Conservative at the helm: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi

As a young prosecutor in the 1980s, Raisi played a role in sending Iranians working against the government during the Iran-Iraq war to the gallows.

Published : Jul 06, 2021 06:00 IST

President-elect Ebrahim Raisi giving a speech at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran on June 22, three days after he was named the winner of the presidential election.

President-elect Ebrahim Raisi giving a speech at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran on June 22, three days after he was named the winner of the presidential election.

The victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the I ranian presidential election held on June 18 was widely predicted both inside and outside the country. This was mainly because the Guardian Council, which is empowered with vetting and choosing presidential candidates, saw to it that no credible challenger from the reformist sections of the Iranian political establishment was allowed to run this time. The Guardian Council’s decision, which the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed, meant that for the first time the reformist parties did not have a viable candidate in the fray in a presidential election. Left without a choice, the reformist bloc, led by President Hassan Rouhani, endorsed Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former Governor of the Central Bank of Iran. Hemmati emerged as the most outspoken critic of Raisi and his conservative backers, but after the votes were tabulated, he came a dismal third, getting less than three million votes. 

The candidate who came second was Mohsen Rezaee, a former chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who got more than three and a half million votes. Raisi won by polling 18 million of the 28.9 million votes cast. There were around 3.7 million “white ballots”, or ballot papers that voters left blank in protest against the lack of political diversity in the candidates list. In the last election in which Raisi contested, more than 73 per cent of the electorate cast their votes, and Rouhani soundly defeated Raisi, who is close to the clerical establishment in Qom and to the Supreme Leader.

This year’s presidential election was conducted in a changed political scenario. The 60-year-old Raisi is the head of the country’s judiciary and will continue as the Chief Justice until he takes over as President in early August. Many Iranians believe that he is the most likely candidate to succeed Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. Like the Supreme Leader, Raisi wears a black turban signifying that he is a “Sayyid”, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Election hoardings prominently displayed Raisi’s picture alongside that of Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Republic. Raisi won almost 62 per cent of the votes cast. However, the voter turnout was the lowest ever recorded since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 though better than what had been predicted. An opinion poll conducted by the Islamic Students Polling Agency had predicted a turnout of less than 40 per cent, but it was just under 50 per cent. In a statement, Khamenei called on Iranians not to criticise the Guardian Council’s decision on candidates but to instead go to the polling booths and vote. Leaders belonging to all the factions in Iranian politics urged people to vote. Huge posters of the martyred Gen. Hassan Soleimani along with slogans urging people to cast their votes in his memory were plastered all over Tehran and other big cities.

Although the popularity of the moderates and reformists had plunged owing to a variety of factors, some politicians whose candidature the Guardian Council rejected such as Ali Larijani, the former Speaker of the Majlis, and Eshaq Jahangari, the current Vice President, could have posed a stronger challenge to Raisi. Jahangari is closely aligned to the current President. Larijani’s family is close to the Supreme Leader. His two brothers occupy important posts within the country’s political establishment. If he had been allowed to run, he would have posed a serious challenge to Raisi. Larijani’s role as Speaker helped him distance himself politically from the Rouhani administration.

Also read: Iran signs 25-year agreement with China 

The Guardian Council also disqualified former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from running. The populist policies Ahmadinejad implemented during his eight years as President made him a popular figure among the country’s poor. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading politician belonging to the reformist camp, was also disqualified. The clerical establishment now views both these figures with suspicion because of their non-conformist political views. Tajzadeh had called for a revision of the Iranian constitution. After he was disqualified, he said that Iranians were witnessing an “electoral coup” and called on people to protest by not casting their votes. Ahmadinejad had strongly criticised the Guardian Council. He said that he would not cast his vote.

Raisi, as the front runner, was probably concerned that the election would not look competitive and had requested the Guardian Council to reinstate some of the candidates it had barred. The Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated to the influential IRGC, was critical of the Guardian Council’s actions. In a signed article, Kian Abdullah, editor-in-chief of the news agency, said that the people should be allowed to choose their candidates. The Guardian Council had not bothered to give any reason for disqualifying the big names that had thrown their hats in the fray.

In the parliamentary election held last year, the conservatives made a clean sweep. Many observers of the Iranian scene believe that even if there had been a credible candidate from the reformist side in the presidential election, there was no chance he would have won. The rout of the reformists in the parliamentary election was a strong signal of the mood of the public.

