thousands, and drove millions toward Europe, Lebanon, and Jordan. If the same men who didn’t blink much then did so now, it would render a severe judgment on their past actions. That seems unlikely.
In the Middle East, everything boils down to one thing: Is Washington willing to use force to stop an adversary? Biden seems unwilling to threaten Tehran with more sanctions and military action if it keeps enriching uranium and developing more advanced centrifuges. That would be doing what Donald Trump did. With the notable exceptions of Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 (when the U.S. Navy sank much of the Iranian navy), and Trump’s decision to kill Suleimani (of which Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, and Malley disapproved), the American track record in using force against the clerical regime has oscillated between ardently reluctant and downright terrified.
Zarif spoke the truth in the leaked interview: The Suleimani hit discombobulated Tehran and left it weaker throughout the region; American stature rose. Or as medieval Muslim vazirs and modern Islamists would put it: We showed a bit of haybat, the awe attached to insurmountable power. When American might increases in the region, Americans are not, as Blinken surmised, “less safe.” Democrats today are a long way from Dean Acheson: Exercising machtpolitik for them is a prelude to counterproductive interventionism; it also unavoidably burns the political oxygen that this administration needs for its domestic ambitions.
What so many Americans see now as prudence, Middle Easterners—which includes the Israelis—see as fatigue and fear. Nothing is likely to stop Biden from retrenching further—unless the Middle East bites back. In Democratic eyes, the JCPOA is the pivot that allows downsizing. Republicans—even if they are willing to stand up to the clerical regime, and the deep polarization in Washington, the White House’s obvious disdain for Republicans, and Trump in the background calling out those going wobbly seem certain to keep the right pretty solidly opposed to Biden’s efforts—have no power to halt the unraveling of U.S. sanctions. At best Republicans can try to embarrass the administration about its many concessions and hope that events supervene to oblige Biden to reconsider. They can deter many companies and investors from reentering the Iranian market by threatening to reinstate the sanctions when they take back Congress or the White House (similar threats sidelined most businesses in 2015 and 2016, even as a peripatetic John Kerry tried being Iran’s commercial attaché). This time the market knows that Republicans are serious about withdrawing from the JCPOA as Trump did in 2018.
With Raisi as president, the White House will have a challenging time portraying a reanimated atomic accord as something other than an extortionate transaction with pretty wicked Islamists who are blatant about their principal hatreds (America, Jews, Israel, and Western culture). That task might be eased if Khamenei decides to keep Zarif as foreign minister during Raisi’s presidency—a distinct possibility given Zarif’s utility.
In selling its Iran policy, this administration may well do the opposite of Obama’s: It won’t avoid highlighting the Islamic Republic’s oppression and predatory behavior. Blinken and Sullivan have some talent in thinking left but playing right. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these two criticize the Islamic Republic—for its gross human-rights violations, anti-Zionism, antisemitism, terrorism, and imperialism—while the administration lifts onerous sanctions and admits that Tehran has no intention of making any nuclear deal “longer, stronger, broader,” as Blinken once described a hoped-for follow-on agreement to the JCPOA. It’s difficult to believe that Blinken and Sullivan, who aren’t babes in the woods, don’t see that after Washington has lifted sanctions Khamenei won’t agree to restrict further a nuclear program that, in his view, should never have been sanctioned in the first place.
This is a crippling contradiction—unless Blinken and Sullivan really believe that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, in which the clerical regime has invested vast sums over three decades, is just an afterthought, that Khamenei and the Guards, who oversee the atomic and ballistic missile ambitions, are actually willing to give it all up. It’s much easier to envision the Biden administration using “longer, stronger, broader” as political legerdemain to quiet skeptical Democrats (think Sens. Bob Menendez and Joe Manchin) and give non-Trumpian Republicans a means to avoid the demanding discussions about what they would actually do to end the clerical regime’s nuclear ambitions. And such rhetoric could well give the Democrat-leaning, pro-Israeli lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, sufficient wiggle room to stay bipartisan and on the sidelines.
This approach won’t, however, neutralize the Israelis. More likely, it will galvanize them into opposition.
The big wild card for the White House is the Jewish state. Unless the clerical regime’s demands make it impossible for Biden to return to the JCPOA—that is, Khamenei won’t let Biden surrender—Israel is the country most likely to scotch the administration’s hopes. Israeli opposition to the nuclear deal is much deeper and broader today than it was in 2015, when most Israelis found it seriously wanting. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s in-your-face efforts to get Congress and the American people to array against it didn’t please a lot of Israelis at the time; it’s a good bet that today far fewer view those efforts negatively.
