Raisi: Experts on Election Results

The Woodrow Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted a discussion on June 22 on the results of Iran's presidential election. The panel included:

  • James F. Jeffrey (moderator) – Chair of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center; Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
  • Suzanne Maloney – Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution
  • Ali Vaez – Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group
  • Robin Wright – Distinguished Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center 

The following is an edited transcript from the event. 

Wright: Let me start by offering seven headlines. I'm a journalist, and I try to think of what the big things are we should know. The first and most obvious is that the hardliners have now consolidated political control in Iran. They hold the presidency, the parliament from elections last year and the judiciary. They control the intelligence community and the military. Iran increasingly looks like a one-party state. At the same time, my favorite expression about Iran is that where there are five Iranians, there are six parties. There are deep divisions among the hardliners. We shouldn't assume that they are going to automatically agree about absolutely everything.

The second headline is that the reformist movement - which has gone through cyclical moments that have captured the imagination under President [Mohammad] Khatami and then under President [Hassan] Rouhani - now appears to have atrophied. With the end of Rouhani's presidency, there is no conspicuous leader to mobilize, inspire or create a sense of the future for a lot of the reformists. It was quite striking to me that Khatami urged people to turn out to vote, and they ignored him.

The third obvious headline is that this was an election that involved far more than the presidency. It was really a referendum on the system. The most striking thing is that the majority of Iranians opted not to vote. Just under 49 percent did vote. Among those votes, close to 12 percent were invalid for a variety of reasons. They either had write-ins or didn't vote on the presidency. It's important to note that this is a pivotal juncture for the revolution. The majority of the early revolutionaries are either senior citizens or dying out.

We're going through my next headline, which is that there is a demographic shift. The majority of Iranians and the majority of voters have now been born since the 1979 upheaval that ended more than 2,500 years of dynastic rule. This has had a profound impact on what the younger generations want. They're looking for a broad change in the nature of leadership. They want the old guard out.

Robin Wright
Robin Wright

My next headline is that this did set the stage for the succession of the supreme leader, who is now 82. He has ruled since the passing of revolutionary leader Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini in 1989. The only precedent we have is when he [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] became supreme leader, he had been the president. This sets the stage for a possible inheritance of power for President-elect Raisi. It's not automatic, however. Raisi faces an incredible number of hurdles in restoring economic health, creating up to five million jobs, getting access to Iranian oil assets that have been frozen because of U.S. sanctions abroad. The supreme leader also still hikes and still appears to be in decent health for his age.

My sixth headline is that short term, I'm not sure we're going to see a lot of change either on domestic or foreign policy. There may be more of a crackdown on corruption, which was the theme of Raisi’s campaign. Corruption is an issue that infuriates Iranians. Corruption was banned under the monarchy. It has become hideous under the theocracy. We may see that play out. Woe to the Rouhani administration because one of the most dangerous jobs in the world is to be a former president or work for a former president in Iran. Rafsanjani's children were imprisoned. Two of Ahmadinejad's vice presidents were sentenced to jail terms. You have to wonder what happens, especially since Rouhani's brother was sentenced to five years in jail for corruption. There may be an examination of what the Rouhani administration did.

The final point, and I really defer to my colleagues more on this, is the future of negotiations with the United States. Both sides are committed to trying to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and the world's six major powers in 2015. The terms are going to be tough, but I think they're going to get there. Raisi even committed to supporting a return to full compliance with the JCPOA during the debates, during this incredibly brief three-week presidential campaign. Then it gets really tough. I'm not optimistic about the prospects of getting broad agreements that will satisfy many in the United States, many in countries that are allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, when it comes to missiles, when it comes to Iran's meddling in the region. There may be prospects for some kind of agreement on Yemen. But when it comes to Iraq, Syria, particularly Lebanon, it gets a lot tougher.

Vaez: Here are my seven points about the Iranian elections. What distinguished this election, at least compared to the ones that we've seen since 1997 was that it was much more constrained, not necessarily quantitatively. If you look at the previous presidential elections in 2017, the Guardian Council disqualified more people. But qualitatively it was interesting because they used to target loyal critics or real critics of the system but rarely consummate insiders. This time, they really went an extra mile and eliminated anybody who would pose a serious threat to Mr. Raisi. Most important among them was Ali Larijani, who was the longest serving speaker of the Iranian Parliament and is still very close to the supreme leader.

The second point was turnout. Turnout was around 48 percent. If you deduct the 12 percent of spoiled ballots, we basically end up with around 36 percent of the vote. Mr. Raisi didn't get all of them. This is really a minority rule for the first time in many years. That in and of itself is quite an interesting phenomenon.

Ali Vaez
Ali Vaez

The third point is that this is really the end of the reformist era. If you look at their votes in all the previous elections since 1997, they've been able to get something above 15 million in each and every election. This time, although they obviously did not have any of their heavyweights in the election, towards the end of the campaign they tried to support the more moderate [Abdolnasser] Hemmati, the former head of Iran's Central Bank. But he didn't get more than 2.4 million votes, which was less than the void and spoiled ballots. This was a real humiliation for the reformists. It's really an end of an era for a leadership who has been obstructed by the deep state but has also failed to figure out a way forward.

The fourth point is that I would argue Raisi's administration is Ayatollah Khamenei’s first government. This is a government that is entirely beholden to Ayatollah Khamenei. Some people draw parallels with the [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad administration, but Ahmadinejad was not appointed to any position by the supreme leader before he became president, whereas Raisi owes everything he has to the supreme leader. He is completely beholden to him. I would also argue that this is probably Ayatollah Khamenei's last government, given his age.

This brings me to the fifth point: the system paid a huge price by undermining one of the pillars of its own legitimacy by organizing an election which resulted in the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Not just to empower a trusted acolyte but because it is seeking maybe broader plans and designs to ensure that Ayatollah Khamenei's legacy and family would survive the aftermath of his supreme leadership. That could include potential institutional changes. Ayatollah Khamenei in the past has talked about transforming Iran's presidential system into a parliamentary one, so that you don't have a popularly elected president with millions of votes who could challenge his divine authority. Instead, you would have a prime minister who would be selected by the Parliament, and you can easily get rid of. It might also include other changes that would make sure that his family is protected. His office - in which his second son, Mojtaba, wields an enormous amount of influence - would be able to continue being the power behind the veil.

