When Ebrahim Raisi first contested Iran’s presidency in 2017, the dismal conservative cleric lost heavily and failed to win over ambitious voters who had pinned their hopes on the republic’s nuclear deal to open up the country. .
Four years later, the collapse of the 2015 accord Iran signed with world powers, a devastating economic crisis caused by US sanctions, disillusioned voters and the regime’s determination to have a hardliner back to work paved the way for his election victory with 62 percent of the vote.
But for many inside and outside the republic, his victory bears the marks of a Pyrrhic victory.
More than half of voters chose not to vote in what reformers describe as a rare act of civil disobedience. The turnout of 48.8 percent was the lowest in the history of the Islamic republic, and 3.7 million people chose to spoil their ballots, more than on any of Raisi’s rivals.
“The message from the election is that the dissident faction is much bigger than the Raisi supporters,” said Hossein Yazdi, a reformist activist.
Many of those who stayed away from polling stations assumed the result was set after authorities banned leading reformist candidates. It was widely believed that Raisi, the head of the judiciary, was supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that hardliners used the election to regain control of all major branches of the state for the first time in nearly a decade. .
Analysts said Raisi’s victory increases his chances of succeeding 82-year-old Khamenei as supreme leader on his death. But only if he can deal with the challenges he inherits – an economy ravaged by sanctions and coronavirus, and a polarized society vulnerable to unrest.
His supporters hope he can end the power struggle between the factions that devastated the regime during President Hassan Rouhani’s second and final term, which ends in August. Unity within the theocratic system, which has competing centers of power, and smooth succession are considered Khamenei’s priorities. These goals have become more urgent as the republic has gone through its most turbulent period since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
“One nation, one team, one goal” was one of Raisi’s election slogans.
“I believe in Raisi because he is 100 percent aligned with the leadership,” said a regime insider. “Parliament, the leadership, the judiciary – they will all be aligned and performing better.”
The catalyst for the recent slump in Iran was Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal. He imposed crippling sanctions on the republic and individuals, including Raisi, and strangled Iran’s ability to export oil and plunged it into recession.
The turmoil encouraged hardliners and crushed the dreams of the 24 million Iranians who voted for Rouhani in 2017 in hopes that the nuclear deal would herald change and prosperity.
Their disillusionment played into Raisi’s hands. His conservative constituency heeded the leaders’ call to vote, while reformists stayed at home.
So while he technically won a landslide, he faces serious challenges without the strong people’s mandate of his predecessors.
“Raisi has entered into a match that he will lose. In the eyes of the public, rightly or wrongly, his victory was predetermined,” said a reformist analyst. “This makes people angry.”
Others fear that hardliners will further marginalize and oppress pro-democracy activists.
“Without a doubt there will be oppression of pro-democracy people,” said Yazdi, the activist.
There have long been concerns about Raisi’s human rights situation. Now it threatens to tarnish its credibility at home and abroad as Tehran negotiates with world powers to reach an agreement to bring the US back to the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.
President Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the accord if Iran fully adheres to the deal. But the new administration will be led by a man accused by the Trump administration of overseeing executions, “torture and other inhumane treatment of prisoners” when it imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019.
He is said to have been linked to the execution of thousands of political prisoners when he was a public prosecutor in the late 1980s. He did not respond during that period.
Born into a clerical 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 that oversees Iran’s holiest site.
After Khamenei appointed him in 2019 as head of the judiciary, one of the main centers of hard power, he used the post to launch an anti-corruption crusade that earned him praise, even from some of his critics. Others, however, saw the move as the relaunch of his political ambitions.
During the election campaign, he offered few policy details, but said domestic issues were his priority. He tried to appeal to Iranians who have suffered economic hardship, sometimes referring to his own humble upbringing.
“I have not only known poverty, I have tasted poverty,” was a phrase he repeated.
He has made only cursory references to foreign policy, and few expect significant changes, whether in Iran’s hostile relations with the US, its support of regional militant groups or the expansion of its missile program.
Unlike Rouhani, Raisi has had little overseas exposure, and regional policy and major security decisions are made by Khamenei.
Analysts add that he will likely be less overtly radical than Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s last hardline president. His first term in office was marked by bombastic diatribes against the US and Israel and expensive, populist domestic policies that led to economic chaos.
But even conservatives recognize that Raisi faces a daunting mission.
“It is not unlikely that Raisi’s term will become comparable to that of Ahmadi-Nejad and Rouhani. [chaotic last years]’ said Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative analyst. “The political boat in Iran is rocking enormously.”