Since secret talks started between Washington and Tehran in 2012, Israel’s position in the Middle East has strengthened, in great part because Sunni Arab states fear Iran’s Shiite imperialism and see America as a declining, confused, and reluctant power. Anti-Zionism was practical and cost-free with U.S. hegemony; it’s baleful if Washington is no longer perceived as a credible military check on Iranian depredations.
Israeli military action against the clerical regime’s nuclear infrastructure would surely cause a great, likely irreparable, schism between the Jewish state and the Democratic Party—unless Iranian actions before or after an Israeli strike were particularly provocative. Some Republicans might also take umbrage at a small state, supplied with U.S. weapons, acting so independently, against the wishes of an American president. This fear has certainly curtailed Israeli ambitions in the past. And it’s not hard to find even anti-Iran hawks in Washington who just don’t believe Israel will ever strike the clerical regime’s nuclear sites. “If they were ever going to, they would have done so already” is their sensible logic.
But things are different now given the contraction of U.S. power in the Middle East. (Whether the potential power of the U.S. has declined is a different and entirely irrelevant question; what matters is American will and Middle Easterners’ perception of U.S. strength.) The United States has cut new ground with the JCPOA: A retrenching America, having openly declared its intention to pivot away from the Middle East and its “forever wars,” is transferring vast sums of money to a sworn, active, and lethal enemy of a close ally. Those funds will inevitably increase the tempo and scope of operations by that enemy. (See Iran in the Middle East after Obama started lifting sanctions.) Do a hypothetical: Would the United States entreat a sworn, nuclearizing, terrorism-fond enemy of Great Britain and transfer billions to it, knowing that those funds will increase operations against British citizens?
The American left does love arms control. It’s now hyper-war averse. But that affection and fear would probably dissipate with British deaths.
Mossad’s astonishing operational successes against the Iranian nuclear target—the assassinations, the explosions, the heist of the regime’s nuclear archives—denote a new boldness and urgency in Israel. Unleashing the Israeli Air Force against the Islamic Republic is much more challenging and politically risky. It’s not hard to imagine an angry President Biden seeking to curtail or greatly diminish U.S. military supplies after a preventive Israeli air raid on Iran, especially if it led to U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf. And Israel would have to plan to handle a massive missile assault from the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has shown little independence from its Iranian progenitor and patron.
But Israel has pummeled the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah repeatedly in Syria. Israeli self-confidence has risen. And Jerusalem may not see an Iranian-American clash in the Gulf negatively. The missile race in the Levant will only get worse with time; if Jerusalem believes it can derail the Iranian atomic program for years, it may well find the balance sheet in favor of a preventive raid.
Certainly, Israel will greenlight more covert operations in the short term, trying to inflict heavier damage against Iran’s nuclear facilities and personnel. Such actions are far less convulsing in the U.S. than explicit, undeniable air raids. It will be operationally daunting, however, for Jerusalem to inflict the kind of paralyzing damage that air raids can do. Yet it’s not unlikely that Israeli intelligence would try to do a lot more with the hope that (a) it might get lucky (Iranian counter-espionage services are obviously not performing well) and (b) in response the clerical regime might egregiously violate a revived JCPOA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, in ways that would make it difficult for Europeans and Americans to ignore. And the more turbulence generated by Israel, the less enthusiastic foreign companies will be about the Iranian market. In such an environment, where Khamenei would likely indulge his fierce anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, Israeli military action might have fewer painful repercussions.
If Raisi becomes president and the Biden administration releases billions, giving Tehran’s quest to build a nuclear-weapons infrastructure legality and a lot of cash, fear of Washington’s wrath in Israel may shrink more rapidly than Washington skeptics imagine. The Israelis never believed in a functional nuclear difference between “moderates” and “hardliners” in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear aspirations. But they know that many Americans, especially in the Democratic Party, did. Even under Obama the idea of the U.S. as a Middle Eastern power willing to wage war hadn’t evaporated. (See Libya.) However, a Washington just trying to temporarily buy off die-hard, antisemitic clerics and Guardsmen, which is what a deal with Raisi as president would be, changes fundamentally how Israelis can view the United States. In Jerusalem, the Biden administration entreating Raisi and Khamenei won’t be a realpolitik entente between Nixon and Mao. And in that psychological reassessment of America may come a willingness to roll the dice to foreclose the possibility of mutually assured destruction becoming the nuclear doctrine the Jewish state must forever accept in the Middle East.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.