The sixth point is that domestically Raisi's election is really bad news for the Iranian people. If I'm correct in my analysis that this whole election was more than the presidency and part of the system's design to consolidate itself before it goes into the transition to the post-Khamenei era, these periods often include purging of opponents and crackdowns internally. We saw in the late 1980s that the Islamic Republic in fact engaged in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in which Mr. Raisi was implicated and involved. I'm afraid we might see more of the same in the coming years.

Last point, point number seven, is that unlike the domestic implications, the foreign policy implications might not be that bad in the sense that a more unified hardliner control over all instruments of power in Iran means that there will be less infighting. I'm not going to say no infighting because that's the nature of the Iranian polity. But at least less mistrust towards their own envoys and negotiators that could potentially make negotiations with them easier. But it is a double-edged sword in the sense that Raisi's human rights record would make it politically costlier for the Biden administration to engage with them. But we have a long track record of negotiating with unsavory counterparts.

Maloney: I don't have seven points. I have about six. But maybe I'll think of a seventh on the fly just to keep up with my co-panelists. Much of what I'll have to say will echo points raised by both Robin and Ali. We may differ in a few places, but in many places our analysis is similar.

The first point I wanted to make is just to reinforce something that both Robin and Ali said about the domestic politics and what the Raisi election reflects, which is the culmination of the long, slow decline of the reformist movement. That's fundamentally, deeply important both for Iran and for the rest of the world as we think about the future of Iran. The reform movement for at least the past 20 years has been the dominant narrative of how we think about Iran and how we deal with Iran. This expectation that there is some prospect of gradual, progressive change from within the system that does not require or does not benefit from outside pressure, and that, in fact, Iranians will essentially solve the problems that the rest of the world has with the Islamic Republic. I see no realistic prospect of that succeeding in anything like the near term. The entire project of gradualism or the reformist movement that came about with the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami has really been on the defensive almost since 2003 when they lost their first big election in the Parliament at that time. We've seen sporadic revivals, especially in 2009 with the presidential election and then the birth of the Green Movement opposition force. But they really haven't had a strategy that has been proven to work.

Suzanne Maloney
Suzanne Maloney

The strategy from the outset was to try to capture institutions via elections and use those institutions to strengthen the representative elements of the Islamic Republic, of the postrevolutionary system. Essentially, they haven't been able to capture elections. They haven't been able to actually use that institutional power when they have had it to enact meaningful, sustainable, durable reforms to the political system. They've been countered at every point from conservatives who control the unelected system. Both the lack of strategy and the lack of a coherent leadership has really removed any serious claim that they have to success. We don't see any alternative movement taking shape in in the absence of a serious reform movement. Not that we necessarily would from outside Iran, but that void is an important one.

The second point I wanted to make is perhaps to take issue with one of the points that Ali made about the possible silver linings. I've heard a number of people and seen a number of pieces that seek to try to make the best of what we all recognize to be a really unfortunate situation: the elevation of a man with just a horrific human rights record. A man who sealed the death warrants of thousands of political prisoners and then oversaw the judiciary as it engaged in the repression that helped eliminate any serious prospect for gradual reform to the second highest office and possibly putting him in a position to assume the supreme leadership when the current supreme leader passes from the scene.

I see absolutely no silver linings because when you have five Iranians, particularly from the Islamic Republic, you have six different points of view. This is a regime that has engaged in fratricidal partisanship since the outset. The further you narrow the insiders to the system, the more vicious the infighting becomes. We see that with the elimination of the Larijani family, with Ali Larijani's disqualification to run for these elections. This is a major element of the conservative-hardline front. The fact that they are no longer part of the system does not mean the system is more consolidated. Every time one faction is pushed to the side, they tend to rebound with an effort to undermine those who pushed them out. I'm less persuaded that we're going to see less political contention within Iran or a more coherent and decisive leadership. Certainly not a leadership that's going to be prepared to take major risks or engage in a serious rethink of any of its policies.

The third point I'll make very briefly is that what we're seeing is the continued slow-motion metastasis of the Islamic Republic. We are no longer in a position where the personality politics of the regime insiders matter all that much. This is a very significant consolidation of authority around the hardest line poles of the regime. The Iranian citizenry are voting with their feet. They're trying to leave the country. They're turning in spoiled ballots. They're not in any way rallying behind this system at this stage. I don't see any real prospect that Raisi, with his temperament, with his policies, is likely to change that in a serious way.

I'd like to move now for my fourth point over to foreign policy. The more things change, the more they stay the same with Iran. We have the same fundamental problems with a Khamenei-Raisi leadership, as we did with a Khamenei-Rouhani leadership, as we did with a Khamenei-Khatami leadership. The same fundamental concerns about the nuclear issue, about Iran's role across the region and about Iran's treatment of its own population. Ultimately, the Iranian president doesn't have an inordinate amount of direct authority over these decisions. He can nudge things in a certain direction, particularly through appointment of a foreign minister. But Iran's posture in Syria, Iran's involvement in conflicts across the region, and even the approach to the nuclear issue, all of this is really set and dictated by the supreme leader - obviously with input from officials across the system, including but not limited to the president. I don't think we're likely to see a significant shift on any of the major foreign policy issues, including Iran's approach to the nuclear negotiations, despite the fact that Raisi has been a long-time critic of that.

The fifth point is that I don't actually expect a significant change in the Biden administration's approach. Ultimately, every American administration has sought to talk with the Iranians as a means of trying to moderate the most dangerous policies of this system. The sense of urgency around the nuclear issue has persuaded successive administrations from both parties to deal directly, even with the most odious leaders. Think back to the nuclear negotiations themselves. The United States joined in 2006 under the Bush administration, reversing the prior opposition to the nuclear talks that had been begun by the Europeans. That was at a time that Ahmadinejad was really at his apex of provocative narcissism. This is not unique to Republican administrations. The Obama administration sought to conclude a confidence building measure around the Tehran research reactor in the weeks even after the 2009 Green Movement uprising and its brutal suppression by Iran's security forces. We've been willing to deal with Iranian leaders, even where they are truly reprehensible, where we believe the national security interests of the United States are at stake.

