IRAN AND ISRAEL: 2 nations, 2 new leaders, 7 tipping points
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief, has won a landslide victory in Iran’s presidential election, a vote that both propelled the supreme leader’s protege into Tehran’s highest civilian position and saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic republic’s history.
Raisi won 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election on a voter turnout of 49 percent.
Raisi, 60, will take office in August, replacing moderate President Hassan Rouhani who was not allowed by the constitution to run for a third consecutive term.
This new appointment, in a nation that is home to nearly 40% of all Shia Muslims globally, will no doubt provide a number of tipping points in an explosive region that can ill afford another spark of religious intolerance. Here are seven:
A GEOPOLITICAL TIPPING POINT
Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency comes at a critical time in Middle Eastern Geopolitics. The Iran–Israel “shadow war”, also known as the Iran–Israel proxy war, is an ongoing regional conflict between Iran and Israel. The conflict involves threats and hostility by Iran’s leaders against Israel, and their declared objective to dissolve the Jewish state. Iran has provided funding, weapons, and training to groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) both in the Gaza Strip, which have vowed and carried out attacks on Israel, and which have been designated terrorist organisations by many countries.
Iran’s hostility towards Israel followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution and expanded into covert Iranian support of Hezbollah during the South Lebanon conflict (1985–2000) and by 2005 developed into a proxy regional conflict. In 2006, Iran was actively involved in supporting Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War and in parallel began supporting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), especially in the Gaza Strip.
Israel, on the other hand, initiated a campaign to harm the Iranian nuclear program, utilizing several anti-regime militias within Iran. Upon the onset of the Syrian Civil War, the conflict escalated and by 2018 turned into direct Iranian-Israeli warfare. Israel in turn supports anti-Iranian rebel groups, such as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, opposes Iran’s nuclear program, and maintains ties with other rivals of Iran such as Saudi Arabia and the United States. The involvement of both countries in the Syrian Civil War creates possibilities for direct conflict between the two countries. Israel has supported and conducted assassinations and attacks against Iranian targets directly. Israel has also conducted cyberwarfare against Iran and has publicly advocated for international military action against Iran.
What will aggravate relationships between the two key nations in the Middle East is that both nations have now elected two new leaders, both being Orthodox in their respective religions.
ISRAEL: On Sunday, 13 June 2021, Naftali Bennett, was sworn in as Israel’s first Orthodox Jewish prime minister. Bennett, 49, is an Orthodox Jew, the country’s first leader born of American parents and the first prime minister to have become rich in the tech sector – three components that would classify him as a natural enemy of Iran. To worsen future relationships, Bennet is also an avowed opponent of the two-state solution and a fierce advocate of annexation. Naftali Bennett is also expected to maintain Israel’s hard-line stance on Iran and oppose U.S. President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive its international nuclear deal, according to analysts.
The Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas have since threatened to attack Jerusalem.
IRAN: Ebrahim Raisi is highly ranked within the Shia Islamic faith and seen as the predecessor of the 82-year old Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Raisi’s career began after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when he was appointed prosecutor general of Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, at the age of 20. It was the first of many positions he would hold in the judiciary. He later became a judge, and since 2019 he has headed up the country’s judiciary.
The long-running and undeclared shadow war between two of the Middle East’s most relentless foes, Iran and Israel, will no doubt enter new levels of animosity in the months to come. Both Iran and Israel now have new orthodox leaders in their respective religions which are incapable, simply by the nature of the faith, to broker any future peace deals.
A HUMANITARIAN TIPPING POINT.
Human Rights activists decry the election of Raisi. One episode from Raisi’s time as deputy prosecutor in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court has stuck with him to this day: according to Amnesty International, Raisi was involved in extrajudicial executions in 1988 as a member of the country’s “death commission.”
An Amnesty report in 2018 said that at least 5,000 regime opponents were murdered; the real number may actually be higher since many prisoners who were released were later arrested again and secretly executed. In response, the Trump administration and the European Union sanctioned Raisi back in 2019.
“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” said Amnesty’s Secretary-General Agnes Callamard.
