Iran is in negotiations with the United States over how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, and in talks with regional nemesis Saudi Arabia. The country is in the throes of an economic crisis and is under mounting pressure to reform. And there are growing questions about succession plans for the 82-year-old Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Amid these tides of change, Iran’s political elite has decided that the next face of the Islamic Republic should be a figure steeped in its conservative roots and directly linked to some of the darkest chapters of its history.
Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judiciary chief with a brutal record on human rights, is running virtually uncontested in this week’s presidential election, after Iran’s clerical rulers barred most of his rivals from the race to replace outgoing Hassan Rouhani.
While the outcome of the vote appears to be a foregone conclusion, what his election will mean for the country is far from clear. Analysts said the election of Raisi, a close ally of Khamenei, could signal a clampdown on dissent domestically, and a return to a more closed off Iran globally, at a pivotal moment.
Raisi has played a decades-long role in a bloody crackdown on Iranian dissidents. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has accused him of crimes against humanity for being part of a four-man “death committee” that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988.
Raisi has never commented on these allegations, but it’s widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retribution or international justice over the executions.
More recently, his two years as Iran’s chief justice were marked by the intensified repression of dissent and human rights abuses, according to CHRI. Among the many hardline moves of his tenure was the first execution in decades of a man for alcohol consumption.
Late last year, a young wrestler was hanged in what human rights groups have described as a “travesty of justice” suspected to be linked to his participation in 2018 anti-government protests.
“Iran is becoming an even more repressive state and with somebody who has blood on their hands like Ebrahim Raisi [as President], you could see things going in a darker direction than we’ve seen in recent memory,” said Holly Dagres, Iran expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Iran is heading in a North Korea-like direction of isolation,” she added. “Iran has just two friends in the international community [Russia and China] and the path it’s choosing is boxing up a very talented and educated populace.”
A selection or an election?
While Raisi has drawn the ire of Iranian activists, so has the way in which he has emerged as the likely next president.
The country’s Guardian Council, an influential leading body that supervises the election, last month disqualified all major reformist and centrist contenders, whilst leading conservatives bowed out in order to boost the chances of Raisi winning.
The process has been widely criticized, even by Khamenei, who called the disqualifications “unjust.” The remarks were dismissed by many as an attempt by the Supreme Leader –the country’s final arbiter in all matters of state — to play “good cop” in a brazen bid to engineer the race.
“Elections in Iran have never been free nor fair but they have tended to be competitive and quite decisive,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. “This time around, however, the degree to which the Guardian Council has reduced the spectrum of acceptable options is beyond what we have seen in the past.”
“As a result, we have voices from within the system itself urging for a boycott of the vote. That is a completely new scenario,” Parsi added.
On social media, the discussions among activists are reminiscent of the 2009 Green Movement, when protesters took to the streets to object to the reelection of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what was widely believed to be a fraudulent election.
Echoing across online platforms were dismissals of Iran’s “selection,” rather than election, of their next president.
“This is a clerical establishment that doesn’t even care what Iranians think anymore because they’re willing to not even have a competitive election,” said Dagres. “What we’re seeing right now is a one-horse race.”
Whereas the Green Movement’s popular chant was “Where’s my vote?” now Iranians are taking platforms like Clubhouse to say “Where’s my candidate?” Dagres said.
Iranians have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent months to protest the dire economic situation, which has been exacerbated by crushing US sanctions and government corruption, believed to be widespread. In an apparent bid to appease these frustrations, Raisi is running on an anti-corruption platform — though as judicial chief his crackdown on graft has largely targeted his political rivals, activists and experts said.
An old candidate for new times
Many experts see this election as one of the by-products of former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, when the US pulled out of the nuclear deal even though Tehran had complied with the terms of the pact.
From 2018 onwards, Trump unleashed a torrent of sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy and emboldened hardliners. The tiny window of opportunity granted by the clerical class to the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani to engage with the US and Europe began to quickly close.
Trump had proven the hardliners’ skepticism about the West correct, Iran’s conservatives repeatedly said. The country’s reformist camp was undermined and conservatives swept a parliamentary election in 2020. If Raisi wins the election, and with hardliners deeply entrenched in the judiciary, Iran’s conservatives are set to control all three branches of government.
Still, the election is not expected to have an impact on the ongoing negotiations with the Biden administration and world powers about reviving the nuclear deal; the talks are reportedly in their final stages. Dialogue with Riyadh is also unlikely to be affected by a Raisi presidency because strategic decisions are largely left not to the president, but to the Supreme Leader.
But experts say Iran is unlikely to engage with the West beyond that point, satisfying itself with bolstering relations with Russia and China. It may also drop any pretense of democracy as it becomes less susceptible to Western criticism of its rights abuses in the aftermath of the possible restoration of the nuclear deal.
It’s a bet that may only work in the clerical establishment’s favor in the short-term, according to experts, who point to low voter turnout in last year’s parliamentary polls. Participation rates are also expected to be historically low in this presidential election.
“(The establishment) don’t want any surprises. They just want to manage the outcome. It’s not about Raisi or any one guy,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a London-based Iran academic and editor at Amwaj.media.
“The circle of power just became much smaller. We saw this same dynamic in 2009 … you leave a lot of people out of the process and that inherently brings instability.”
The clerics’ gamble also comes at a critical moment. Historically, most of Iran’s presidents have two four-year terms, and Raisi’s tenure may not outlive Khamenei, who turns 82 next month. If the Ayatollah dies or is incapacitated, experts say it could pave the way for Raisi, his longtime associate, to take the helm as Iran’s Supreme Leader.
This period, experts said, is likely to be even more fraught with calls for constitutional reform in connection with the succession of leadership.
“When Khamenei dies, what happens then? Will the whole thing collapse? Are you going to have an orderly transition to the next leader? Are you going to have constitutional reforms?”, said Shabani.
“All of this is not about a president. It’s about the future of the political system.”
The list of challenges facing Iran’s next president would confound the most capable of leaders.