Four reasons why Iran’s election matters to Europe

The result may affect a range of issues from the future of the 2015 nuclear agreement to the fate of dual-national prisoners held in Iran.

An Iranian man walks by posters of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi outside a campaign office in Tehran on June 7, 2021. - Iranians are set to elect a successor to President Hassan Rouhani on June 18 amid widespread discontent over a deep economic and social crisis caused by the reimposition of crippling sanctions after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi is seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, whose second term is coming to a close [Atta Kenare/AFP]

The outcome of Iran’s presidential election on Friday could reshape the country’s political balance of power – and Tehran’s relations with its allies and rivals.

Conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi is widely seen as the frontrunner to succeed Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president whose second term is ending.

Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, is one of five hardliners in the race.

Two low-profile reformist candidates are also vying for Iran’s highest political office.

A win for Raisi, or any of the other conservative candidates, would signal a break from the reform agenda headed by Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif since 2013.

That, in turn, could have significant consequences for the European powers keen to engage Tehran on a range of issues, including the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, a series of regional conflicts and the detention of dual-nationals.

“The outcome of the elections is important to European countries,” Eldar Mamedov, a foreign policy adviser to the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group, told Al Jazeera.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Mamedov predicted victory for any hardline candidate would usher in a “minimalistic phase” in relations between the European Union and Iran.

Here are four things to consider:

Nuclear agreement

European parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have scrambled to restore the pact after it was left in tatters by then-President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from it in May 2018.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the EU sought to mitigate the effect of punishing economic sanctions reapplied on Tehran after Washington’s exit, but had limited success.

Iran meanwhile ramped up its non-compliance with the agreement.

But US President Joe Biden’s bid to resurrect the agreement and even extend its terms have buoyed European signatories’ hopes for a revival of the deal.

Tehran wants Washington to make the first move by lifting sanctions and Iran is against expanding the initial agreement, which put curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

While there are outstanding disagreements, however, analysts said Iran’s election was unlikely to change the apparent direction back towards restoring the deal, which was initially brokered under Rouhani’s watch.

A sixth round of indirect US-Iranian negotiations aimed at reviving the accord took place in Vienna at the weekend and all seven candidates running for the presidency have backed the continuation of talks.

Crucially, so has Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the chief decision-maker on the country’s foreign and nuclear policy.

“Sanctions relief is something that the [Iranian] system as a whole is seeking,” Sanam Vakil, a deputy director and senior research fellow for the UK-based think-tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, told Al Jazeera.

“So I don’t see the process being impacted [by the Iranian election] unless the US refuses to compromise on sanctions relief,” she said.

Dual-national prisoners

Iran does not recognise dual-nationality and there are no precise figures on the number of people with citizenship of European states imprisoned in the country.

Several of those known to be held argue they are being detained on false charges and used by Tehran as bargaining chips in its dealings with Western powers.

Among them are Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Fariba Adelkhah and Kamren Ghaderi, who are British-Iranian, French-Iranian and Austrian-Iranian dual nationals respectively.

Should Raisi or any conservative candidate win office, European powers should assume a position of “extreme scepticism” over Tehran’s intentions regarding these individuals – and human rights issues more broadly – according to Mamedov.

“Their track records do not inspire any confidence in their benevolence, or readiness to release these people,” he said.

Vakil said it was possible Tehran could double-down on such detentions under a conservative presidency.

“Conservatives, in general, have a consensus that these hardline tactics and leverage building are useful strategies,” she said. “And with the West, their takeaways are that these sort of tactics are important and that these sort of cards are important to have up their sleeves.”

However, both analysts also suggested it was possible that a conservative presidential victory may improve the fate of the currently jailed dual nationals and see fewer imprisoned.

They noted that the detention of dual nationals was a tactic frequently used by conservative figures in key offices other than the presidency, such as within the judiciary, to undermine Rouhani’s reform agenda.

With conservatives anticipated to be in control of the state post-election, the analysts suggested there may be less of an incentive to make those kinds of moves in the coming years – and more room for decision-makers to engage with rival powers without fear of domestic factionalism undercutting such efforts.


The result of Friday’s election may influence the extent to which Iran and European powers clash or cooperate on efforts to end conflicts in which they are involved.

If, as expected, a conservative wins the presidency, Tehran may seek to crank up the pressure on its regional rivals – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and their European allies with shows of force from its proxy fighters in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, too, a victory for Raisi or another conservative could see Iran-backed militias escalate their targeting of US forces, weakening the prospects of cooperation between Tehran and Washington’s European allies.

“Raisi supports Iran’s strategy of forward defence and resistance,” Vakil said. “So there is concern that Iran will be less amenable to compromise on regional issues.”


Iran’s alliance with Russia is unlikely to be significantly affected by the presidential election results, particularly given Khamenei’s control over foreign policy, Vakil said.

“They already have close ties with Russia,” she said. “I don’t think things are going to change, for better or worse.”

However, Mamedov suggested that a leap towards conservatism could see Iran further consolidate ties with Moscow.

“Certainly the conservatives are more open and favourable to closer ties with Russia,” he said.

“They see Russia as a power that is anti-Western, just like China, and there are these hopes that Iran can join Russia and China in a sort of anti-Western axis.”

Such a move could lead to a further chill in Tehran’s relations with key European powers such as the UK, France and Germany, given their simmering tensions with Moscow over a range of issues.

Source: Al Jazeera