A NUCLEAR TIPPING POINT
Ebrahim Raisi has committed to continue nuclear talks — but on Iran’s terms. Western governments have reason to hope that Raisi will likely continue efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal initiated by Donald Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden. Although Raisi has criticized the agreement, he nevertheless vowed during the election campaign to abide by it — but only if Iran, not the US, sets the conditions.
Iran committed to ending its nuclear program back in 2015 in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions. But Trump terminated the agreement just three years later, enacting even tougher sanctions against the country. Iran’s economic problems worsened dramatically, and in return, Tehran went back to enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.
Ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at reinstating the 2015 deal, launched by the Biden administration, may well be completed before Raisi takes office in August.
AN ISLAMIC TIPPING POINT
Ebrahim Raisi was born in 1960 into a strictly religious family in the country’s second-largest city, Mashhad. For Shiite Muslims, the city is one of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites and home to the Imam Reza shrine. The custodian of the shrine is an influential foundation that was headed by Raisi from 2016 to 2019.
Raisi himself underwent extensive theological training and holds the title of Hujjat al-Islam, which literally means “authority on Islam.” In Iran’s religious hierarchy, the position is second only to the ayatollah.
Like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader wears a black turban, which signifies that he is a sayyid – a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.
Raisi also enjoys the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; during the election campaign, Khamenei described Raisi as a “trustworthy and experienced man.” While the president is responsible for the day-to-day business of government, the supreme spiritual leader dictates the country’s long-term plans.
Khamenei, who like Raisi is also a native of Mashhad, has been supreme leader since the death of his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. He served as president from 1981 to 1989, and was elevated from Hujjat al-Islam to ayatollah upon his appointment as supreme leader.
Khamenei turns 82 in July — meaning Raisi now finds himself in prime position to one day possibly follow in his footsteps and is referred to as a likely successor to the 82-year-old Khamenei when he passes away.
AN ISRAELI TIPPING POINT
The fears of a new conflict between Israel and Iran may be well justified. Observers expect the president-elect to take an even tougher line against Israel and Israel has already expressed the same sentiments from their new leadership.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday opened his first Cabinet meeting since swearing in his new coalition government last week with a condemnation of the new Iranian president.
Bennett said that “of all the people that (Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the hangman of Tehran, the man infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”
A GENERATIONAL TIPPING POINT
Iranian Youth presents a tipping point within Iran, and especially within Islam in Iran. 30% of Iran’s population is younger than 20 years and 66% is 39 or younger. It is a young generation, exposed to other cultures through the internet, that are discontent with their faith and their leaders.
Many of the country’s youth, particularly in the capital Tehran, have declared that they plan to boycott the elections by staying at home and not voting. This resulted in the lowest voter turnout in years.
“I’m not going to vote, and none of my friends are going to vote too,” Mehdi, a business owner in his 20s living in Tehran, told CNBC. “Nothing is going to change with or without us voting. … They decided everything for the country, without considering the parliament,” he said, referring to the ruling regime. “So it’s a joke to even have a parliament. We’re protesting against them by not participating in the elections.”
A SPIRITUAL TIPPING POINT
Observers expect the president-elect to clamp down even further on Iran’s limited freedom of expression. This is disconcerting news for the small but growing Christian community in Iran.
Iran currently ranks 8th on the World Watch List of Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution.
The Iranian government sees the conversion of Muslims to Christianity as an attempt by Western countries to undermine the Islamic rule of Iran and is punishable with imprisonment. Christians from a Muslim background are persecuted the most, primarily by the government, but also by their families and communities. Secret churches are often raided, and their leaders and members have been arrested and given long prison sentences for ‘crimes against national security.
But there is no doubt that the religious scene in Iran is changing. In June 2020, the Research Institute for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN), conducted an online survey amongst 40,000 Iranians living in Iran. The results were astounding:
- Compared with Iran’s 99.5% census figure, only 40% identified themselves as Muslim.
- 5% said they were Christian. (1,26 million)
- 47% reported losing their religion in their lifetime
- Younger people reported higher levels of irreligiosity and conversion to Christianity than older people.
Estimates are that there are between 1 and 2 million converts in Iran. Mark Bradley, a writer about Iranian Christianity, claims that more Iranians had become Christians in the past 25 years than the past 13 centuries combined.
This could provide a tipping point for the balance of faith in the Middle East