The final point I wanted to make is that I remain skeptical about the prospects - not for concluding or reviving the JCPOA in any serious way, in fact, we're probably on the precipice of doing just that. But I remain very skeptical, and I lay this out as my final sixth point as a bit of a provocation to the rest of the panel, that I just don't see that a revived nuclear deal is going to pay the dividends that were originally envisaged. I don't think it's going to provide the cushion against Iran's nuclear ambitions that was hoped for. The timeline is a lot more compressed. The benefits of the restrictions that we may be able to put back in place are going to be offset by what Iran has been able to achieve during the hiatus of the past few years. The implementation is going to be exceptionally contentious.

I will just add one final point, which is to reinforce that Iran is not a nuclear issue. U.S.-Iran policy cannot begin, nor can it end, with a policy to revive the JCPOA. We have to be - in hand as we're seeking to find ways to reinforce the restrictions around Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons capability - devising a policy that exhibits the same degree of international support for pressure on Iran over its human rights abuses at home and that seeks to lay down red lines and push back against Iran's efforts to militarize the rest of the region through its support for proxy militias from Gaza to Afghanistan.

Jeffrey: Here's my first question. Henry Kissinger once said: "Iran has to decide, is it a cause or is a country?" What answer can we draw from these elections?

Wright: I'd love to start on that one because one of the constants since 1979 has been this question. Is the Islamic Republic of Iran first and foremost, an Islamic state or is it first and foremost a republic? Iran's unique political system is a hybrid. It blends the ideas and principles in its constitution, which borrows heavily from Napoleonic Code - from French and Belgian law - with Islamic law. It's created a political system where you have the traditional kind of Western model branches of government - the executive, the judiciary, the legislature - that are independent. The parliament and president are elected by the people. Then you have the Islamic institutions, which are designed to be a check and balance on the secular branches of government to make sure that you don't see the emergence of a strongman that tries to create, like the Pahlavi dynasty did, a new monarchy. The debate is played out in every domestic and foreign policy decision ever since. It's played out in elections.

It's clear that those who favor an Islamic state, the hardliners, have about 25 percent at most - a quarter of the population - when it comes time to vote. The reformers have probably plus or minus about the same. The 40 to 50 percent of the public has decided on most of the elections. This question has not been answered. Does this question of the hardliners' control and the atrophying of the reformist movement set up the failure ultimately of not just the hardliners, but the revolution itself? Utopian ideologies promise things they can never deliver. Iran's revolution was carried out in the name of improving the lives of the oppressed. At the end of the day, it hasn't. Many Iranians are worse off today than they were 20 years ago. Figures of inflation and the value of the rial, it's almost pathetic. When it comes to human rights, you've seen the fact that there are two former presidential candidates who have been under house arrest now for more than a decade for challenging the outcome of the election in 2009 when there were widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

While the hard liners at the moment have consolidated control, one of the big questions is what about the rest of the country? What about the 70-75 percent of the country who either support somebody else or doesn't feel motivated to turn out to the polls? When we're gaming the future and trying to understand what this means, how does this play out in terms of the pattern of revolutions historically? I put that question to Suzanne and Ali to see if they have a sense of how this could backfire. Raisi is going to have a hell of a hard time delivering on a lot of the expectations that people have. He's not an imaginative politician. He has offered very few ideas. He talks, but he doesn't actually say very much. 

Maloney: The question of whether the revolution has failed in my mind is already settled. We can see over successive decades in different iterations that there are a large number of Iranians who are very unhappy with their own government and haven't found a mechanism for channeling that dissatisfaction into effective political action, whether it was the student protests of the late 1990s or the Green Movement of 2009 or the economically driven protests that became quite violent across the country over the course of 2017, 2018 and 2019.

There's an obvious disconnect between the sort of glorious proclamations that emanate from Iran's senior leadership and the real lived experience of Iranians who have had their hopes raised at different points in time about the prospects for full re-engagement with the world, but whose ambitions and aspirations for living a normal life have always been scuttled by the insistence of their leadership on clinging to anti-American, anti-Israeli ideology, toward imposing the types of social and cultural restrictions on opportunities for women, on general civil human rights and freedom of expression that simply do not in any way reflect either the national interest or the popular preferences of most Iranians.

There is no alternative at this stage. That is what is most important about this election. There has always been the sort of illusion that the next election might turn things in favor of a gradualist strategy, recapturing state institutions in order to try to bolster the authority of those who are elected and really reinforce this idea that there is a kind of republican as well as an Islamic dimension to this government. The difficulty is it just that it hasn't worked. Once you begin to really see the sort of irrelevance of the republican elements of the system, you're left with what is fundamentally, purely an Islamic state.

I never fully subscribed to the Kissingerian view on this. Iran's leaders pursue what they believe to be its national interests. I don't think they see themselves as a cause. They see themselves very much as a state, but a state that operates in a way that is, in many respects, outside the normal rules of engagement for states in the modern era. They are prepared, and in fact the first alternative is often, to try to find ways to infiltrate their neighbors in order to strengthen their own position across the region by setting up these proxy militias, by ensuring that they effectively have a hand across the region in order to defend themselves. I don't think this is as much about spreading the revolution as it is about securing their own position from real and presumptive adversaries.

There's some justification for their paranoia. The invasion of Iran by Iraq in 1980 was a catalytic experience for all of those who remain in senior leadership. The sense of paranoia and insecurity that inculcated has lived on for the decades and will continue to do so. But what we haven't been able to do is to persuade Iran of the benefits of engagement and of adhering to the normal rules of state behavior, which is to say that you don't fund, set up and direct militia groups in your neighbor's country. We haven't been able to persuade the Iranian leadership that the benefits of adhering to the normal rules of the international order are preferable for their country's interests than the types of activities they undertake. One of the reasons for that is that there typically hasn't been much of a cost to them for these activities. This is why it's so important that we do begin to conceive of Iran beyond the nuclear issue and begin to try to approach the other issues of concern with Iranian behavior, with the same sense of urgency and sense of multilateral support and engagement that we have applied to the nuclear issue.

