Ebrahim Raisi, head of the judiciary, is the current favourite to win Iran’s presidential election on June 18. This 60-year-old traditionalist cleric is a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose confidence he has gained over the years by holding key positions of power.
Ultra-conservative Raisi is one of just seven contenders left in the race, including five conservatives, who have been authorised by the Iranian election control body to run for the presidential election on June 18.
After banning the candidacy of most prominent reformists on May 25, Iran’s Guardian Council seems to be offering victory on a platter to Raisi.
The council’s decision was initially endorsed by Khamenei, though he did backtrack somewhat last Friday by saying that some of the candidates rejected from this month’s presidential election had been “wronged” and unfairly maligned online. Despite this, the Guardian Council said its original decision to bar them still held.
Raisi was already the favourite, but now the reformist Iranian press is calling him the “unrivalled candidate”.
An unsuccessful candidate in the 2017 election against Hassan Rohani, Raisi is returning to the forefront of the Iranian political scene this time with new momentum behind him, strengthened by the 38 percent of votes he obtained during the previous election against the now-outgoing president.
Raisi is a trusted confidant of Khamenei, who was one of his seminary instructors. Although he wears a turban, Raisa is not an ayatollah, he is a Hujjat al-Islam, a lower rank of the Shiite clergy. He is also a sayyid – a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed in Shi’a Islam. This entitles him to wear the black turban, a popular distinction among the pious electorate.
— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) June 3, 2021
Key positions of power
Like the supreme leader, Raisi comes from the holy city of Mashhad, in northeast Iran. It was no coincidence that, in 2016, Khamenei appointed him to head the powerful religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi. The foundation manages the shrine of Imam Reza – the Prophet’s eighth successor according to the Duodecimal Shiites – and is located in the same city of Mashhad.
This major Shiite pilgrimage site attracts billions of euros in donations, funds which the Astan Quds Razavi organisation controls. The foundation, which functions as both a charity and a holding company, owns a multitude of real estate properties, farmland and businesses in fields as diverse as construction, tourism, agriculture and food. To head this foundation is to run an economic empire. Raisi did this for three years, before being summoned by Khamenei to pursue a different role.
In March 2019, he was appointed head of the Iranian Judicial Authority. This was another influential appointment for Raisi, who was entrusted by Khamenei with the task of aggressively fighting “corruption”.
Khamenei’s loyal soldier, Raisi has multiplied the number of widely publicised corruption trials since he took office. He has targeted state dignitaries and also, in a new development, judges.
These trials have enabled him to oust some major political opponents, such as his predecessor at the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, whose close adviser was involved in one of these corruption scandals. Larijani is also the brother of Ali Larijani, whose own candidacy for the presidential elections was banned by the Guardian Council, probably as a result of this family affair.
Raisi has made the fight against corruption one of his central campaign slogans. In a statement, he presented himself as “the opponent of corruption, inefficiency and aristocracy” and promised to fight relentlessly “against poverty” if elected.
A figure hostile to the West
If Raisi becomes president, this supporter of a “state-led” vision is not expected to advocate opening up the Iranian economy to foreign investors. “Iran under Raisi is most likely to continue to invest in infrastructure, water, electricity and health, with an economy dominated by the foundations he knows well and the Revolutionary Guards [who also own many companies],” says economist and Iran specialist Thierry Coville, speaking with FRANCE 24.
Researchers estimate that these semi-public players currently represent more than 50 percent of the Iranian economy, but that the phenomenon remains difficult to quantify because these companies do not have “clear traceability” and operate in a system that protects them.
As for the Iranian nuclear agreement currently being negotiated, although Raisi is defiant towards the West, he is not expected be explicitly opposed to it, according to Coville. He points out that it is always “the supreme leader who sets the tone for these negotiations”.
A traditionalist cleric
On the question of the liberation of morals, Raisi has the support of the hardliners. His father-in-law is none other than Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the supreme leader’s representative in the northeastern province of Khorasan.
Known for his austerity, the cleric had distinguished himself in 2016 by banning Iranian musical concerts in the city of Mashhad, placed under his religious authority. They had been booming after they were authorised in other major cities of a modernised Iran, but Alamolhoda was determined not to let them take place in his city.
“We should know that we live in the city where Imam Reza is buried. It is not possible to hold concerts in the city of Imam Reza, and we shouldn’t argue with people and some narrow-minded officials regarding this. If you want a concert, go live somewhere else,” he said.
Among human rights organisations and especially among the Iranian diaspora, the name of Raisi, which harks back to the darkest hours of the Islamic Republic, causes much anxiety.
The ultra-conservative, who was in charge of the judiciary for more than two decades, including as deputy prosecutor of the Tehran revolutionary court at the end of the 1980s, participated as a judge in a series of political trials in 1988. By the end of these, hundreds of imprisoned opponents had been executed. This is a judicial past that Raisa’s critics still reproach him for today, but which gives him even more legitimacy in the eyes of Iran’s powerful conservative population.
Potential successor to the supreme leader
Raisa is even being considered as a likely successor to the supreme leader. He was recently elected vice-president of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for proposing a new supreme leader in the event of the death of Khamenei.
All he needs now is a place at the head of the executive to have completed the tour of Iranian institutions. If he wins this presidential election, he will acquire the popular legitimacy that he still lacks. It’s worth remembering that Khamenei was himself President of Iran when he was called to occupy the post of supreme leader in 1989, after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Given Khamenei’s age – he’s 82 – and questions about his health, there are very real suggestions that the next president could indeed be his successor. This election could be Raisi’s springboard to the position of supreme leader.
This article has been translated from the original in French.