Election of judge, Khamenei loyalist to presidency signals new pivot to Asia.
EBRAHIM Raisi’s victory in Iran’s general election on 18 June 2021, as president of the Islamic pepublic, was premeditated and endorsed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council.
The 48.8% voter turnout, though higher than what the polls predicted, is the lowest in Iran’s election history since 1978. Some have expressed dismay over the disqualification of reformist candidates, while others simply thought it best to stay home and safe from COVID-19.
The new president will face many challenges ahead, including crippling US sanctions, reimposed after the Trump administration abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. COVID-19 has also inflicted a one-two punch on an already teetering economy.
The discontent over the handling of the elections, deteriorating economy and COVID-19 will no doubt have an impact on Iran’s position in the region, but the real question is will Raisi’s hard-line camp become a game changer or will it carry on with the current policies to the region?
The Rouhani government is still renegotiating the nuclear deal in Vienna, with some optimism. While both Khamenei and Raisi have indicated a willingness to continue with the renegotiation, the new government will not place much hope on it to salvage the economy. Instead, we should expect Iran to “pivot” elsewhere.
Riyadh and Tehran held secret talks in Baghdad in April in a bid to end the bitter rivalry between the two whereby both countries have used proxies to further their ambitions in the region. Raisi’s latest statement seems to indicate a willingness to forge diplomatic ties with the Saudis. Coupled with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on economic reforms, there is good reason to believe that a Saudi-Iran rapprochement may very well entail soon.
On the other hand, Iran remains a “regional threat” to the new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. During his first cabinet meeting, Bennett condemned the newly elected Iranian president, describing Raisi as a “hangman”. Hence, we could expect further tension between Israel-Iran under a Raisi government.
Whatever hope the Iranians may have – under Hassan Rouhani’s leadership – of rejoining the regional and international community appears dashed under a Raisi government. Faced with geopolitical challenges, a deteriorating economy and COVID-19, how will Iran’s new president face these challenges when he takes office in August?
One answer is relatively straightforward: Asia. Like much of the Islamic republic’s allies and foes, its attention will “pivot” towards Asia. To salvage its economy – should the nuclear deal fail – a Raisi government could look towards China and India to improve trade and investments.
China and Iran recently signed a comprehensive strategic partnership in late March, where US$400 billion (RM1.67 trillion) in Chinese investments would not only help Iran weather through its sanctions but provide Beijing with a source of cheap oil for a quarter century. Despite US sanctions, India remains a neutral third party and continues to be one of the largest markets for Iranian oil export as well.
We could expect a Raisi government to extend and enhance its existing bilateral relations in a post-COVID landscape as well with other Asian countries, particularly Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia house the world’s largest Muslim population. Putting economic cooperation and diplomacy above sectarian beliefs – Raisi’s government would seek to enhance and foster these relations to greater heights.
But is Asia ready for a Raisi government?