Vaez: I'm in violent agreement with everything Robin and Suzanne said. If you look at the insecurities and ambitions of the Islamic Republic and put emotions aside and compare it with the shah - the shah's regime was our closest ally in the region - you see that there are a lot of similarities.

With all due respect to Dr. Kissinger, this is the wrong question to ask. There are two main questions that we have to respond to if we are to come up with a functional Iran policy. Number one is whether Iran has legitimate security concerns. If it does, then what's our answer to it? We can't tell the Iranians, put aside your support for proxies and partners and stop your ballistic missile program while we keep you under an arms embargo and every year sell billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons to your neighbors. It just simply doesn't work. We can continue at this game for another 40 years. We will end up with the same result.

Number two is, yes, we don't accept Iran to be the hegemon in the region. I also think it's unrealistic for Iran to be the hegemon in the region because of its sui generis nature as a Persian nation and as a Shia nation. But the right question to ask is not where is the ceiling to Iranian influence in the region that we can accept, but where is the floor? We've never been able to define it. Our allies in the region have never been able to define it. Most Arab Gulf countries used to say that Iran should be completely extricated from Arab affairs. Is that really realistic?

If we respond to these two questions, we have a much better chance of getting it right. One last point about the internal transformations. When the history of the Islamic Republic is written, historians would look back at this election and draw parallels with the shah's decision towards the end of his reign. Instead of opening up the system, he closed it down and created the one-party system. The Islamic Republic has concluded that this bifurcated political structure that they have is dysfunctional as long as the executive branch and the unelected institutions and the other branches of government are in the hands of different factions. They're fighting with each other all the time. It has decided to close it down in order to make governance a bit more effective at a time that Iran is faced with serious crises and major challenges. I'm not just talking about the economic challenges. The country's environmental issues are immense in terms of water scarcity, pollution, and there are a lot of societal issues and obviously major foreign policy challenges. But this will backfire. When we look back at it, it will be the beginning of the end.

Jeffrey: You said that there should be a floor, not just a ceiling, but a floor. I'd like to pursue that. I'll be a bit provocative. Since the demise of Saddam [Hussein], I've seen no natural enemy of Iran anywhere in the region, anybody that has claims on Iran's territory or is trying to snuff out the revolution. I see competitors. Turkey and Saudi Arabia immediately to mind. But what is the legitimate floor of Iranian presence and activity in the region? Could you make an analogy with another country in the region? A set of behavioral points that perhaps we could agree with if we ever do sit down with the Iranians on this?

Vaez: Very good question. I don't think there are a lot of good analogies that you can draw from this region. That's why I've always had a problem with analysis that portrays Iran as the source of all evil in the region, as if everybody else - Turkey and the Gulf countries - are sources of benign behavior and Iran is the only source of malign behavior.

A better example to look at - I know sounds like an unachievable ideal - is the European Union. In Europe, you also have the same sort of challenges you have in the Gulf region, which are asymmetries in the countries’ sizes, their populations, their depth of statehood, cultural differences, language differences. After centuries of fighting with one another, Europeans came to the conclusion that they need to have a security architecture in which all of them, regardless of their size, feel secure. What binds them together is trade. This is why it's really shocking to me when I see that the United States does not like to see trade between Iran and Iraq, for instance, growing. That is a source of stability.

If you look at Iran's relations with Turkey, the border between the two countries has been the most stable in the Middle East for over three centuries. There is a reason for that. The reason is that the two countries’ economies are so intertwined that even at a time of crisis in their relationship, they would have to still figure a civil way forward because they are completely interdependent. That's the kind of relationship that we should encourage.

The Biden administration has already talked about this. The lessons of the JCPOA in 2015 and 2016 are that you can't prioritize the urgent and overlook the important matters. The urgent is obviously the nuclear issue because of the timelines and the way that the program is growing exponentially now, as it was from 2013 to 2015. But we can't address the regional issues in a sequential way. We have to do these things simultaneously, restoring the JCPOA, deescalating the conflict in Yemen, and then using these as stepping stones towards a regional dialogue initiative that would eventually, not immediately, result in that more stable regional architecture. In that structure, you can address a lot of other issues.

For instance, it's very difficult to convince the Iranians to always be an exception. In the Non-Proliferation Treaty, you have not just two categories of countries - nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapon states - but now three, and Iran would always be an exception to the rule and would accept permanent limits on its nuclear program. That's never going to happen. But if you tell the countries in the Gulf region: can you all accept not to reprocess plutonium? Can you all accept not to enrich uranium beyond a certain limit? Then you have a much better chance of getting those stronger and longer limits that the Biden administration is seeking. In the same context, you can also address Iran's ballistic missile program because the Saudis currently have longer range missiles than the Iranians do. Eventually, you have to figure out the imbalance and asymmetry of conventional weapons capabilities in the region that we and our allies in Europe continuously exacerbate.

Wright: I was at the first GCC meeting 40 years ago in Riyadh. When you think about the success of six countries that should share a lot when it comes to oil policy or regional security, it's striking that there are such deep divisions. Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade by air and land and sea on neighboring Qatar. The idea of expanding that seems unattainable any time soon. Yes, there are issues that could be the basis for discussion. But one of the things we have to understand is the kind of history of U.S. ties to Iran and to Saudi Arabia. Until 1979, Iran under the monarchy was one of the two pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the region, along with Israel. With the revolution, the hostage crisis, the takeover of the U.S. Embassy and Saudi Arabia's growing role in the 1970s in importance because of the quadrupling of the price of oil, the United States increasingly replaced Iran with Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, Egypt, as it started engaging with peace with Israel.

