Major victory secures control of hardliners in Iran

When Ebrahim Raisi ran for Iran’s presidency for the first time in 2017, the bleak conservative cleric lost out, failing to win over ambitious voters who pinned their hopes on the republic’s nuclear deal to open the country.

Four years later, the collapse of Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers, the pervasive economic crisis triggered by US sanctions, frustrated voters, and the regime’s determination to see a hardliner return to office have cleared the way for him. electoral victory with 62 percent of the vote.

But for many inside and outside the republic, his victory bears the marks of a pricey victory.

More than half of voters chose not to vote in what reformists described as a rare act of civil disobedience. The turnout rate of 48.8 percent was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, and 3.7 million people chose to spoil their votes, more than voting for any of my major rivals.

“The message of the elections is that the dissident faction is much larger than Raisi’s supporters,” said Hossein Yazdi, a reformist activist.

Many who stayed away from the polling stations assumed the outcome was preordained after the authorities barred prominent reformist candidates from running. It was widely assumed that Raisi, the head of the judiciary, was backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, with hardliners using elections to regain control of all important branches of the state for the first time in nearly a decade.

Analysts said Raisi’s victory increased his chances of succeeding the 82-year-old Khamenei as supreme leader after his death. But only if he can overcome the challenges he inherits – an economy battered by sanctions and the coronavirus, and a polarized society prone to turmoil.

A woman casts her vote in the Iranian presidential elections. The turnout was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, and 3.7 million people chose to spoil their votes © Yasser Al-Zayat/AFP via Getty Images

His supporters hope he can end the factional infighting that has corrupted the system during President Hassan Rouhani’s second and final term, which ends in August. Unity within the theocracy, which has competing centers of power, and a smooth succession, are Khamenei’s priorities. These goals became more pressing as the republic experienced its most turbulent period since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

“One nation, one team, one goal” was one of my boss’s election slogans.

“I believe in my boss because he is 100 per cent compatible with the leadership,” said a system insider. “Parliament, the leadership, the judiciary – they will all be in line and perform better.”

The latest Iran tension was driven by Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal. He imposed crippling sanctions on the republic and on individuals, including Raisi, and stifled Iran’s ability to export oil and plunged it into recession.

The unrest emboldened hard-liners and crushed the dreams of the 24 million Iranians who voted for Rouhani in 2017, hoping the nuclear deal would lead to change and prosperity.

Their disappointment played into the hands of my boss. His conservative constituency responded to calls by its leaders to vote, while reformists stayed home.

So, although technically an overwhelming majority, he faces serious challenges without the strong popular mandate of his predecessors.

“My boss went into a match he would lose. In the public eye, right or wrong, his victory was predetermined,” said a reformist analyst. “This angers people.”

Others fear the hardliners will seek to further marginalize and repress pro-democracy activists.

“Without a doubt, there will be repression of pro-democracy people,” said activist Yazdi.

There have long been concerns about a major human rights record. Now he is threatening to discredit his credibility at home and abroad as Tehran negotiates with world powers for a deal to bring the United States back into the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.

President Joe Biden said he would rejoin the deal if Iran fully complied with the deal. But the new government will be led by a man the Trump administration accused of overseeing executions and “torture and other inhumane treatment of prisoners” when it imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019.

He is allegedly linked to the execution of thousands of political prisoners when he was the state prosecutor in the late 1980s. He did not comment on that period.

Born into a religious family, Raisi’s path to the top became clear five years ago when Khamenei appointed him custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in his home city of Mashhad, a powerful position overseeing Iran’s holiest site.

People pass an election banner in Tehran. Analysts say Ebrahim Raisi’s victory increases his chances of succeeding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader. © WANA via REUTERS

After Khamenei appointed him head of the judiciary, one of the main centers of hard-line power, in 2019, he used the position to launch a crusade against corruption that earned him praise, even among some of his critics. But others saw the move as a relaunch of his political ambitions.

During the election campaign, he gave few political details, but said that local issues are one of his priorities. He sought to appeal to Iranians who experienced economic hardship, sometimes citing his humble upbringing.

He was repeating the phrase “I did not only know poverty, but I tasted poverty.”

He has made only fleeting references to foreign policy and expects few significant changes, whether it be with regard to Iran’s hostile relations with the United States, its support for regional armed groups or the expansion of its missile program.

Unlike Rouhani, Raisi has not had much external exposure, and major regional policy and security decisions are made by Khamenei.

Analysts add that he is likely to be less overtly extremist than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the last hardline president of Iran. His first term was marked by hard-hitting rhetoric against the United States and Israel and costly populist domestic policies that created economic chaos.

But even conservatives admit that Raisi faces a daunting task.

“It is not excluded that Raisi’s term will become similar to that of Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.” [chaotic last years]Mohamed Mohajry, a conservative analyst, said. “The boat of politics in Iran is shaking a lot.”

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