Beset by sanctions and succession fears, Iran's hard-liners 'engineer' a win to tighten grip

The victory of the radical justice chief Ebrahim Raisi in the presidential elections in Iran last weekend was an unsurprising end to a process that for a long time seemed aimed at consolidating conservative rule in the Islamic Republic.

The 60-year-old ultra-conservative sailed to a landslide victory on Saturday, winning nearly 62 percent of the vote and the highest civilian position in Iran after eight years of more moderate rule from President Hassan Rouhani.

Raisi, a protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been sanctioned by the United States and has also been criticized by human rights groups for his alleged involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners. He will take power at a precarious time for the country trying to revive its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, strengthen its sanctioned economy, and cope with its old age to provide supreme leaders.

When asked about his alleged involvement in the mass executions of 1988 during his first press conference as president-elect on Monday, Raisi described himself as a “human rights defender”.

It marked a rare public record of a dark moment in Iranian history at the end of its war with neighboring Iraq.

When asked if he would meet with President Joe Biden, Raisi simply replied “no.”

The elected Iranian president struck a defiant tone on Monday at the first press conference since his election victory.Majid Asgaripour / West Asian News Agency via Reuters

A foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday that although Raisi was declared the winner, “Iranians have been denied the right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process.” The spokesman added that the State Department’s Iran policy is aimed at promoting US interests “regardless of who is in power” and would like to build on the progress made in the recent round of talks to revive the nuclear deal in Vienna.

Iranian observers said Raisi’s victory was no accident as the nation approaches what may be a pivotal moment in the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“Voting technique”

Before the vote, the Iranian Guardian Council, a group of clergy and legal experts, screened the candidates for election, which reduced nearly 600 candidates for the next President of Iran to seven approved candidates. The most famous moderate challengers were disqualified.

“That’s what we call voting technology,” said Clément Therme, research associate at the European University Institute in Florence, in an interview before the vote. “The list of seven should bring Raisi to victory.”

It did the trick.

Raisi is now likely to serve two four-year terms and could therefore take over the helm if the 82-year-old Khamenei dies and the subsequent handover of power to the third supreme leader of the Islamic Republic takes place.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, said it was clear that the engineers were trying to get a conservative victory ahead of the election.

“A Conservative president would help arrange the succession and political transition, which may also require constitutional reform,” she said before the vote. “You need an internal conservative consensus to accompany a process that Khamenei would like to have carried out very carefully.”

Khamenei’s successor remains unknown. There has already been speculation that Raisi, along with Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, might be a contender for the position.

The succession could exacerbate tensions between those who believe in internal reform to ensure the security and stability of the Islamic Republic and conservatives like Raisi, who believe in maintaining the status quo.

Raisi is a close supporter of Khamenei’s political ideology and has already held top positions in the establishment in Iran, including as head of justice.

“The election is about a change of power and political continuity after Khamenei,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, also before the vote. “That’s why Khamenei gambled so much, constructed so much, embarrassed himself so much by disqualifying pretty much everyone.”

The feeling that the vote was more a coronation than a democratic exercise seemed to reinforce an already widespread sense of apathy among many Iranians who have lost faith in the system – less than half of the electorate voted, compared with 73 percent in the last presidential election.

“There is this legitimation crisis in the Islamic Republic,” said Therme. “Folks, they don’t want to vote in order to give the system as a whole some legitimacy.”

Before Raisi’s supporters celebrated on Saturday, millions of Iranians stayed at home despite a vote they viewed as in favor of the hardliner.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

The low turnout could also have helped Raisi to victory. Because when the public votes en masse, they tend to vote for pragmatic and reformist candidates, says Chatham House’s Vakil.

Iranians are deeply frustrated with reformists who they believe have not achieved results, analysts said. For Raisi, on the other hand, supporters of the regime are likely to emerge because he is the candidate of the “system”.

As head of Iran’s judiciary, Human Rights Watch accused Raisi of overseeing an institution responsible for using torture to obtain confessions, persecuting peaceful dissidents in unfair trials, and disregarding the rights of due process. Iran has one of the highest numbers second only to China in executions in the world.

“As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary,” said Michael Page, assistant director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, Raisi said, “oversaw some of the most heinous crimes in Iran’s recent history that are more investigative and accountable than they are Election to a high office. “

In Iran, the president determines domestic politics. Raisi will inherit a troubled economy that has faced crippling US sanctions for years after Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Tehran nuclear deal in 2018. He is also committed to fighting poverty and corruption.

He is married to a university professor and has two daughters, one of whom appeared on state television before the election and spoke of her father’s simple way of life.

Reyhaneh Sadat also spoke of her father’s commitment to “building bridges” between men and women.

Foreign policy, however, is firmly in the hands of the Supreme Leader. It remains unclear what, if anything, Raisi’s victory will mean for the fate of the shattered nuclear deal that the world powers are currently trying to revive.

Raisi said he supported the pact, which suspended international sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program, and is expected to support any decision by the supreme leader.

Asked at the press conference on Monday about the country’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s support for regional militias, Raisi described the problems as “non-negotiable”.

“It can only be successful if the JCPOA is rehabilitated,” said Vakil, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. She pointed out that Raisi’s populist poverty reduction agenda is heavily reliant on access to Iran’s foreign exchange reserves and on easing sanctions.

Still, his victory could complicate diplomacy between Tehran and the West. He will be the first incumbent Iranian president to be sanctioned by the US government before he takes office.

Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Raisi the “hangman of Tehran” and said his election was the last chance for world powers to “wake up” before they get back to the nuclear deal and understand who they are doing business with.

“With the sanctions hanging over him, he will not be able to conduct diplomacy,” said Vakil. “Let alone travel to the United Nations.”

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