Irans new hardliner

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By Kareem Fahim and Miriam Berger
with Claire Parker
 Email

Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi consolidates hard-line grip as reformers pushed aside

Supporters of Ebrahim Raisi gather under his portrait during a rally celebrating his presidential election victory, in Tehran on June 19. (Wana News Agency/Reuters)

Iranians cast ballots Friday in an election that seemed to have a pre-ordained outcome. The next president, one joke went, would be Ebrahim Raisi or Sayyid Ebrahim Raisol-Sadati — Raisi’s full name. 

The ultraconservative judge, known for his allegiance to Iran’s clerical power structure, was declared the winner Saturday, according to state media.

The announcement of his resounding electoral victory signaled a stunning consolidation of power, handing the elected leadership back to hard-liners and sidelining reformists who negotiated a nuclear deal with global powers and advocated greater engagement with the West.

 

Raisi’s win also showed the determination of Iran’s conservative establishment, including its security and intelligence agencies, to eliminate any political challenge at a critical moment, analysts said. Among the potential landmark moments ahead: reckoning with who will succeed the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is seen as a mentor to Raisi.

Some experts speculated about whether the return to unity at the top — Khamenei’s ruling clerics and the political structure around Raisi — could become a permanent fixture in Iran, making the country’s relatively vibrant election contests a thing of the past. 

Raisi’s victory, however, was not expected to derail negotiations underway in Vienna between Tehran and world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Khamenei has allowed Iran to reopen the dialogue and appears ready to keep it going in efforts to lift international sanctions. But the longer-term impact on Iran’s relationships with Europe and the United States was far less clear.

Ebrahim Raisi, then a candidate, gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran on June 18. (Wana News Agency/Reuters)

Raisi, 60, a fixture of Iran’s hard-line establishment since his 20s, has been floated in the past as a possible successor to the supreme leader. Like Khamenei, Raisi was born in the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran. He is an ultraconservative cleric, though he does not hold the status of ayatollah, the highest rank for Shiite clergy. He claims a lineage tracing back to the prophet Muhammad, which enables him to wear a black turban.

 

For many Iranians, Raisi is associated with a bloody series of political trials and executions in 1988 around the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war. At the time, Raisi was a judge in the Tehran revolutionary court, which was undertaking a purge of opponents to the Islamic Republic. Human rights groups say Raisi was involved in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners. For some conservative voters, this history adds to his political clout.

In recent years, Khamenei has appointed Raisi to positions that have elevated his stature within Iran’s centers of power. In 2016, Raisi was tapped to lead the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, a politically and economically powerful role. Khamenei tapped him in 2019 to head Iran’s judiciary. Raisi, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2017, has cast himself as an anti-corruption crusader, while critics have accused him of using corruption as a fig leaf to eliminate rivals.

Also in 2019, Raisi was elected vice president of another key institution: Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which is charged with choosing the next supreme leader when 82-year-old Khamenei dies.

“At this stage, when the supreme leader is very likely to pass away, Raisi represents a man who the entire security establishment trusts,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. 

In a statement Saturday, Raisi called the election that brought him to power “a great epic of the rising nation that opened a new page of contemporary history,” according to state-run IRNA news agency.

Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran on June 19 after he won the presidential election. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Raisi will replace President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate whose government signed the 2015 nuclear accord. Rouhani was later left facing the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” aimed at crippling Iran’s economy using sanctions and other measures. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord in 2018.

Raisi has expressed a willingness to revive the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in line with Khamenei’s wishes. But his presidency seems certain to mark a radical departure from the Rouhani era, with little prospect of liberalizing domestic reforms or any broadening of Tehran’s relationship with the West, analysts said.

Polls in the days leading up to the election predicted low turnout amid voter fatigue and calls to boycott the election after accusations that the contest was rigged to favor hard-line candidates. The Interior Ministry said Raisi received nearly 18 million votes out of more than 28 million cast. His nearest rival, Mohsen Rezaei, received about 3 million votes. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the election, a historic low.

The result was no surprise. Iran’s Guardian Council, which approves candidates seeking office, last month disqualified several prominent politicians who might have challenged Raisi. (Rouhani was term-limited from running again.) Critics called it an unusually brazen effort by the clerical establishment to engineer the election results. Half of the council’s members are clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and the other half are jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary. Raisi nominated three of the council’s members.

In the run-up to the election, Iran’s reformists vigorously debated whether to vote or boycott it. As the balloting got underway, some fervent boycotters harassed Iranians who decided to vote, by posting their pictures online. There were also ugly scenes at some overseas polling stations. A video shared on social media showed a small crowd in Birmingham, England, attacking at least one female voter with fists and flagpoles at one of 11 polling stations in Britain.

In a short campaign season, the candidates tried to energize an electorate frustrated by the dismal state of Iran’s economy, government mismanagement, widening repression and the layers of sanctions imposed by Trump. Raisi, for his part, remained vague about his plans to repair the country and generally sought to avoid controversy. 

Raisi’s reticence to lay out specific plans, along with his lack of charisma, left many Iranians with more questions than answers about the incoming president. “Beyond speculation, no one knows what he is going to do,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi, a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Anahita, a 45-year old travel agent from the northern city of Tabriz who lost her job during the pandemic, said she argued with friends over whether to vote in the election. (She spoke on the condition that she be identified by her first name to avoid retribution by the authorities.) She decided not to vote, while her friends cast ballots for Abdolnaser Hemmati, the centrist governor of Iran’s central bank.

“Now I see that both groups have lost,” she said. “The ultimate winner is the Khamenei camp again, because they successfully divided the opposite and made us fight each other,” she said.