One of the things we forget in this discussion of how we diffuse regional tensions is that for Saudi Arabia one of the things that scares them the most is being relegated to second, third or fourth place yet again, as it was before 1979. It is not as important whether it comes to resources or the size of its consumer market. Just the geostrategic importance in the region, Iran is a bigger player. It borders three important regions: South Asia, the Middle East and the former Soviet Muslim republics. It's just a more important property. In the background of all this discussion about what kind of deal can we get on missiles or intervention in the region is the bigger picture. Especially at a time that you have an ambitious crown prince in Saudi Arabia who wants to make Saudi Arabia the next Egypt. He wants to be the next [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. He wants to take on the leadership of the whole region. The prospects of getting agreement are going to be much harder than they might have been under previous kings in Saudi Arabia.

James Jeffrey
James Jeffrey

Jeffrey: I was listening to quite similar presentations, very thorough and deep, but quite similar in assessing the election and the consolidation of power. I was immediately reminded of what we see under Xi [Jinping] in China and [Vladimir] Putin in Russia. There's a difference, though. From what I know about both countries, there is a general satisfaction with much of the population with this consolidation or tolerance of it. There are obviously individuals in China and there are groups in Russia who resist. But all in all, there's a general assessment that the population is willing to go along with this.

What we've seen and heard in this election is dramatic. The 48 percent tally and 13 percent of those people cast invalid ballots deliberately. The population isn't happy with this. That's somewhat of a difference. If Raisi isn't successful, that will have an impact. What can the population do, if anything, to express their unhappiness with what has happened, not only in the elections last weekend, but a less than glowing economic performance?

Maloney: It is an interesting premise, and I suspect at least some of my colleagues who work on Russia and China might take a slightly more nuanced view of how popular each of those systems are or what the strains within those systems are. But we have less evidence. What we have with respect to Iran over the course of the past few weeks is just another reminder that the system, while tolerated by most Iranians would not, in fact, be the choice of Iranians were they able to vote in elections that resembled anything like a free and fair ballot.

What are the alternatives that are available to them? That's why this election is so important because it has denuded any possibility of the idea that the reform movement can somehow rehabilitate itself. There is no meaningful pathway for gradual change of the Islamic Republic in a way that would meet the demands of their own population or of the international community in terms of the way that the government engages with its neighbors and with the international community. What alternatives could there be? Iranians rightfully look back on their own history and have a general sense of aversion to violent upheaval. They look across the region, and they may see that aversion reinforced by the outcomes of the Arab Spring, which in most cases did not lead to either better governance or more prosperity and more opportunity for ordinary citizens.

The question is what will persuade Iranians to risk their lives and livelihoods to challenge this current system or to create such an overwhelming mobilization on behalf of an alternative that it would threaten the system and effectively force conciliation or capitulation by the Islamic Republic? Some of what is missing is the leadership and the strategy. Ultimately, this can't be purely bottom up. The Islamic Republic has been very savvy about how to handle dissent in opposition. They have either tried to channel it and keep it within the system, or they have effectively made it impossible and forced people to leave the country. Much of the political capital that helped spur and direct and mobilize the Green Movement in 2009 was either forced to leave the country or took the opportunity to do so simply because they saw no pathway for continuing to be politically active and relevant under an increasingly consolidated Islamic Republic.

I keep waiting for the political entrepreneurs to try to seize the moment, for leaders to begin to peel off from the system and try to build an alternative structure. But obviously, the penalties for that are high. The leaders of the Green Movement, the two candidates who protested the outcome of the 2009 election, have now spent more than a decade under house arrest. There have been even worse penalties for many of those who have spoken out against the system itself. The challenge is simply to try to identify and to motivate from within and to create that kind of opportunity.

The final point is just the system itself has proven incredibly resilient. As dismal as my own projections for the Islamic Republic are, I am unwilling to hazard a guess that the system itself is going to collapse. The fact that Mohammad Khatami, who really did invest himself in trying to mobilize progressive, gradual change from within, would still come out to vote and still urged Iranians themselves to come out to vote reinforces that even those who would like to see a different outcome still see themselves tied to the system. Those who are prepared to be disruptive - for example, former President Ahmadinejad who himself did not vote - are fundamentally just narcissists. They don't have either the capacity or the willingness to try to lead a movement for something better. Iranians have to find a way to marry the desire and the capacity to imagine a better future with the willingness to invest themselves on behalf of leading that future and to be disruptive within the context of the Islamic Republic. There are Iranians out there who can and will do that, but the moment just hasn't arrived yet.

Jeffrey: One last question. The Biden administration has pitched its engagement to return to the JCPOA as a newer, bigger and better JCPOA process because it will add on to it after we get back to the JCPOA. Negotiations with Iran on missiles, on regional behavior, and a better nuclear arrangement with Iran. One of Raisi's first statements was to deny very clearly any interest in engaging in that. Now, he's not the final decider. That is the supreme leader. But still, it was pretty discouraging. If the administration is serious about going forward with this, assuming we get back to the JCPOA in the months ahead, what steps can it take to encourage or pressure Iran to consider further discussions on these issues?

Wright: I think Biden is going to have a really hard time getting beyond the JCPOA. What's been a little bit unclear is when he talks about a bigger and better or a longer and stronger agreement, whether he's talking about the next process - the next issues which include missiles, human rights, meddling in the region - or whether he's talking about the terms of the JCPOA itself, for example, extending the sunset clauses so that the limitations on certain aspects of Iran's programs are lengthened or there are more guarantees that it won't build up a stockpile again. That process is unclear. I suspect that Ali has probably more thoughts or inside information on that. But there's going to be a lot of backlash in Washington, particularly among Republicans, but even possibly among some Democrats, about giving Iran more or lifting more sanctions.

The United States actually does have some leverage over Iran when it comes to asking for more. The sanctions that are under discussion in Vienna on returning to full compliance in the nuclear accord involve mainly those involved in the nuclear deal. It extends beyond that to some of the others that were imposed by the Trump administration. But when it comes to returning Iran's economic health, Iran needs other sanctions lifted too that were imposed for missiles, for human rights violations, for meddling in the region. We do have some leverage. But there's likely to be some backlash. The fact that Raisi was so involved as one of the four members of the so-called "death commission" during the 1988 massacre of somewhere between four and five thousand political prisoners will make it very hard for Biden to justify engaging, even if at a lower level, with the Iranian regime.

