Table of Contents
The election of current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was–from the start–the result of a mixture of a concerted, powerful pushback from the Iranian clerical and “secular” elites, as well as an obvious domestic byproduct of the nefarious and failed “Maximum Pressure” campaign, waged upon that nation by the administration of Donald J Trump during his four years in office.
This foreign policy tactic ultimately failed to bully Iran in the desired ways, but it simultaneously did so many other, unfortunate things too. It created a talking point for Iranian hardliners to use against the Iranian Reformists in one instance, while causing domestic faith and trust in that party to flicker and dwindle at the same time; it also opened the door to increased Iranian cooperation with the likes of Russia and China.
To this point, in the leadup to the 2021 Presidential Election in Iran – by the 2020 Parliamentary Election – Principlists had already begun staging a political comeback after the early successes of former-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Ebrahim Raisi was far from the only hardliner to come to power in Iran due to the 45th President’s abject failure regarding Iran and the Iran-JCPOA his predecessor created and left for him to caretake, and local elections in 2020 saw Principlist candidates win seats to sit in the Iranian legislature – Majles-e Showrā-ye Eslāmī -condemning the treachery of the US and the political daftness and weakness of the reformers.
Iranians, in other words, have not been thrilled for quite some time, and were – again – not thrilled with the Presidential candidates or the eventual winner who now leads the nation; in the eyes of many within and without the country, their new President had been previously chosen by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei – agreed upon with the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts – and paraded out in an incredibly narrow and calculated field of candidates.
While broad swaths of the nation certainly felt differently about the reformers and their constituents in the lead-up to the election than they did earlier in the tenure of Raisi’s Presidential predecessor, Hassan Rouhani – owing to internal social and economic factors as much as to COVID-19, drug problems and the aforementioned US “Maximum Pressure” – the reactionary, ruling elites did all they could to tilt the balance to ensure that their candidate was to win.
Just two months after the Iranian presidential election, in August of 2022, a wonderful piece by the Carnegie Middle East Center caught my attention as I was reading one day around that time. In it, the authors discussed how the hardline Principlists of the nation were seeking to use recent election gains and triumphs – on top of all of the turmoil vis-a-vis the JCPOA – to further Islamify the society from the top down; this process has remained undone in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution of 1978/79. By the looks of Iran’s domestic and political environment today, it appears that the reasoning for this deliberate installation of Raisi in June of 2021 was both nuanced and multilayered in a way in which encompassed a chosen successor for Khamenei, as well as a designated domestic operation for him to carry out in the present and future – amongst other things.
That process – mentioned by the Carnegie Middle East Center authors in August of 2021 – has certainly been undertaken, and, as can be witnessed in early January 2023, the nation has not taken to the efforts of the state and its actors too kindly at all.
Those authors were on to something at the time, in other words – as has been witnessed in the convening year plus. The Iranian hardline elites wanted Ebrahim Raisi in power for a few reasons: Political continuity, social conservatism, and homogeneity, as well as the rhetoric which comes with reactionary, strongman Principlist types.
While the succession concerning the Supreme Leader position has previously included acting as the nation’s President, it must also be stated that Iran today is not nearly as fundamentally Islamic in function as, say, its neighbor Saudi Arabia has been even after relatively recent “reforms” of its own.
For Raisi and his supporters, this was – and remains – a massive issue; Iran does not want to be fundamentally Wahhabist like their hated rivals the Saudis, but fundamentally Islamic in ways more identifiable per their national religious makeup. This desire can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, how it all unfolded, and it has a thread going throughout Iranian history leading up to our present times.
When the revolution swept Iran at the end of 1978, the future late first President Abolhassan Banisadr had – for some years by that time – aligned himself and his expelled cadre in France with the exiled spiritual leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Banisadr was an economist and a professor in France after being expelled in the 1960s as part of the anti-Shah movements of the time, and so, while an Islamic Nationalist without hesitation or question, was more secularly driven concerning the construction of a modern, revolutionary Iran in many ways, than were his revolutionary comrades.
Shortly after becoming the first President of this new Islamic Republic – of which he and his supporters had dreamed would be economically egalitarian and more socially progressive in many ways than it has become – Banisadr was put into difficult positions by a combination of his opinions, as well as by the more conservative, clerical types that had been positioned around him and was impeached with the support of the Majles; moreover, as this was occurring, the man he had helped to lead to power from their French exile ordered him arrested. The first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran would flee, spending the rest of his life in exile, once again living in France – this time in protected seclusion – until his passing in October 2021.
Even with his expulsion from Iran, however, that nation, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War and American sanctions, was never able to revolutionize as much of Iranian society as those clerics of the time – many of them now dead or aging – wished for. Ebrahim Raisi, only in his early 50s today, is their ideological and practical lifeline to the future. He would continue their work from the Presidency, and, when the current Supreme Leader finally passes, would exist as the prime candidate to replace him as Ali Khamenei once sat ready to do as Ruhollah Khomeini neared death.
