Ebrahim Raisi is the first president-elect in Iran to have been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union before even entering office.
The sanctions against Raisi relate to his horrifying judicial record and violations of Iranians’ human rights over decades. Amongst other international crimes, he was a member of the Tehran “death panel” that in 1988 sent thousands of political prisoner to their deaths.
No other Iranian has begun his presidency under such a dark cloud, not even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became notorious in the West for denying the Holocaust. Just minutes after Raisi was declared the winner, Amnesty International called for him to be investigated for crimes against humanity.
Despite his sordid past, however, there are fears that Raisi could be left sanctions-free if the current talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), come to fruition. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said he has seen the draft agreement and all being well, it could be finalized before the end of Hasan Rouhani’s presidency. But would this make a difference to Raisi’s position?
Shortly after Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated, the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly will get under way on September 14 in New York. In the course of their presidencies, both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani travelled to New York to participate in these sessions.
Raisi, however, is currently unable to do the same with east, due to being personally sanctioned by the US government and subject to a travel ban and asset freeze.
The latest round of talks on the revival of the JCPOA wrapped up in Vienna on Sunday, June 20. European diplomats involved in the discussions at Grand Hotel said the lifting of sanctions on Raisi was not one of the Iranian negotiators’ conditions.
The US has meanwhile announced that it will not lift sanctions on Raisi even if it does rejoin the JCPOA because of his record of human rights violations. This will make Raisi’s would-be visit to New York a twisted affair because the American interest section of Swiss embassy in Tehran will, in the first instance, not be able to issue him with a visa.
If Raisi insists on going, Iran’s ambassador to the UN will have no other option but to ask the US to grant him diplomatic immunity and a visa, despite his being sanctioned.
Under its agreements with the UN, the US government is compelled grant visas to high-level officials from member states for the summit. That did not stop the Trump administration refusing to issue a visa to Foreign Minister Zarif in 2020. In addition, Zarif was sanctioned for implementing “the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader” – something quite different from the direct involvement in international crimes for which Raisi has been blacklisted.
Taken in sum, all of this – on top of the fact of Raisi’s election itself – would attract even more international attention to the new Iranian president’s indefensible record. As such, the new administration might be tempted to scrap any plans for him to attend outright. This would in turn mean Raisi missing his first opportunity to appear in an international forum as Iran’s new head of state.
The Good Fortunes of Ebrahim Raisi
This situation is likely to repeat itself for any of Raisi’s other would-be visits to Western countries during his early tenure, and those of members of his new government as well. Despite this, there are plenty of silver linings for Iran’s outgoing Chief Justice.
Most importantly, Raisi is supported, trusted and well-liked by Ayatollah Khamenei and, by extension, Khamenei’s supporters. This means he will not be forced to deal with the same level of widespread opposition, obstructionism and slander that has traditionally been directed at other administrations in the Islamic Republic.
Even if Raisi ends up trying to improve bilateral relations with the US, he is more likely to receive support from Khamenei and the unelected state, as was the case during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term.
During the presidential debates, in a manner that appeared scripted, Raisi said he did support the nuclear deal and agreed with the necessity of reviving the JCPOA. Of course, he added that Rouhani’s government was weak and that his own “strong government” would apply the terms in the “right way”.
This statements gave the parties engaged in Vienna negotiations a measure of confidence, especially as Raisi is a protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has proved time and again that he is the one holding the real power with regard to Iran’s foreign relations.
Last Thursday, in the run-up to the election, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, said that Raisi’s stated positions during his campaign for presidency showed a realistic policy stance “based on cooperation with the international community and constructive economic interaction”.
“His positions towards the nuclear deal,” Araghchi continued, “and current discussions also show his realism and pragmatism in foreign policy. I am confident that if he [Raisi] is elected there will be no disruptions in the negotiating process.”
The groundwork was laid to mitigate the shock from Raisi’s election to those in Vienna. If and when the agreement is finalized and economic sanctions are lifted, Raisi will then be able to rely on Iran’s renewed revenues from oil and gas exports to cement his domestic position in the early days of his presidency.
Access to a reliable stream of petrodollars has always boosted the self-confidence of Iranian governments. It is likely, though, that the unlocked revenues would in part be put to use by the Islamic Republic to bolster its proxies and militant supporters in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has opted to reduce US presence in Middle Eastern countries close to Iran. This reduces the risk of direct confrontation between US and Iran-backed forces, which could lead to some thawing of relations to more manageable levels: something Khamenei has wanted throughout his 32 years as Supreme Leader.
This, too, would strengthen Raisi’s presidency and his chances of succeeding the 82-year-old Khamenei to Iran’s most important political-ideological role. How that would benefit Iran’s international standing, given Raisi’s criminal past and the enormous difficulties Western states will have in even engaging with him as president, is anyone’s guess.