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Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi consolidates hard-line grip as reformers pushed aside

Hard-line judge Ebrahim Raisi secured a landslide win in Iran's presidential election on June 19. (Video: Reuters)

Iran’s announcement Saturday of a resounding election victory by Ebrahim Raisi, the ultraconservative judiciary chief, signaled a stunning consolidation of power, handing the elected leadership back to hard-liners and sidelining reformists who negotiated a nuclear deal with global powers and advocated greater engagement with the West.

The victory by Raisi also showed the determination of Iran’s conservative establishment, including its security and intelligence agencies, to eliminate any political challenge at a critical moment, analysts said.

Among the potential landmark moments ahead: reckoning with who would succeed the 82-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is seen as a mentor to Raisi.

Some experts speculated about whether the return to unity at the top — Khamenei’s ruling clerics and the political structure around Raisi — could become a permanent fixture in Iran and the country’s relatively vibrant election contests could be a thing of the past. For Friday’s election, most moderates were barred by the ruling establishment, leaving many voters frustrated and turnout apparently low.

What to know about Iran’s president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi

Raisi’s win, however, was not expected to derail negotiations currently underway in Vienna between Tehran and world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Khamenei has allowed Iran to reopen the dialogue and appears ready to keep it going in efforts to lift international sanctions.

But the longer-term impact on Iran’s relationships with Europe and the United States was far less clear.

Raisi, 60, a fixture of Iran’s hard-line establishment since his 20s, is viewed as an acolyte of the supreme leader and has been floated in the past as a possible successor. Human rights groups have linked him to numerous episodes of repression over decades and said he played a central role in mass killings of dissidents in the late 1980s.

Raisi, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2017, has cast himself as an anti-corruption crusader, while critics have accused him of using corruption as a fig leaf to eliminate rivals.

“At this stage, when the supreme leader is very likely to pass away, Raisi represents a man who the entire security establishment trusts,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “He has been on the side of the security and intelligence agencies — that use the judiciary for repression — his entire life.”

With deck stacked for hard-line candidate, Iranians debate whether to vote at all

In a statement Saturday, Raisi called the election that brought him to power “a great epic of the rising nation that opened a new page of contemporary history,” according to state-run IRNA news agency.

He will replace President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate whose government signed the 2015 nuclear accord with the United States and other world powers. Later, Rouhani was left facing the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” aimed at crippling Iran’s economy using sanctions and other measures. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord in 2018.

Raisi has expressed a willingness to revive the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in line with Khamenei’s wishes. But his presidency seemed certain to mark a radical departure from the Rouhani era, with little prospect of liberalizing domestic reforms or any broadening of Tehran’s relationship with the West, analysts said.

Polls in the days leading up to the election predicted low turnout amid voter fatigue and calls to boycott the election after accusations that the contest was rigged to favor hard-line candidates. The balloting was held as Iran struggles to bring its coronavirus cases under control after experiencing one of the world’s worst outbreaks early in the pandemic.

The Interior Ministry said Raisi received nearly 18 million votes out of more than 28 million cast. His nearest rival, Mohsen Rezaei, received about 3 million votes. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the election, a historic low.

The result was no surprise.

Iran’s Guardian Council, which approves candidates seeking office, last month disqualified several prominent politicians who might have challenged Raisi. (Rouhani was term-limited from running again.) Critics called it an unusually brazen effort by the clerical establishment to engineer the election results.

Half of the council’s members are clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and the other half are jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary. Raisi nominated three of the council’s members.

Iran announces slate of presidential candidates, dominated by conservatives

Rouhani, who soundly defeated Raisi in the 2017 presidential election to secure a second term, congratulated the judiciary chief.

“I hope that with your efforts and with more cooperation by all the pillars and forces of the country, in these critical times, we will see effective actions for the progress and development of the country,” he said in a statement.

In the run-up to the election, Iran’s reformists vigorously debated whether to vote or boycott it, given the widespread perception that the contest was fixed in Raisi’s favor. As the balloting got underway, some fervent boycotters harassed Iranians who decided to vote, by posting their pictures online.

There were also ugly scenes at some overseas polling stations. A video shared on social media showed a small crowd in Birmingham, England, attacking at least one female voter with fists and flagpoles at one of 11 polling stations in Britain.

Others allowed to compete in the election included Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who had previously run for president; Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner and a former nuclear negotiator; Abdolnaser Hemmati, the centrist governor of Iran’s central bank; and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a reformist politician and former governor of Isfahan province.

In a short campaign season, the candidates tried to energize an electorate frustrated by the dismal state of Iran’s economy, government mismanagement, widening repression and the layers of sanctions imposed by Trump. Raisi, for his part, remained vague about his plans to repair the country and generally sought to avoid controversy.

During debates and other appearances, Raisi “was very cautious not to use the radical rhetoric that his hard-line supporters are using,” while also trying to convince swing voters that hard-liners would not necessarily be part of his administration, said Ali Reza Eshraghi, a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Raisi’s reticence to lay out specific plans, along with his lack of charisma, left many Iranians with more questions than answers about the incoming president. “Beyond speculation, no one knows what he is going to do,” Eshraghi said.

Two days before the election, Hemmati, the former central bank governor, pleaded with potential voters in an online discussion not to boycott the election, saying it would cede political ground to Iran’s hard-liners. “Why should we surrender all the power in our country to one camp?” he said.

Early Saturday, in an Instagram post, he congratulated Raisi. “The decent and proud people of Iran righteously expect a life full of hope, peace and welfare. I hope your government will bring about honor together with better welfare and peace for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

Anahita, a 45-year old travel agent from the northern city of Tabriz who lost her job during the pandemic, said she argued with friends over whether to vote in the election. She decided not to, while her friends went to the polls and voted for Hemmati.

“Now I see that both groups have lost,” she said. “The ultimate winner is the Khamenei camp again, because they successfully divided the opposite and made us fight each other,” she said.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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