That the election of Raisi and sympathetic hardliners should be met, all those many decades later, however, with the greatest, most national protests and civil unrest since those famous days and nights that brought down the Shah once and for all, is both ironic and poignant, however. It all mirrors the past in multiple, different ways, but whispers of a future which very well may be unlike any of them.
Since 16 September 2022 – stemming from the death in custody of a young woman named Mahsa Amini – the full-scale, national mobilization of frustration and unity has left protestors injured or dead at the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and its allies, the nation of Iran in a state of crisis and persecution, and the future uncertain for all.
Thousands have been arrested and are currently waiting upon their existential and legal fates. A few have already been put to death for various, protest-related infractions; with the human-rights track record of the current President of the nation, both the unrest and the punishment seems destined to stretch on into the foreseeable future. The people, however, are being heard and felt.
Seven months into the civil unrest, the so-called “Morality Police” have allegedly since been suspended by the national government. Furthermore, an Iranian minister has stated that the state would be reviewing laws for the mandatory wearing of hijabs – headscarves – too. On the other hand, danger and threats still wait for those brave souls marching and protesting for their freedoms, and much of the world believes that the momentum of the protests will continue to lose steam – as remarkable as they have been. Progress comes slow, but cracks are appearing in the Iranian autocracy all the same.
While the current protests have no discernable leader to date–something that some pundits and Iranian officials believe means the protests are of a transient nature – that rosy forecast does little to save the current Iranian regime from the wrath of the people. These protests feature people of all variations and differences, making their feelings on the further Islamisation of their society fully understood.
Moreover, simply because no leader exists today, does not mean that one does not emerge tomorrow; Joan d’Arc of the Anglo-French 100 Years War is perhaps the most famous reference I could make to this point, but innumerable others exist across time and human societies as well – Iran’s own history is also, of course, a reminder of this as well.
Iran and the outcasts of the international community of nations
What will unfurl from all of the turmoil in Iran, no one can yet know. Yet the world looks on at all of this–the civil unrest and abuse, as well as their dealings with a nation like Russia – in dismay, as well as disgust, as continued evidence and reports make it all clearer and more precise the fact that, while Iran would still like for a return to the international community in the form of a new and reworked JCPOA, it is no longer waiting – either domestically or nationally – upon nations that it deems are diplomatically unreliable and untrustworthy; it is certainly working closer with Russia than it has at any point since that nation invaded it some eight decades ago–even though Iranians do not have a very high opinion of Russia or of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Iran has grown closer to those nations that the United States detests or remains at odds with–such as the aforementioned nations of Russia and China – in part because the United States has pushed them ever into those nations’ enthusiastic embraces; their newly rediscovered relationship with Saudi Arabia is a telling reminder that the Saudis are not really American allies in any authentic sense, as well as how important a new Iran-JCPOA still is.
But, returning to the briefly aforementioned Russia, that nation is diplomatically and economically speaking far more alone than it was at the start of the year – before the nation decided to invade a sovereign nation under the pretense of a neo-Nazi infestation while utilizing their own neo-Nazis in the process. Iran has been isolated from much of the world in this way for quite a long while–albeit with a small, JCPOA break–and while they are actually less sanctioned today than Russia is, they are building partnerships where partnerships exist to be fostered.
It is regrettable to be sure, yet it is, I believe, reasonable to argue that this evolution–both domestic and international–would not be playing out this way were the original JCPOA still functioning. On the domestic side, the attempted–and so far, failed–further Islamization of Iran is an example of failed US policy in many different ways, as much as of failed Iranian policy in more obvious ways; would the current Iranian President–whoever that would’ve been in a JCPOA-secured reality–have tried to tighten the screws of Islamic belief upon the society after the success of the Rouhani administration that would’ve been better appreciated?
After winning a seat back at the international economic and diplomatic table through tough, hard-fought but positive diplomatic means, weathering the blight of COVID-19 with the international cooperation achieved through the monumental JCPOA signing, of which would be uplifting the society economically while buoying reformist ambitions with actual, tangible human results and rewards, what would turning back and away from the secular progress recently won achieve? It is difficult to imagine Ebrahim Raisi coming to power in this scenario, and a Reformist President would have little desire or taste conversely; yet, by betraying Iranian reformers, American conservatives aided and abetted hardline Principlists in their own domestic fight.
Meanwhile, on the international front, the incentive for Iran to do business with a battered Russia–that a large chunk of its population do not feel are morally superior to Ukraine or in their conflict–when the rest of the world has been cooperating and building a positive relationship with you for nearly a decade by now, acts as the natural deterrent that does not today exist concerning Iran and Russia with a JCPOA in place.
Would Iran be voting with the rest of the world at the United Nations to condemn Russia in this instance? One cannot say; I feel an abstention still likely in that scenario, for the sake of diplomacy with a regional power, but certainly, drones, intelligence, weaponry, cooperation and the like would be risking more than Iran would be willing to regarding Russia were it not on the outside looking in.
Today, however, without a JCPOA after the former American President’s reneging, with the Iranian elites having made their move when the metaphorical iron was hottest, and with the administration of Joe Biden being unable to undo the past or to diplomatically innovate fast enough in the earlier stages of his term as President, Russo-Iranian diplomatic and other, various, national innovations were inevitable; Donald Trump created certain international possibilities by his actions in multiple, meaningful ways, and the Russians weren’t going to miss them where possible if they thought it could help their own cause.
