By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Iran has a very interesting political system. While it portrays itself as a democracy, it is actually a unique example of a theocracy, a state governed by religious law (sharia) and controlled by clerics who determine who can run for election.
This dichotomy is food for legal scholars and students of international affairs.
At APUS several degree programs delve into Middle East history and politics.
Among my favorites in the Legal Studies program is RLS660, the Seminar in Middle East Politics and Security. All of the courses touch on many subjects and in one way or another discuss one the most significant regional players, Iran.
Iran held a presidential election this past Friday. Western media characterized the winner, Ebrahim Raisi, as a hardliner. That’s understatement when referring to a person responsible for the incarceration and execution of many opposition activists. While he is not the true power broker in Iran, Raisi is an important player and might be positioning himself for a more powerful position in future years.
The Supreme Leader – The Religious Authority
In Iran, the president does not hold the most power. The real power is held by the Supreme Leader, who is not popularly elected but is chosen for life by a small group of religious and civilian representatives. The Supreme Leader is the embodiment of the Islamic political theory of Shia Islam (Velayat-e faqih), a term translated as “guardian Islamic jurist.” The Supreme Leader is the most important religious authority (marji’ taqlīd) in Twelver Shiism, , a belief in 12 divinely ordained leaders known as the 12 imams.
Although he is elected for a life time, the Supreme Leader can be impeached by the assembly of experts composed of 88 clerics elected by the public every eight years. The clerics hold absolute authority on all aspects of the election to the assembly, so no reformist can make his way into this process, which is the focal point of political power in Iran. Today the Supreme Leader is Ali Khamenei, a religious cleric who succeeded the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhalla Khomeini, after the appointed heir, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, was bypassed after he began to push for reforms and civil liberties in Iran.
The New President of Iran Was the Head of the Judiciary
The newly elected president is a cleric. He is a leading figure in the regime who was the head of the judiciary in Iran, a system governed by Islamic sharia law as it is interpreted in Shia traditions. As the head of the judiciary Raisi was directly involved in the incarceration and execution of many political activists. Amnesty International charges that “Ebrahim Raisi has presided over a spiraling crackdown on human rights that has seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained. Under his watch, the judiciary has also granted blanket impunity [sic] to government officials and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds of men, women and children and subjecting thousands of protesters to mass arrests and at least hundreds to enforced disappearance, and torture and other ill-treatment during and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of November 2019.”
What Does Raisi’s Election Mean for the Nuclear Talks in Vienna?
What does Raisi’s election mean for the nuclear talks in Vienna? The Biden administration and the regime in Teheran want the talks to move ahead and end with an agreement. The regime wants to ease the economic pressure that spreads poverty and despair in Iran, a fact that led to a 48.8 percent voter turnout, “the lowest ever in Iranian presidential elections, below the previously low of 51 percent in 1989,” according to Iran International.
Raisi received just 62 percent of the balloting with the backing of 30 percent of all eligible voters. At least 10 percent of the ballots were blank, showing voters’ dissatisfaction with the politicians whom the clerics allowed to run after blocking any reformers.
This is a dangerous situation for the regime and a real threat to its stability. A new nuclear deal that would allow the sale of Iranian oil to other nations would make life easier for young Iranians and ease the current political tensions.
The talks in Vienna include Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union. The U.S. delegation is based in a hotel across the street because Iran refuses face-to-face meetings since the Biden administration refused to remove the sanctions prior to the talks.
The White House Would Like to Ensure that Iran Will Stop Nuclear Weapons Production
The White House would like to ensure that Iran will stop nuclear weapons production and, more importantly, is diverted from becoming a nuclear threshold state. That would mean an end to building nuclear weapon capabilities within a few months. The Iranians have rejected American demands to halt developing ballistic missiles capabilities.
So the real question now is does the U.S. have the political willpower to force an agreement that will deal with all aspects of the issue? Israel and the Gulf States are concerned that President Biden will not push the issue and leave loopholes in an agreement that Iran will use to continue developing its nuclear capabilities.
This is a real test case for the Biden administration, perhaps the first real one, after the not-so-impressive performance during the recent brief summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. It is essential, however, for Biden not to buy into a deal that would paint the administration as disconnected and weak.