Radical ‘Hardline’ Cleric Challenges ‘Moderate’ Rouhani for Iranian Presidency

Iranian senior cleric Ebrahim Raisis speaks in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran, in this handout photo believed to be taken in February 2016. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS
Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Iran’s presidential election is coming up on May 19. On Sunday, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani picked up a potentially formidable challenger as imam Ebrahim Raisi announced his candidacy.

Contrary to appearances, it is not actually a late entry; the Guardian notes Tuesday is actually the official registration date for challengers. Furthermore, there is some question about whether Rouhani will be a registered candidate, thanks to potential official skulduggery meant to disqualify him. Reformists are thinking about running a backup candidate just in case Rouhani is stricken from the ballot.

Reuters notes that Raisi does not have a great deal of name recognition among Iranian voters, but he has a few important advantages.

He is supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, giving him a solid chance to unite “conservative” opponents of the “moderate” Rouhani (with both positions graded on the curve of Iranian politics). In fact, Raisi has been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei himself. Khamenei is in his late seventies and reportedly suffering from prostate cancer.

Raisi is the head of an organization called Astan Qods Razavi, an extremely wealthy foundation that oversees donations to the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. The shrine receives over 30 million visitors each year.

Al-Monitor reports that Astan Quds Razavi’s treasury might hold over $15 billion, and it enjoys unparalleled “political, religious, financial, and geographical” status. Raisi said he would not tap into the foundation’s resources to fund his campaign, but its prestige will remain a tremendous asset, even if he keeps that promise.

The UK Guardian notes that Raisi wears a black turban to signify that he is a seyed, a descendant of Mohammed. This was seen as a tremendous advantage with Raisi seen as a possible successor to Khamenei as Supreme Leader, and it will probably boost his presidential campaign as well. Indeed, a presidential victory would greatly enhance his chances of becoming Supreme Leader someday, in Reuters’ estimation.

Raisi can also expect to benefit from popular disappointment with Rouhani over his failure to deliver promised economic growth and political reform. Assessments of Rouhani’s true popularity have been all over the map since Iran signed its nuclear deal with the West, but Supreme Leader Khamenei made no secret of his disappointment a few weeks ago.

“I feel the pain of the poor and lower class people with my soul, especially because of high prices, unemployment, and inequalities… The government has taken positive steps but they do not meet people’s expectations and mine,” Khamenei said in his New Year’s message. Iran celebrates New Year, or “Nowruz,” in March.

Khamenei went further and declared the coming year would be a “year of resistance economy, production and employment,” by which he meant resistance to the evil Western world’s attempts to sap Iranian strength and independence. This was a stern rejection of Rouhani’s agenda for boosting Iran’s economy through greater international engagement.

Raisi comes by his credentials as a “hardliner” honestly. The Washington Post recalls that he “oversaw the massacre of thousands of politcal prisoners on trumped-up charges” when he sat on the so-called “Death Commission” sharia court in the late eighties. He is closely aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and their mission to suppress domestic dissent while fomenting chaos abroad.

The Post pegged Raisi as a good choice for Supreme Leader because he embraces conspiracy theories, demonstrates “contempt for the West,” and is “prepared to shed blood on behalf of the regime.” The skeptical outsider might say Rouhani is no slouch on any of those accounts, but there is a strong sense Raisi would be much worse.

Raisi might even wind up eliminating the office of the presidency if he wins, as the Guardian notes Khamenei has given signs he might be interested in doing without “troublesome” secular presidents. If Raisi wins the presidency and then becomes Supreme Leader after Khamenei’s death, replacing the president with a less powerful prime minister would not be a surprising outcome.

Raisi presents himself as a reluctant candidate, running in the name of “religious and revolutionary responsibility.” The Guardian cites an Iranian political analyst who suggests Raisi might be running simply to increase his public profile for his eventual bid for Supreme Leader. Others advance the reverse theory that Raisi is gambling his chances of becoming Supreme Leader on this presidential bid, with a humiliating loss of status in store should Rouhani or another moderate candidate defeat him.

Radio Free Europe sees a few reasons to doubt Raisi’s reluctant candidate posture, including a suspiciously sudden and extensive social media campaign by young, relatively liberal-looking Iranians holding up photos of Raisi and political slogans. The campaign came complete with a hashtag, #RaisiCome.

Raisi has also engaged in some very campaign-friendly activities recently, including “visiting the poor, opening an apartment complex for the families of Afghan fighters killed in Syria, and presenting a report of his first year in his new post in an interview with state-controlled television.”

Al-Monitor saw the case of Hojat al-Islam Ahmad Montazeri as a sign of Raisi’s rising influence in early March. Montazeri was the son of an Iranian dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who was at one time deputy supreme leader.

The younger Montazeri was thrown in prison for releasing an audio recording from the late 1980s that was embarrassing to the Iranian government, reportedly at the urging of Raisi, who appeared on the recording. Montazeri was soon furloughed and then given a suspended sentence, due to some complicated political intrigue. In short, it took the intervention of most other Iranian power players to spring Montazeri from jail.

Raisi is generally a fan of imprisoning dissidents. Radio Free Europe quotes him saying prison is a “compassionate” response to the “unforgivable crimes” of opposition figures. He is also fond of the paranoid “Great Satan” attitude toward the United States that Rouhani’s government was supposed to move Iran away from. If Raisi wins, the Obama administration’s immense investment in Iranian political reconfiguration will go down the drain.


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