By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, many Western policymakers have been single-mindedly focused on restoring the agreement and returning to a situation in which modest restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program are maintained in exchange for far-reaching relief from economic sanctions on Tehran, but that goal has become more and more elusive as Iran has continued its escalatory violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Now, after regime Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has selected a new, hardline president to take over for the individual considered most responsible for Iran’s entry into the agreement, the prospects for restoring it seems even more remote.
So far, however, this does not seem to have prompted new policy considerations from the European Union or even from the US, which has been tacitly supporting European efforts to restore the JCPOA since President Joe Biden assumed the White House. Many commentators have rightly observed that it will be even more difficult to negotiate with Tehran with Ebrahim Raisi as its president, but relatively few Western lawmakers or commentators have acknowledged that such negotiations are also rendered even more undesirable by last Friday’s election.
This is not to say that negotiations actually were desirable beforehand. In fact, Raisi’s “victory” simply clarified preexisting features of Iran’s political system which should have already undercut whatever confidence Western officials had in the value of reaching out to “reformists” like Rouhani. Notably, ordinary Iranian citizens and political activists have not shared that confidence and this is one of the key reasons why the EU and the US should regard Iran’s forthcoming presidential transition as a potential turning point in relations with the regime as a whole.
Since the end of 2017, there have been three nationwide uprisings in Iran and countless smaller demonstrations, all expressing equal contempt for both mainstream political factions. Many of the protests in question featured participants calling out to both “reformists” and “hardliners” to say “the game is over” and to give voice to the public perception of regime change as the only means of truly solving any of Iran’s myriad crises.
Ironically, Khamenei’s resulting fixation on stamping out this sentiment ultimately led to him confirming its accuracy. Last week’s presidential election was preceded by a vetting process that excluded all high-profile figures who might have posed a serious challenge to Raisi, who was clearly designated as the Supreme Leader’s favorite. That status derived in large part from Raisi’s reputation as one of the leading figures in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners that took place over several months in 1988. The incident primarily targeted what was and remains the leading voice for a democratic alternative to the theocratic system, namely the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Khamenei’s preference for someone with a strong track record of killing pro-democracy activists was guaranteed by the conditions of unrest that defined the preceding three years. In December 2017 and January 2018, more than 100 localities were sites of simultaneous protests featuring public rejection of the entire political system and calls for the resignation or ouster of all major officials. In the midst of that nationwide uprising, Khamenei came very close to admitting that in absence of serious alternatives within the political mainstream, the Iranian people were looking outside the ruling system and finding that alternative in the MEK. The Supreme Leader declared in a speech that activists from that organization had “planned for months” to popularize anti-government messaging and facilitate the public embrace of a nationwide movement they were striving to lead.
In November 2019, it took on new dimensions with the sudden outbreak of another nationwide protest, this one encompassing nearly 200 cities and towns, but by that time, leading regime officials had already issued numerous warnings about the growing influence of the MEK and Khamenei had already elevated Raisi, the “henchman of 1988,” to the position of judiciary chief.
In that capacity, Raisi oversaw months of systematic torture against pro-democracy activists and known or suspected affiliates of the MEK. This crackdown built upon the effects of an initial attack upon the 2019 uprising, which resulted in 1,500 deaths over just a few days. The crackdown served to underscore Raisi’s ongoing commitment to the violent repression of dissent.
The overwhelming majority of the Iranian people sat out Friday’s election as part of a boycott that was promoted by the MEK.
Now, western policymakers must resolve at once to prioritize the welfare of the Iranian people over the security of diplomatic relations with the existing regime.
Failure to make this change would surely embolden the regime in its malign activities affecting not just the Iranian people and the country’s domestic situation but also foreign affairs with vital significance to Western powers. Those powers must realize that restoration of the JCPOA is not a worthwhile goal if it leads to more brinksmanship from the Iranian regime. And there is simply no accessible means of bringing Iran back into compliance without giving something away and leaving Tehran with the impression that it has bested its foes.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)