I want to make two quick points. First of all, there's a lot of simplistic talk about how the supreme leader ultimately makes the decisions. Yes, he has ultimate veto power, but Iran has a complex internal system. It has a National Security Council that differs from ours in that it includes members of the intelligence community, the military (both the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional military), the president, the foreign minister. It has a supreme leader representative on it. The judiciary is a member as well. It's 13 to 15 members. They debate strenuously among themselves on every major issue, including the terms of the nuclear agreement. Then it goes to the supreme leader.

Javad Zarif, who is the foreign minister who was instrumental in brokering with Secretary of State [John] Kerry the first agreement, once told me that after the National Security Council debated, they took the terms to the supreme leader. Ninety-five percent of what they recommended was agreed to very quickly by the supreme leader. The five percent he had questions about were sometimes not the major issues. We need to understand that Iran does have a sophisticated or dynamic political system when it comes to making these huge decisions. It's not just the supreme leader, who's not a nuclear expert by any means.

I just want to say one thing to Suzanne's point. I always agree with her on everything, but I loved when she talked about Ahmadinejad being a narcissistic leader. Well, we've elected a few narcissists ourselves. I just wanted to put that in perspective.

Jeffrey: Specifically, what can the Biden administration do, assuming we do get a return to the JCPOA in a clean way without a whole lot of additional stuff? With the time limits running out in a decade or less, how can the administration encourage further talks?

Vaez: The administration is trying to get a commitment in the document that they're currently working on in Vienna from the Iranians that they would agree to follow on negotiations. You can argue a non-binding commitment by an outgoing Iranian administration doesn't mean much. But what is likely to motivate the Iranians to negotiate is basically the fact that the deep state in Iran, not just the Rouhani administration, has come to terms with two inconvenient truths about the nuclear deal. Number one is the fact that the sanctions relief that was devised in the original agreement is just insufficient for the Iranian economy to be able to trade normally with the outside world. This is why, even in the current negotiations in Vienna, the Iranians have brought up issues that were not included in the JCPOA, like having indirect access to the U.S. financial system. Based on their 2016 experience, they've realized that without that they would never have normal banking relations with the outside world. That's a card in our back pocket that we can use, and the Iranians would need.

The second reality is that the JCPOA is unstable. The Iranians have learned this fact. They know that by 2023 when Congress is supposed to not just suspend but lift the sanctions and the Iranians are supposed to ratify the Additional Protocol, none of that is likely going to happen. The deal would become unstable again in the run up to our next electoral cycle. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif says that the price tag of maximum pressure for Iran has been about a trillion dollars. We are all hyped up about the fact that Iran might get about $70 billion of its frozen assets released as a result of our return to the JCPOA. But when you just consider the math, a trillion dollars of damage and getting access to $70 billion, it doesn't make sense. They don't want to go through this cycle again in 2023 and 2024. In fact, the uncertainty for the Iranian economy is much more damaging than the prospect of living either under sanctions for a long time or having a deal that is much more stable.

The hardliners have been so critical of the Rouhani administration that they're too soft towards the West, that they don't know how to negotiate from a position of strength. They want to demonstrate that they can deliver better. I don't think negotiations with them are going to be straightforward and easy. It's going to be politically costly and difficult. But just like the Trump administration had a stronger muscle to deliver sanctions relief for the Iranians, if they had actually ever negotiated, I would argue that the Iranian hardliners have a stronger muscle, although they're not as adept as at negotiations. Missiles and regional issues cannot be addressed in the same framework. P5+1 and Iran negotiations have a set agenda. That's only the nuclear issue. Other issues would have to be addressed bilaterally or multilaterally in other fora. But again, if our approach towards the negotiations is that we are seeking a better-for-better arrangement, not less-for-more, then we have a better chance.

My last point is remember that during the first year of the Trump administration, a lot of people in this town were saying: "If you give away all the leverage, how can you negotiate a deal with the Iranians?" First of all, our leverage is in our proven capacity - given the experience of the past few years - to wield these very powerful sanctions on our own to great effect on the Iranian economy. And second, the Trump administration's approach in the first year was to try to build on the JCPOA while we were still in it. Trump gave Congress plenty of opportunity to kill the deal, and they didn't. It defies logic, and it is mind boggling for me right now that people say: "If we get back into the JCPOA, you can no longer negotiate a longer and stronger agreement."

Last point, the proven track record of maximum pressure also demonstrates that approach is also not going to work. It didn't produce a longer and stronger deal. It produced a weaker and shorter agreement.

Jeffrey: As my respect for Zarif, at least his tradecraft, is almost unlimited, I always look at his comments with some skepticism because he is so clever. The trillion dollars is largely oil that they were not able to sell because of the sanctions, and oil is still available for them to sell sometime in the future. It's not quite as bad as that. But the key is their ability to sell oil in an unrestricted manner as long as oil is a desired and demanded commodity, which will continue for the next 20 years or so, and their ability to access the international banking system. Let's go to some questions from our viewers.

Question: Is there a consensus among all of you that the election of a hardline president, in this case Raisi, will enhance the possibility that we will see a return to the JCPOA, perhaps in the weeks before Raisi actually takes power?

Maloney: I'll jump in with the response and maybe try to piggyback on that with a couple of comments about the previous discussion about the prospects for a longer and stronger deal negotiations. I don't think Raisi improves the prospect of a return to the JCPOA. But I also am not persuaded that he manifestly makes it more difficult. Ultimately, whether it's Javad Zarif, Saeed Jalili, Amir-Abdollahian, or some other Iranian foreign minister and his team negotiating on the nuclear issue, the only deal that will be done is one that is acceptable to the supreme leader. That does not discount that there is a robust and complex and differentiated national security bureaucracy within the Islamic Republic. But ultimately, the 2015 deal was one that had to meet the red lines of the security forces and the supreme leader, both of whom welcomed and supported it, at least nominally when it was first finalized. Any return to the deal will have to do the same.

