🔒 Why Ebrahim Raisi was a failure as Iran’s president: Marc Champion

Ebrahim Raisi, a protĂ©gĂ© of Ayatollah Khamenei, aimed to revive Iran’s Islamic Revolution but ultimately failed. His strict policies on the economy and social norms, particularly his crackdown on women’s dress codes, led to massive protests and economic decline. Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash leaves a power vacuum, likely strengthening the IRGC and shifting Iran’s political landscape toward a more militarized regime.

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By Marc Champion

All Iranian presidents since the early 1980s have in essence been expressions of what the supreme leader thought he needed at the time. Ebrahim Raisi was not only a protégé of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also closer in his purist religious and political views. So it matters that at home — where the future of the regime will ultimately be determined — the man chosen to restore faith in and obedience to the Islamic Revolution failed. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Raisi came to power in 2021, claiming that Iran didn’t need a by-then-defunct nuclear deal with the West and could prosper by facing its “resistance economy” squarely to the east. He also quickly imposed a crackdown on female dress codes, in a demonstrative turn to a past where his revolutionary credentials — as “the Butcher of Tehran,” responsible for mass executions of regime opponents in 1988 —were impeccable.

By the time of his death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, however, both policies had proved disastrous. There were fireworks in the streets of Tehran, as some celebrated an unloved president’s demise.

Even Raisi’s election success in 2021 was, in reality, a sign of failure. It was the first presidential vote to produce no benefit whatsoever as a tool of legitimation for Khamenei, at a time when the 40-year-old revolution’s appeal has faded. Raisi had lost to a less hardline regime member — former President Hassan Rouhani — in 2017. He was able to succeed four years later only after the Khamenei-dominated Guardian Council had disqualified all other candidates of any promise, so as to ease his path. The result was the lowest voter turnout on record.

One of Raisi’s earliest decisions was to order a crackdown ostensibly to ensure female modesty and chastity. That resulted in the death, just weeks later, of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini, an ethnic Kurd arrested for not wearing her hijab in the dictated manner. The protests that followed were the largest in the history of the Islamic Republic, posing the greatest domestic threat to the regime’s survival since the revolution. As I’ve written before, it took brutal repression in the streets, killing hundreds, as well as the distraction of Gaza to contain Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom movement.

The threat to Khamenei came not just from the scale of the protests, but in part because it was so clear that Raisi was no more than a cypher for the Supreme Leader. Unlike most previous protest movements — and Iran has had many since 2008 — this one openly challenged the ideals and legitimacy of Khamenei and the Islamic revolution itself.

Raisi did no better on the economy. Despite a significant rise in oil exports as the US eased sanctions enforcement and a large boost to government spending, the International Monetary Fund projects Iran’s economy to grow by 3.3% this year. That may sound healthy enough, but it’s a poor outcome that signifies declining living standards, given the high pace of inflation. According to Iran’s central bank, consumer prices rose 42.7% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2023, the latest data it reports, with food (53%) and restaurants and hotels (68%) the hardest hit. In other words, the poor are finding it harder to eat, and the middle classes are finding it harder to eat out.  

Yet totalitarian regimes don’t need their populations to be content, so long as they have security forces willing to kill to suppress dissent. At the same time, Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine and US troubles in the Middle East have shuffled the global order in Iran’s favor. As Russia, cut off from the West, seeks new markets and sources of arms to sustain its war, Iran has stepped forward, solidifying its position in an emerging coalition of autocracies that includes China, Russia and North Korea.  

I recently heard this bloc dismissed as an “alliance of jerks,” but I think that’s both arrogant and misleading. The coalition has broken Iran’s international isolation and has considerable appeal in the so-called global south. China’s presence also ensures the prospect of economic and technological sustainability for its pariah partners. Add to that the sea change in international opinion that’s being caused by Israeli actions in Gaza and you have an Iranian regime that’s infused with new confidence.

Raisi, certainly before he died, seemed unfazed by the turmoil he had caused with his crackdown on women. With the streets calm again, he had sent the morality police back out to enforce the hijab rules. “We believe that the enemy is pursuing the agenda of undermining modesty,” he said in a May 7 interview on Iran’s Network One TV. “Our religious people will not allow the enemy to achieve its goal.”

Even so, the reliance of Khamenei and his idea of Iran’s destiny on security forces at home and abroad has increased the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over the last decade, whose businesses have stepped into the sanctions void created as Western companies have withdrawn. It’s no coincidence that Raisi’s deputy, Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, is a former IRGC officer and head of Khamenei’s vast commercial enterprise, known as Setad. Mokhber also took part in the negotiations with Russia over Iran’s supply of loitering munitions.

Khamenei has already confirmed Mokhber’s constitutionally mandated move to the post of interim president, ahead of a snap election that should be held within 50 days. That by no means makes him frontrunner or perhaps even a candidate for the presidency, but Raisi’s death has opened new possibilities on succession to the only job that really matters, that of supreme leader.

The coming presidential vote will, once again, have no value as an exercise in popular choice, but it will be important to the regime factions already jostling for the succession. Not even those involved know how that will pan out, let alone me. But it’s hard not to conclude that Raisi’s death, after such an unsuccessful experiment in ideological purity, will have weakened his camp and strengthened that of the IRGC. They, too, are deeply loyal to Khamenei, and their rise would likely promise an equally aggressive Iranian regime, albeit one that’s a little less prone to self-harm at home.

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