With Ebrahim Raisi as president-elect, extremists consolidate control of political succession in Iran
Ebrahim Raisi, head of the judiciary and hard-line supporter, won the 13th presidential election in Iran. According to the Iranian Interior Ministry, 28.6 million out of a total electorate of 59 million turned out to vote. With 90 percent of the votes counted, Raisi won over 17.8 million votes and crossed the minimum mark of 50 percent of all votes. His conservative rival, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, came far behind with 3.3 million votes; and former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, backed by reformists, followed with 2.4 million votes. It should be noted that the number of blank ballots, considered as “protest votes” against the choice of candidates, would be lower than the number of votes collected by Raisi.
In Iran, popular elections are overseen by the religious-dominated constitutional body, the Council of Guardians. The 12-member council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists approved by parliament from a list appointed by the Chief Justice, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. This time around, the board disqualified all but seven of the 592 candidates. Hard-line supporters dominated the approved list, while only two non-conservatives were selected. President Hassan Rouhani complained about the “lack of competition” to the Supreme Leader, who has the power to intervene and review disqualifications.
Analysts argue that the overzealous control of the board, not even leaving the illusion of competition between Raisi and others, is aimed at controlling the succession process. The Iranian presidential cycle lasts eight years and it is likely that during the term of the next president, a successor will have to be found for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The council’s tight control played into the already existing voter apathy, as higher turnout was a vote against the establishment, resulting in a reformist and moderate victory.
Over the past three years, as a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the centrist Rouhani administration has lost ground, while security elements, including the Revolutionary Guards, have stepped up. their economic and political profile, taking credit for Iran’s survival in the face of “economic war”. Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the Guardian Council disqualify many reformist and moderate candidates. As a result, hard-line supporters dominated the new parliament.
Raisi is widely considered to be handpicked by Khamenei. After completing his studies at the Qom seminary under Khamenei, he was appointed public prosecutor after the Iran-Iraq war and helped purge dissidents associated with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, and later those who took part in the Green Movement following the controversial 2009 elections. He was appointed by Khamenei as the guardian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest foundation that manages the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and its various institutions and industries. After his defeat in the 2017 presidential elections, he was appointed by Khamenei as head of the judiciary. This dramatically increased his public profile and he further enhanced his image by leading an anti-corruption campaign. Many argue that Raisi, who is a cleric and a Seyed (a title denoting those who trace their lineage to Prophet Mohammad) and is loyal to the conservative establishment, is being groomed to be the next Supreme Leader. His current victory will add to his credentials.
The consolidation of power by hard-line conservatives has resulted in a narrowing of the Iranian political spectrum, with reformists and moderates increasingly sidelined. Former President Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, reformist leaders whose support played a role in Rouhani’s victory in 2013 and 2017, criticized the disqualifications as endangering the republican aspect of the system. Days before the vote, they urged people to support Hemmati, while Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the other leader of the Green Movement, insisted that the most important issue was the “stage management” of the elections. by the Council of Guardians. The election therefore exposed the deep divisions and confusion within the reformist camp.
With Raisi’s victory, die-hard conservatives control all the important levers of power in Iran. However, the dynamics of Iran’s notoriously complex political ecosystem and volatile society can still come as a surprise.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 23, 2021 under the title “Les reformistes divided”. The writer is a researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi