The Hardliner’s Consolidation of Power

The Guardian Council sacrificed the elected state’s legitimacy to bring a hardline conservative to power. Raisi was not handed a popular mandate as Rouhani had been, and thus his primary focus would be satisfying the desires of the Supreme Leader rather than the public at large. Khamenei sought to assuage domestic audiences angered by the Guardian Council’s manipulation of the election, stating that some of the presidential hopefuls had been wrongfully disqualified. However, his goal of consolidating control in the hands of the hardline conservatives had been accomplished. The elected state, now completely aligned with the Supreme Leader, would reverse the limited social gains allowed during the Rouhani Administration and the short-lived period of Western outreach that had culminated in the JCPOA.

Raisi had proven his worth to the Supreme Leader during his tenure as chief of the judiciary, one of the most repressive institutions in the Islamic Republic, and during his involvement in the political assassinations of the late 1980s. He quickly installed a cabinet of like-minded Khamenei loyalists, many from the ranks of the IRGC and sanctioned by the U.S. for their roles in directing state sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses. Khomeini’s legacy of aggression abroad and repression at home, though never effectively dented by the reformist and centrist presidents of the past, would come into sharper relief now that Khamenei’s preferred candidate had been installed at the head of the elected state.

More rigorous enforcement of Sharia law was soon adopted, setting the stage for renewed protests. Early in his administration, Raisi issued an order for strengthening enforcement of the mandatory hijab, a pillar of the Islamic Republic instituted by Khomeini in the early years of the revolution. With the backing of the Supreme Leader but without popular legitimacy, his administration has governed with an iron fist, rather than accommodating popular demands. Raisi has presided over a record number of executions targeting religious and ethnic minorities, those breaking religious law, and those convicted of minor legal offenses. Additionally, his government has worked with the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry, and the IRGC to crack down on opposition networks within and outside Iran’s territorial borders.

The Raisi Administration also oversaw a purge of left-leaning and Western-oriented professors in the university system, an initiative one Western political analyst called the “third cultural revolution.” Students and teachers were expelled and fired for their differences of opinion vis-à-vis the revolutionary state and its founding Khomeinist principles. Soon after taking office, Raisi withdrew a bill sponsored by his predecessor that required universities to admit students based on their educational credentials rather than their religious affiliation. Raisi’s educational policy mirrored Khamenei’s goal of Islamizing the university system, traditionally the locus of anti-regime student activism.

On the national security front, Iran would rapidly advance its nuclear program to extract concessions from the West while Iranian negotiators stonewalled negotiations to revive the JCPOA. The Biden Administration sought to convey optimism that the accord would be revived and has to date, resisted officially terminating the negotiations after the Islamic Republic refused on two occasions to accept terms for a return to mutual JCPOA compliance and ending its human rights abuses and shipments of drones to Russia for use against Ukraine.

The Islamic Republic turned to maximalist demands that were difficult or impossible for the Biden Administration to grant. Iran’s negotiating team has swung between demands for additional sanctions relief in exchange for the same limited timeframe of restrictions on its nuclear program, the delisting of the IRGC as a terrorist group, conditioning the revival of the JCPOA on the closure of outstanding International Atomic Energy Agency investigations; and a guarantee that no future U.S. administration could withdraw from the deal. The demand for a binding treaty was especially untenable, given that it would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, a body that probably would have rejected the original JCPOA had it been presented for a vote. 

From the beginning of the Raisi Administration, the Supreme Leader had signaled his non-interest in negotiations with the West. Before Raisi was sworn in as president in late July 2021, Khamenei set the tone for a more adversarial approach to the West, blaming the “enemy” for making demands beyond the original deal's scope. He said, “By putting this sentence, [U.S. negotiators] want to provide an excuse for their further interventions on the principle of the deal and missile program and regional issues… If Iran refuses to discuss them, they will say that you have violated the agreement and the agreement is over.” Still, Khamenei’s comments had the intended effect of prolonging the negotiations. At the same time, his regime continued to make strides toward accumulating a stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, far beyond the concentration required for civilian purposes and putting it within striking distance of weapons-grade uranium. Although Khamenei has long denied on paper that his regime is seeking a nuclear weapon, calling such a decision forbidden by Islamic law, the only remaining step to nuclear breakout is his political will.

A year after rejecting negotiations with the U.S., in July 2022, Khamenei welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tehran. This was Putin’s first trip outside the former Soviet Union since his February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which is significant because it showed Moscow’s priorities. At the same time, Tehran was deprioritizing its relations with the West. At this meeting, Khamenei offered his fullest endorsement of the Ukrainian invasion to date, saying, “War is a violent and difficult issue, and the Islamic Republic is in no way happy that civilians get caught up in it, but concerning Ukraine, had you [Russia] not taken the initiative, the other side [NATO] would have taken the initiative and caused the war.”

Khamenei views a post-U.S.-led world order as consistent with Iran’s interests, so he moved to shore up ties in the East. However, this trajectory would break with Khomeini’s foreign policy preference of neutrality. In November 2022, Khamenei tweeted, “Today, Western powers are gradually losing their political, scientific, cultural, and economic dominance, and these will be transferred from the West to Asia in the new world order. Asia will become the center of science and economy, and also the political and military power of the world.” Although Khamenei had already conveyed his preference in 2018 after the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal, President Raisi’s rise cemented Khamenei’s favored geopolitical re-alignment. Under Raisi, the Islamic Republic has reinvigorated its antagonism toward the West via its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and its supply of lethal aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.

In addition to the ongoing brutal suppression of the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests enveloping Iran since September 2022, these activities make a new agreement between Iran and Western powers politically difficult. However, reports indicate that the negotiations may have found new momentum. Days after the U.S. and Iranian officials denied the reports, saying that they were not nearing an interim deal, the Supreme Leader gave a speech in which he said, "there is nothing wrong with the agreement [with the West], but the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched." The speech is consistent with his strategy to prolong the negotiations by rhetorically leaving the door open for a new arrangement, while at the same time protecting himself and the Office of the Supreme Leader by deemphasizing the negotiations. In 2014, the last time he spoke before the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), he said effectively the same thing: negotiations should continue along with ostensible cooperation with the IAEA, but Iran’s nuclear achievements should not be touched. A new arrangement in which Iran receives sanctions relief, perhaps in exchange for freezing its nuclear advances, would legitimize its malign behaviors, which it has no intention to moderate or reform. Moreover, it would hand a lifeline to the regime, which has been facing a vigorous opposition movement led by women and youth over the past several months.

Having exclusive control of the elected state, conservatives will absorb all accountability for political and social restrictions, the moribund economy, corruption and mismanagement, and deteriorating relations with the West. The Iranian people are increasingly venting their anger over the unreformable defects of the Iranian system and against the Supreme Leader himself.