A Raisi presidency will almost certainly have a foreign minister who is less well-versed in American domestic politics and slang and less well-networked among the American political establishment, and therefore may prove a little bit less adroit at negotiations and managing a team of negotiators. But the fact that we're no longer doing this at the foreign minister level almost makes that irrelevant at this point.

The other point is that I see no prospect of serious talks about longer and stronger. Whether that's actually strengthening and extending the provisions of the nuclear deal itself or dealing in any serious way with the other issues at stake between the United States and Iran. I understand why the Biden administration will continue to articulate those points and press those ambitions. It's entirely possible, in fact, quite likely that you will find Iranian diplomats who are happy to decamp to European hotels for long periods of time to engage unproductively around these issues and use them as a way to grandstand against American presence in the region. I'm not sure that we should be trying to engage widely with the Iranians through diplomatic negotiations on regional presence because they will surely use that as a way to press for America's own exit from the Middle East, which has been a longstanding goal of the system.

There may be selective opportunities. I hope that there will be selective opportunities for some progress, especially on the issue of prisoners held in Iran, dual nationals, American citizens, citizens of other countries who have been held purely as bait by the Islamic Republic. I do hope that there are other channels that can be established to work discrete issues. But I don't think that there is a meaningful prospect of addressing the wider range of concerns about Iranian behavior through talks aimed at imposing mutual constraints and concessions between the United States and Iran.

Question: What will the regime's grand strategy be assuming the JCPOA is renewed? An alliance with China to counter the United States or détente with the Saudis?

Vaez: My initial assumption is that the system has empowered and anointed Raisi to this position because it's consolidating ahead of a tricky transition to a post-Khamenei era and one of the requirements of that is domestic repression to make sure that there's no opposition inside the country to the deep state's designs. It also implies that they want stability abroad, at least in their near abroad because that would help them focus their attention at home. In fact, this is what happened in the late 1980s. If you look at Ayatollah Khamenei's second election as president, it was as noncompetitive. Turnout was around 54 percent, so not the highest. It resulted in domestic repression but also resulted in constitutional changes, abolishing the office of prime minister, and ending the Iran-Iraq war, which was the biggest threat to the country's stability at the time.

Raisi in his first conference was pretty positive on negotiations with Saudi Arabia. They would try to de-escalate to the extent possible in the region because their focus should be on changes at home. But this also means that there is a lot of tendency within the deep state to focus their attention on Russia and China in this increasingly emerging multipolar world instead of focusing on Europe and the United States. That's why in a Raisi administration the chances of going too far in resolving our problems with the Iranians are probably nonexistent. Doesn't mean we can't make progress on a case-by-case basis. But in general, Raisi and his administration, based on the directions from the supreme leader, will focus on trying to increase their strategic partnership with Russia in the region and their economic partnership, to the extent possible, with China.

Jeffrey: Well, I agree with you Ali. But it raises another question. It's long been my perception - but it was now strongly reinforced by the leaked interview that Foreign Minister Zarif gave - that you're dealing with two foreign policies. It's quite possible that the foreign ministry will be conducting with those countries - Saudi Arabia being one, the United States being second, Europe third, Turkey fourth - a kind of normal international relations agenda with meetings in alpine hotels and that kind of thing. While simultaneously the Qods Force will be conducting in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or elsewhere its anti-Israeli policy and things like that. Is there is a secret sauce how we can get to that and either bring it all onto one common denominator or rationally realize we're dealing with two foreign policies?

Wright: I'm not sure it's so easily bifurcated. Iran has a common goal. For a long time, Iranian revolutionaries would say that their country was strategically lonely. They felt as a minority in terms of religion, a minority ethnically, that they had few natural allies. The Persians against the Arabs. The Persians against almost everyone in the region. The only country that also speaks Farsi is Tajikistan, and it's a predominantly Sunni country. What Iran has done masterful is that rather than looking to find allies in the region, it has created allies in the region, beginning with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s and gradually building up alliances with militias, even helping create militias in Iraq after the Islamic State moved in and seized a third of the territory. The Popular Mobilization Forces - dozens of different militias under that umbrella, predominantly Shiite - emerged just in the last few years. Iran has very cleverly, very masterfully created its own network, its own alliances, some of them with common cause, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hezbollah in Iraq. Some of them have very few connections beyond their ties to Iran in a way that is like its little NATO in the Middle East.

Yes, the Qods Force is in charge of dealing with the proxies. The foreign ministry deals with many international issues, whether it's at the United Nations or the nuclear deal, but they share common cause. We do ourselves a disservice in trying to say [Qassem] Soleimani, who was the general in charge of Qods Force for decades, a masterful military strategist, and Zarif, who is educated at the University of Denver, are totally different people. Yes, they were rivals in some ways in terms of their visions. Yes, they were part of the debate. Yes, Zarif complained publicly or in an interview that was subsequently released about Soleimani countering his influence or defeating his purposes. But that happens within systems. We've had that within the American system when it comes to debates about U.S. foreign policy.

Again, I just would caution that there is one broad vision for Iran. It wants to be secure. It wants to have allies in the region. It wants to eliminate threats. Iran wants buffer zones, just like other states do, in creating a safety moat around the country with others who will fight their conflicts for them. It's ambitious in terms of challenging Israel. The irony is, I'm not sure the Iranians as a population care all that much about the Palestinians, but it goes along with kind of the principles of the revolution. This gets back to the question of what is Iran in this postrevolutionary environment? And again, there are a lot of different opinions when it comes to the answer.

Question: Question for Suzanne. What kind of team do you expect to emerge to deal with internal and economic problems? Will Zarif possibly remain in office? Is it likely that Jalili can cut a deal in exchange for a senior position?

Maloney: I'd be interested in Ali's and Robin's views as well. I don't have any inside information on these issues, but the expectation is Zarif probably does not continue in his position. It wouldn't be entirely unprecedented or surprising if he were to. But all signs now point to a former deputy foreign minister who was part of his team in the past, who's known to be sort of close to the conservative front, Amir Abdollahian, as a potential foreign minister. But it could be Jalili. It could be somebody else.