Pledges to fight corruption

Raisi, while flaunting his conservative credentials, pledged to fight corruption and revive the economy. As Chief Justice, he had cracked the whip against corrupt high-ranking Iranian officials, including a prominent judge and the Deputy Minister of Justice. Although Iranians agree that their economic plight is mainly due to the draconian sanctions the United States has imposed on their country, they also say that corruption has played a big part in undermining the economy and the standard of living of ordinary people. Rouhani won two consecutive elections on the promise of reviving the economy and opening it up to the world. On the campaign trail, Raisi pledged to bridge the growing divide between the rich and the increasing number of poor in the country.

The U.S., which is engaged in crucial negotiations with Iran on the revival of the nuclear deal, had sanctioned Raisi on his “human rights” record. The sanctions were imposed on the basis of an executive order by President Donald Trump in 2019. President Joe Biden has not yet repealed the order. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed a “travel ban” on Raisi. If the sanctions are not removed, Raisi will be the first Iranian President to face a travel ban. The U.S. and other Western countries were quick to reverse the travel restrictions on Narendra Modi when he became Prime Minister of India.

As a young prosecutor in the 1980s, Raisi played a role in sending Iranians working against the government during the Iran-Iraq war to the gallows. Raisi has however stressed that he had no direct role in these mass executions. He said the death sentences were passed by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court. Raisi has described the West’s charges of human rights violations as “score settling” against him and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader at the time. Most of those given the death sentence were activists of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) who were fighting alongside Iraq in the eight-year war, which resulted in the deaths of more than a million Iranians. Now the MeK, which the U.S. and many European countries had categorised as a “terrorist” organisation, has the open support of countries such as France and Israel. The MeK has been accused of complicity in some of the recent terror attacks in Iran.

Raisi had initially opposed the landmark U.S.-Iran nuclear deal (called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) but has since changed his stance. There has been continuity in Iranian foreign policy even though the conservatives and the reformists have been alternating in power in the last four decades. Reviving the Iranian economy is the President-elect’s priority, and the only way this can be realistically done is after the draconian U.S. sanctions on the country are lifted. “We will put national interests first,” Raisi told Iranian television. “We believe that the oppressive sanctions must be lifted and no effort should be spared.”

Raisi, however, has no illusions about the U.S. and its policies in the region. As Chief Justice, he once said that “the repression and the imperial demeanour of the United States doesn’t change with the Republicans and the Democrats”. What really angers the Americans, he said, was the growing strength of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Raisi said that the assassination of Gen. Soleimani in January 2020 “was a clear manifestation of state-sponsored terrorism” and that the U.S. presence in the region “has yielded nothing but insecurity”.

Also read: Challenges and opportunities in India-Iran ties 

From available indications, the Biden administration seems all set to give the JCPOA a second lease of life. Many American commentators predict that the nuclear deal will be back on track before Raisi is formally sworn in as President. U.S. and Iranian officials have told the media that both Biden and Khamenei want a quick resumption of the deal. Robert Malley, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Iran, recently stated that the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran had failed. The Israelis, as was to be expected, are going all out in an eleventh hour bid to derail the nuclear talks going on in Vienna between U.S. and Iranian diplomats. Naftali Bennet, Israel’s new right-wing Prime Minister, described the incoming Iranian President as “a hangman” and said that his election was “the last wake-up call” for the world powers before returning to the nuclear deal. Bennet, who has openly boasted of killing Arabs, said that the Iranians had chosen a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians.

Yossi Cohen, the recently retired head of the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency, admitted that his country was behind the recent attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations and scientists. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Iranian leadership has repeatedly avowed that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes. Tiny Israel has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the region without being a signatory to the NPT and other international treaties. But it has the patronage of the West.

However, Iran’s other regional adversaries in the Gulf are reconciled to the nuclear deal being reinstated. In the third week of July, the Pentagon ordered the withdrawal of many of the anti-missile Patriot batteries based in the Gulf. The Biden administration also ordered the withdrawal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system from Saudi Arabia, which the Trump administration had deployed. The Patriot missiles were deployed in Saudi Arabia after a drone attack on two Aramco refineries there in 2019. The U.S. had blamed the attack on Iran. Washington obviously feels that with the imminent resumption of the nuclear deal, there is less need for U.S. military assets to be permanently deployed in the Gulf.

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