FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan September 17, 2021. REUTERS/Didor Sadulloev/File Photo

November 22, 2021

Is the Honeymoon Ending for Iran’s President Raisi?

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

President Ebrahim Raisi’s ability to meet domestic challenges in the coming months will test his support from hardliners and could damage his chances of succeeding Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian government bodies have *warned that Iran *will suffer fuel and water shortages amidst *record-high inflation rates. Recent water-shortage protests in Esfahan Province reflect the mounting environmental and economic challenges that face the Raisi administration this winter. Raisi will struggle to solve the fundamental structural issues causing these problems.

Resource mismanagement and economic issues have triggered protests in the past and could catalyze infighting among hardline camps as officials deflect blame. An IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) affiliated outlet has already *accused the Raisi administration of resource mismanagement. Raisi has repeatedly promised to *protect water-poor provinces and *reduce inflation despite anticipated challenges but has not articulated a detailed plan for doing so.

Raisi is a top contender to replace Supreme Leader Khamenei. Failure to manage domestic challenges could exacerbate nascent tensions with hardliners, however, undermining one of his most important bases of support within the regime. Domestic policy failures could also alienate Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose voice could be central to shaping the succession.

Hardline officials and media have increasingly criticized the Raisi administration in recent weeks. An IRGC-affiliated outlet *insinuated that Oil Minister Javad Owji was to blame for anticipated winter fuel shortages, corruption trials, and the likely Israeli cyberattack on fuel stations on October 26. A former IRGC member and hardline parliamentarian *accused Raisi’s cabinet of incompetence in an open parliament session. A media outlet close to the supreme leader also *implied that one of Raisi’s provincial governors was corrupt, following his nomination in September. Hardliners still largely *support Raisi, and criticisms levied against his administration are minor thus far. Raisi has so far defended his administration but may find it necessary to change policies or personnel as solutions prove elusive. Raisi could find himself in a pattern familiar to previous Iranian presidents of receiving constant blame for nearly intractable problems not of his making.

Raisi may already lack support from critical elements of the regime, including parts of the clerical establishment in Qom. Some senior clerics in Qom are reportedly angry with Raisi’s engineered election victory. A senior cleric tied to Ali Larijani—Raisi’s political rival and Qom parliamentarian for over a decade—refused to meet Raisi when he visited Qom on July 9.

The Raisi administration is unlikely to navigate mounting internal stressors unless he makes structural changes to the regime. Raisi could attempt to manage short-term fuel shortages by stockpiling petroleum and long-term shortages by soliciting foreign investment in outdated Iranian oil fields to maximize output. Foreign investment will prove challenging as long as sanctions remain in place and was elusive even during the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action period because investors feared that sanctions would be restored and because of endemic corruption and inefficiency in the Iranian economy.

Raisi even is less likely to resolve impending economic issues and water shortages. Raisi’s cabinet consists of nine individuals drawn from his own network and the regime’s economic empire. These advisors represent the status quo and are unlikely to propose or carry through major reforms. Water shortages are even further from Raisi’s control. Iran *suffered its driest summer in over 50 years in 2021, and it is unclear if Iran has enough water to transport to dry provinces through new pipelines or similar structures.

Raisi is only about 100 days into his first term, so reports of his political demise are surely premature. But for a president whom the supreme leader almost overtly chose and whose path to the presidency Khamenei and the hardliners clearly smoothed, the brevity of his honeymoon period is noteworthy. Raisi has much to worry about.