Russia has obviously invaded Ukraine, in part because they thought that it would not draw the great condemnation that it did from most sections of the world; Donald Trump’s Joe Biden blackmail might have had something to do with this reasoning, one might imagine. Meanwhile, even as they work as part of those nations which first participated in the initial JCPOA, Russia is able to work with Iran on the outskirts of the international community. The international opportunists continue to prey upon international diplomacy to achieve constructive, positive, and mutual ends often enough–and will continue, even as and if they fail in their attempts at greater, more autocratic power.
As for the Iranian side of it, while cooperating with Russia would’ve been a tremendous risk with the JCPOA still firmly in place from its 2015 and 2016 implementation, repectively, being free of those restrictions–while remarkably damaging for the economic functionality of that state–allows it to function with Russia at this time in these manners. In the short term, it has gained a strategic partner in Russia, allowing for increased functionality across the spectrum of economics, intelligence, technological innovations, and so on.
These realities demonstrate to the world what a JCPOA-less world can and will evolve into: One in which those that have been cast onto the outskirts of the international community of nations runs their own community of nations, free of the influences of great swaths of the world. A segmented world cannot function, and will, as segmented nations do, eventually fight itself until one side or the other is in submission. That is, like it or not, a mere part of its own negotiating leverage. Iran is rubbing it in the face of the world that mending the broken JCPOA will be uncomfortable and unpleasant, because it was not them who broke it. This reality, I think, has left many commentators continuously asking whether it is even worth reconstructing at all at this point.
This question is sheer absurdity, of course. Reactionary thinking. The world needs more multilateral international agreements and accords, not less of them. If those who fight and have long fought for war and sanctions gave up as easily as those prognosticators and analysts who, after turmoil and adversity, would question the foresight of working to develop international bonds, multilateral trust and healthier, less volatile global relationships, then the Warhawks and the sanction yolkers of this world would have long ago been denizens of the dustbin of history. As it stands, however, they remain very much with us, living in each nation upon the planet, and the fight to unite the world must be as eternal and resilient as those who fight to detach and dominate the world.
Far from turning our intellectual minds from multilateral accords, as I have previously noted, humanitarian innovations must begin to be held in the same great significance as economic reforms in these negotiations. Exporting economic concepts to nations will not liberalize those nations, in the same way that capitalism did not liberalize the United States; American capitalism featured–for decades and decades across the middle to late 19th and early 20th centuries–literal private armies, funded by capital, designed to crush dissent and trade unionists. Being apart of the international diplomatic and economic community must come with humanitarian standards, regardless of the economic system a nation prefers to use, and that so many–in various ways–find themselves able to skirt because of their amalgamation of relationships, resources, or power.
When our humanitarian standards do not meet or exceed those economic standards we demand of our “working” allies or partners, America and other nations delegitimize the credibility of their own, singular countries, as well as of the many collective groups of nations of which they exist as parts of.
By destabilizing the JCPOA, Iran, and the nations involved in the agreement with its exit, the US is responsible in some manner for the current administration and ongoing civil unrest in Iran, as well as for the current innovations concerning Iranian and Russian relations.
The path forward, however, is not that path that leads away from developing relations with Iran, despite it all; the path forward leads towards Iran, not because of the leadership of the nation, but because of those millions of people, young and old, fighting for something that every human upon this planet deserves and should demand. The freedom to be as you are and to, without hurting another, represent yourself as you deem and feel most accurate for yourself, is a very human fight indeed; while we turn away from those people fighting for a better tomorrow, we do not aid in their battle.
If the government of Iran is to fall, no multilateral agreement can save it from doing so. If the people of the nation are finished putting up with the repression that they suffer–and that was never intended by many during the revolution to befall them–then it will, eventually, fall. Without a JCPOA right now, Iran can blame its shortcomings–only some of which do stem from sanctions–upon America, subversion of the JCPOA, and so on. With it in places, however, while resources will begin to return to Iran, and relations between nations, societies and economies can develop once more, there will be no bogeyman for the elite of Iran to hide behind; flaws will be understood clearer than ever, and, just as we are seeing today, the people will press upon those institutional weaknesses until something gives.
The protests will continue in Iran, as they do at the time of this essay, going on, and might not even be entirely soothed by a new JCPOA anyway; these folks are, after all, fighting for something of which the JCPOA cannot give them, which is a greater, more secular and liberal society and future. While the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard will be a major factor concerning another revolution, not even they will remain entirely loyal should this wholly organic and popular uprising continue, swelling and gripping people of all classes, ranks, and opinions.
For horrendous things, as much as for positive things, those words of Robert Frost remain true; “So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.” In this instance, the US must look to aid the people by plugging Iran back into the world while creating firm, obvious and invaluable reasons to distance itself from Russia; Iranians will decide the course of Iran’s future, and, as Albert Camus once wrote in one of his notebooks, “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”