It is there that Zarif's unique talents, should he step down from this position, will be sorely missed. He is an effective interlocutor for the supreme leader, even if he has expressed frustration at different points in time with some of the positions of the supreme leader and other parts of the bureaucracy. He's a loyal soldier for the Islamic Republic who has pursued the interests of the system with a considerable degree of dedication. His tradecraft is absolutely superb. Anyone who replaces him is unlikely to have any of that and certainly won't have the long-standing relationships with the American political establishment.

But Araghchi, the current nuclear negotiating team, I would be surprised if they were to be displaced. They are in many ways cross factional. They are not individuals who are necessarily personally aligned, as Zarif has been perceived to be, with a moderate or even a reformist faction of the system. They're well-versed on the issues. My expectation is that we would see some degree of consistency, at least in the policy that's pursued on the JCPOA, as well as a host of other foreign policies by this new president.

Question: What measures might the United States adopt to restrain Iran's use of militias and proxies whether through incentives or punishment? Beyond sitting down and talking with them, what incentives positive or negative can we use either to constrain them in the region or get them to the table?

Vaez: There are two broad baskets of measures that we can consider. Number one is basically to try to end the conflicts and chaos that Iran exploits creating these groups. Going back to 1982 with Hezbollah, the mistakes that we have committed and our allies in the region have committed have been effectively exploited by the Iranians. In 1980, they used the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to create Hezbollah. In 2003, they used our invasion of Iraq to create the Shia militias. In 2015, with Saudi's war in Yemen, they deepened their relationship with the Houthis and so on. Resolving these conflicts would basically take out the source of oxygen that the Iranians use in these theaters.

The second is trying to figure out a way of providing Iran with strategic alternatives. Obviously, the conventional arms embargo that the United Nations had in place expired despite the Trump administration's efforts. I imagine that we will try to keep our own arms embargo in place. But again, if we try to effectively deprive Iran of the ability to upgrade its conventional military capabilities, it only means one thing. They will double down on their support for proxies and partners in the region, and they will double down on their ballistic missile program. This vicious cycle would just continue.

Question: How are the Israelis going to respond to all of this? The Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, who is going to be here in Washington this week, has instructed his forces to be prepared for a possible Israeli-Iranian conflict. Where do the Israelis play in all of this with the election last weekend?

Maloney: We have already seen an Iranian-Israeli conflict that has been brewing over several years that has increasingly come into the public light because of the willingness of the Israelis to be fairly forward leaning about acknowledging the role that they have taken both in covert activities within the Islamic Republic, but also in terms of the consistent and significant pushback of Iran's positions and its attempts to build infrastructure for missile development and production across the broader Levant. Now we're seeing this grey zone war take to the seas as well. We're just going to see a continuation and potentially an escalation of that.

There is a lot that we can do through diplomacy, and the JCPOA is one example of that. But there is a persistent unwillingness on the part of the Iranians to recognize the sovereignty that they claim, that they value so much that they overthrew the Shah to achieve it, of their neighbors. The possibility of greater arms imports to Iran wouldn't have a manifest impact on Tehran's willingness and its longstanding support of the relationships that it has with Hezbollah and a whole network of proxy militias across the rest of the region. The Israelis have come to the conclusion that they can act effectively against it, both within Iran and across the region. They're likely to continue to do so.

Jeffrey: The jury is still out on whether they can really, in the long run, defend against all the threats coming at it. We've got five minutes left. I'll turn it over to the three of you for any last comments.

Wright: All I can say is how much I've enjoyed listening to my colleagues. We have a general consensus about the challenges that Iran faces, which are enormous. There's no guarantee that Raisi will succeed in creating a better economic environment, in engaging with the outside world, in being any more acceptable. He carries the burden of the past with him in a way that will define the future because of what we'll hear a lot more about in the coming year. And that's his role in the 1988 massacre that will limit everyone in the world, or at least in the West, from dealing with his administration.

There are some fundamental questions now on the table about the longevity of the revolution but at a time that there is no visible alternative. Whether it's the monarchy or the MEK [Mujahedin-e Khalq], there is no tangible opposition that has taken hold in Iran as an alternative, be it in exile or inside the country. We may be in for a period of some turbulence, sometimes turbulent but sometimes apathetic. The probability of seeing another mass protest like the student protests in 1999, the 2009 Green Movement, the economic protests in 2017 and 2018 is unlikely. Raisi is the head of the judiciary. The regime has shown that it is willing to take any action to quash dissent. What that does in terms of bubbling up from something below, that's certainly a possibility, but it may take a very long time.

Jeffrey: Thank you very much, Robin. Suzanne?

Maloney: In many respects, we are in wide agreement. This is a deeply unfortunate turn for a country that has so much possibility if its leadership were to permit its people to have a meaningful say in their own governance and in their relationship with the rest of the world. Raisi's victory is not irrelevant, despite the fact that we're all somewhat sanguine about how much influence he will have on Iran's foreign policy writ large. He is well versed in the art of repressing Iran's own population and deeply committed to that.

As we come to a point where there is a public recognition that gradual reform cannot succeed, what alternatives emerge and how this Iranian leadership deals with them are questions that are as important for the Biden administration and the rest of the world to grapple with and to be prepared to address as the nuclear issue itself. The nuclear question and the revival of JCPOA has become almost synonymous with our Iran policy. Especially at a time where Iran has an incoming president who is complicit in crimes against humanity, it is absolutely incumbent upon Washington and the rest of the world to devise a policy that really does address the wider array of concerns, especially the concerns of the Iranian people.

Jeffrey: Thank you very much, Suzanne. Ali, you have the very last word.

Vaez: My last word is Iran is at a pivotal moment in its history and transitions are often very delicate moments in the history of any polity. In this period what is key for us is to try to focus more on the Iranian people rather than the regime, which is going to be much more difficult to deal with, no doubt about it. But I don't think we should add to the siege that the Iranian people are under at the hands of their own government. Thank you.

Jeffrey: Well, again, a very important development in a very important country. We need an overall policy towards Iran that includes the JCPOA but goes beyond it. Once again, to all our viewers today, thank you very much for staying with us.