Five Challenges Facing the Next Iranian President

TEHRAN – The winner of Iran’s presidential election will face a host of tough challenges once he takes over from Hassan Rouhani in August.

Seven men are running in the June 18 vote, with a possible run-off on June 25.

The ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi is seen most likely to win after his strongest rivals were disqualified and would take over the post in a country where ultimate power rests with the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here are the five top issues the next president will have to address.

Fixing the economy

All candidates agree that the top priority is to revive an economy hit hard by sanctions since former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the damage later compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were initially high hopes for an influx of foreign investment after Iran’s 2015 accord with world powers, in which it pledged not to build or acquire nuclear weapons — a goal it has always denied pursuing.

But those hopes were dashed when Trump in 2018 withdrew from the deal and launched or reimposed crippling sanctions as part of a sweeping “maximum pressure” campaign.

Iran lost billions in crucial oil revenues and was locked out of the international financial system.

The International Monetary Fund says GDP fell by more than six percent in both 2018 and 2019, and only returned to modest growth last year.

Unemployment has risen, the rial currency has collapsed, and prices have soared amid inflation — which the IMF projects at 39 percent for this year.

“If the sanctions are lifted, we will have a stabilization of the macroeconomic environment, with an acceleration of growth and a fall in inflation,” said Thierry Coville, of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

But the new president will still have to manage public expectations, Coville warned, because “one of the risks is that people think that everything will improve immediately and find themselves very disappointed”.

Improving foreign relations

If a compromise on the nuclear issue is reached, it “will probably not allow Western investors to return to the Iranian market in the short term,” said Clement Therme, of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

“For this to happen, a diplomatic normalization between Tehran and Washington seems to be an indispensable condition,” Therme told AFP.

However, Khamenei is hostile to any rapprochement with the United States, which after decades of hostility is commonly labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in Iran.

Therme said “the new president will have to find a new way to ensure a minimum of improvement in the economic living conditions of the population by managing the level of hostility with (the administration of US President Joe) Biden”.

Frontrunner Raisi says he wants to prioritize relations with countries geographically close to Iran, which has been on friendly terms with China.

Under a Raisi presidency, tensions with the West would likely continue to simmer, but the process of diplomatic normalization with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great regional rival, should continue, according to several experts.

Emerging from the pandemic

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Iran quickly became the region’s worst-hit country.

According to official figures widely believed to underestimate the real toll, some three million people have been infected, of whom more than 81,000 have died.

Iran has fallen behind in its vaccination campaign, partly because of US sanctions.

An easing of sanctions, as well as the possible short-term release of one or more Iranian-designed vaccines, could help the effort.

Regaining the people’s trust

Iran’s isolation and economic pain, as well as the bloody repression of two waves of protests, in the winter of 2017-2018 and in November 2019, have left their mark.

Iranians were also dismayed by the January 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airliner by Iran’s military amid high tensions with the US.

“The crisis of confidence is deep and widespread,” said reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

Authorities feared a renewed low voter turnout this week after a record abstention rate of 57 percent in February 2020 legislative elections.

“The future government will have to take some immediate steps to restore confidence,” said Zeidabadi, including, in his view, “lifting the blocking of certain social networks such as Telegram and Twitter (and) giving up being tough on women’s veils”.

Tackling environmental problems

Ecological issues may be Iran’s forgotten priority, but they loom large in the country of 83 million threatened by climate change, water shortages, desertification and urban air pollution.

“The environmental crisis in Iran is a reality,” Coville said, but so far “we have the impression that the government is not able to put in place a comprehensive policy”.

Environmental issues were not discussed in three televised pre-election debates.

“Environmental issues will be … of great importance” but “the causes of the problem (are outside) the president’s field of competence,” Therme said.

“Water resources are depleted,” said Zeidabadi who pointed to “destruction of natural resources” caused by unsustainable agricultural and industrial practices.

Unfortunately, he added, “it only takes two rains for those in charge to completely forget about it”.

Source: Voice of America