Incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi may break the mold of his predecessor by exceeding expectations in his first 100 days, but make no mistake—less horrific is still horrific; no one should be fooled.
Recall that, as the newly-elected Hassan Rouhani was being ushered into the international arena in 2013 as the Islamic Republic’s new president, his reputation preceded him. Hopes were high. Prepackaged by the media as “charming,” “reformist” and “moderate,” he represented a stark departure from his cartoonish predecessor, Mahmoud Amadinejad. An unrealistic promise of reform filled the news headlines and foreign policy roundtables.
This fantasy of moderation paved the way for the West to pursue a new “diplomatic” relationship with a regime that consistently and unapologetically called for the death of the “Great Satan.” Rouhani and Javad Zarif, his foreign minister, led a so-called charm-offensive that was greeted with wishful optimism by the Obama-Kerry team. It prompted the great experiment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—an agreement that slowed but never halted Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and failed to deliver any meaningful economic and social reforms to the Iranian people.
Nine years later, Ebrahim Raisi has embarked upon the first 100 days of his tenure in the same role but with a very different tone. He brings a brash and unapologetic persona to the presidency. Frequently described as “the Butcher of Tehran” because of his decades-long resume filled with death sentences and random acts of repression, Raisi revels in his feared aura.
Raisi apparently has no plans for any type of “charm offensive.” Instead, the regime is casting an unmistakable tone of belligerence and lowering expectations on both domestic and international fronts. The fear of what lies ahead could lead the international community to rush into dreadful agreements and policies with this new leader, fearing that the window will close on better outcomes; and on the domestic front, a reign of fear and hopelessness appears likely to lead to continued unrest.
This would be a tragic mistake that only would strengthen the hand of the Butcher of Tehran.
Raisi appears ill-prepared for the myriad challenges that he will face. He has been called a war criminal and many noted that he and his team should be recognized as perpetrators of crimes against humanity rather than as diplomats or dignitaries. His career as a hanging judge in Iran’s judiciary system has not equipped Raisi with management experience or governing skills. And yet, he is stepping into the presidency at a time when the country is convulsed by a series of complex and interlocking catastrophes that have caused widespread death and destitution.
In the Khuzestan region, the richest oil region in the country, negligent water policies have led to a complete water crisis. Ordinary families have been forced to live in the most unsanitary conditions. Thirsty citizens demanding water and better alternatives from local authorities are confronted with handcuffs and bullets. The effects of water pollution and water mismanagement will be long lasting and Raisi seems to offer no expertise or capacity to deliver constructive solutions.
In addition to the water crisis, Iran is reeling from the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The country suffers from high rates of infection, hospitalization and death. Unfortunately Iranian leaders have put pride before public interest and rejected vaccine exports from Western countries. The situation is grim in urban centers but even more desperate in less developed parts of the country, such as the Sistan and Baluchistan region on the Pakistan border. In such areas, residents who already were struggling with environmental pollution, sandstorms and lung disease are the least prepared to cope with the virus. They suffer from inadequate health care infrastructure, sparse facilities and medical professionals to address the cumulative effects of the pandemic.
Beyond the health calamity, the country is trapped in an economic emergency. This has been sparked by decades of mismanagement, corruption and the diversion of massive amounts of resources abroad to terror organizations. The crisis has triggered social unrest, massive strikes and mass protests. Unfortunately, this situation shows no sign of letting up amid rising trade deficit, spiraling inflation and escalating poverty rates. The Iranian government has been unable to mitigate the economic upheaval of the country and the tragic secondary effects it has spawned such as child labor, drug addiction and prostitution.
Alongside these environmental, health and economic disasters, Iran remains a country where human rights violations are the norm rather than the exception. Such stories rarely command attention in Western media, even the attempted kidnapping of an Iranian national from New York City was a fleeting story. Few journalists even noted the continued detention of the executed champion wrestler Navid Afkari’s brothers by the regime. Still, the situation is dire and worsening. In recent weeks, we have seen the arrest of Fatemeh Sepehri, a female dissident and mass arrests of the grieving mothers of protesters who were killed by government forces. And yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is happening against a backdrop of ongoing oppression including the ruthless repression of dissidents, the repression and imprisonment of Baha’is, Christians and religious minorities alongside disproportionate executions of ethnic minorities.
The circumstances inherited by Raisi are so dire that, in his first 100 days, he is bound to have some successes, or at least present a path to progress. Analysts anticipate that Raisi may attempt to tap into trade with Russia and China as a dual strategy to stimulate the economy. However negligible, even the pretense of progress likely will be touted by hardliners as success and used to gain leverage against the West’s interest in re-entering a nuclear agreement.
Considering the grim situation and knowing Raisi’s reprehensible human rights record, it seems reasonable to anticipate that we will see an escalation of violence against civilians and dissidents. Like other autocrats, Raisi likely will use fear as a tool for suppression. And yet, in Raisi’s case, he actually may stand down in his earliest days on the job, employing a kind of reverse psychology; any act of moderation and mercy on his part cynically could allow him and his hardliners to position their policies as a new brand of “compassionate conservatism.”
The U.S. and other Western powers should not be duped. The international community should remain vigilant, and even in the absence of viable alternatives, hold Iranian leaders accountable for their actions rather than be impressed by empty gestures or meaningless maneuvers. Keeping up the pressure on the regime not only is a statement of principle about the U.S.’ interests and values in the region, it also can inspire hope for the people of Iran who for decades have suffered from the tyranny of low expectations. Let it end now.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.