Member of the Board of Trustees of World Affairs Council of South Texas
On June 18, 2021, presidential elections were held in Iran. Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won the election with 61,95 percent of the votes (17.92 million out of 28.6 million votes). He is the eighth president since the revolution of 1979.
Ebrahim Raisi is a hardliner hawk and a constant critic of the West and the United States, he is not expected to change the course of Iran’s foreign policy. It has been reported that he may be next in line to succeed Khamenei. Raisi is an ultraconservative judge who served as the head of the country’s judiciary. He has been accused of involvement in numerous human rights violations, including the mass execution of thousands of prisoners, mostly political dissidents, protesters, and activities for which he was sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2019. As a president, he will face several ominous challenges. He will have to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, solve the economic crisis, and control the effects of the coronavirus pandemic which is plaguing the country. However, one of Raisi’s top priorities will be the succession of the 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which is the first real power change since the death of Al Khomeini in 1989.
As a former student of Khamenei’s who was appointed to every major job he held by his mentor, Raisi is the perfect contender to contender to carry on the supreme leader’s legacy. Experts in the Iranian affairs and the anti-government groups believed that Khamenei was the key architect in Raisi’s election victory, predominantly by suppressing other candidates’ election campaigns.
“Khamenei wants someone who sees the world the way he sees the world,” said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC. The election of Raisi to the Iranian presidency leads to many questions and the two most important ones will be how a hardliner will govern as president, especially now that the hardliners control all major branches of Iran’s government. The other, plausibly the bigger question is whether Raisi’s rise to the presidency makes him the perfect candidate to replace Khamenei when the aging leader dies. If such is the case, then how the 60 years old Raisi governs could offer indications to how he might govern Iran for years to come. The best answer is on Raisi following in his mentor’s footsteps.
Who is Ebrahim Raisi?
On December 14, 1960, Ebrahim Raisi was born in the city of Mashhad, the same city where Khamenei was born and can trace his lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed (which allows him to wear a black turban). Raised in a clerical family, Raisi received a religious education, and then he became an Hojat-ol-Eslam, yet he never attained the status of Ayatollah, the highest prestigious rank of Twelver Shia clergy in Iran. Raisi joined Iran’s judiciary in 1981 and only four years later became a deputy prosecutor general in Tehran. It was in that position in 1988, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, that Amnesty International l and humans rights organizations accused him of ordering the extrajudicial killings of political prisoners. Raisi’s political career continued to rise, thanks largely to Khamenei’s appointment in 1989 as supreme leader. Among other positions, Raisi went on to become the prosecutor general of Tehran in 1989, the first deputy chief justice of Iran in 2004, and the country’s attorney general in 2014. In the last five years, Raisi became one of the nation’s high-profile regime figures. In 2016, Khamenei appointed him as the head of the powerful Astan Quds Razavi Foundation, an administrative organization that manages the important Imam Reza shrine and other religious institutions. Then in 2019, Raisi was elected vice president of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which — intriguing enough — will choose the next supreme leader after Khamenei dies. Such an inexorable rise could only end up with Raisi as Iran’s president, which will make him arguably Iran’s second most powerful official after Khamenei himself. But what precisely he will do with that power isn’t entirely clear.
From President Raisi to Supreme Leader Raisi?
It is crucial to highlight that Ebrahim Raisi is a long ultraconservative on domestic issues, such as stamping out political dissent and women’s rights, and on foreign policy, he remains extremely critical of the United States and Europe. Nevertheless, the potential good news for the Biden administration as well as the European Union is that Raisi has shown a desire to stand by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which restricted Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of the economic sanctions. During a debate on June 12, Raisi said that “Let’s make it clear. We would definitely abide by the [deal] in the format that was approved with nine clauses by the supreme leader, as it a contract and a commitment that governments must abide by.”
He even attacked one of the other candidates as well as the Rouhani government by saying only he could keep the agreement intact. “Gentlemen, you cannot implement the JCPOA. . .. The JCPOA must be implemented by a powerful government. Foreign power is an extension of internal power.”
It seems conflicting that Raisi would consistently denounce the West but in the same time wants the nuclear accord to get through. But experts say the cleric’s stance makes sense: Khamenei had allowed the initial agreement to happen, and the lifting of sanctions would greatly help the struggling economy.
What a new president means for Tehran, Washington, and the world, is the arrival of a major new figure on the world stage and in the region.
* Information on the author: Associate member of the CMDI and a member of Board of Trustees of the World Affairs Council of South Texas.