When Ebrahim Raisi first challenged the Iranian presidency in 2017, the dark conservative cleric suffered a serious loss, failing to convince ambitious voters who had placed their hopes in the republic’s nuclear deal to open the country.
Four years later, the collapse of the 2015 accord Iran signed with world powers, a meteoric economic crisis sparked by US sanctions, disillusioned voters and the regime’s resolve to bring back a tough electoral victory with 62% of the votes.
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 described as a rare act of civil disobedience. The turnout of 48.8% was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, and 3.7 million people chose to spoil their ballots, more than that of Raisi’s rivals.
“The message of the election is that the dissident faction is much bigger than the supporters of Raisi,” said Hossein Yazdi, a reformist activist.
Many of those who stayed away from the polling stations assumed the outcome was predetermined after authorities banned major reformist candidates from running. It was widely believed that Raisi, the head of the judiciary, was backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, with hard-line supporters using the elections to regain control of all important branches of the state for the first time in nearly a decade.
Analysts said Raisi’s victory increased his chances of succeeding Khamenei, 82, as supreme leader upon his death. But only if he can overcome the challenges he inherits – an economy battered by sanctions and the coronavirus, and a polarized society that is vulnerable to unrest.
His supporters hope he can end the infighting that ravaged the regime during President Hassan Rouhani’s second and final term, which ends in August. Unity within the theocratic system, which has competing power centers, and harmonious succession are seen as Khamenei’s priorities. These goals became more pressing as the republic went through its most turbulent period since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
“One nation, one team, one goal” was one of Raisi’s election slogans.
“I believe in Raisi because he’s 100% in line with the leadership,” a regime insider said. “The parliament, the rulers, the judiciary – they will all be aligned and work better. “
The catalyst for Iran’s recent malaise has been Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal. He imposed crippling sanctions on the republic and on individuals, including Raisi, strangling Iran’s ability to export oil and plunging it into recession.
The turmoil has emboldened hardliners and shattered the dreams of the 24 million Iranians who voted for Rouhani in 2017 in the hopes that the nuclear deal would usher in change and prosperity.
Their disillusion made Raisi’s game. His Conservative riding heeded calls from its leaders to vote, while Reformers stayed at home.
So, although he technically won a landslide, he faces serious challenges without the strong popular mandate of his predecessors.
“Raisi has entered a game that he is going to lose. In the public eye, rightly or wrongly, his victory was predetermined, ”said one reformist analyst. “It makes people angry.”
Others fear that extremists will seek to marginalize and further oppress pro-democracy activists.
“Without a doubt, there will be suppression of pro-democracy people,” said Yazdi, the activist.
Raisi’s human rights record has long been a source of concern. Now it threatens to tarnish its credibility at home and abroad as Tehran negotiates with world powers to reach a deal to bring the United States back to the nuclear deal and lift the sanctions.
President Joe Biden has said he will join the deal if Iran fully complies with the deal. But the new government will be led by a man the Trump administration accused of overseeing executions, “the torture and other inhumane treatment of prisoners” when it imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019.
He was allegedly linked to the execution of thousands of political prisoners while he was public prosecutor in the late 1980s. He did not comment on this period.
Born into a clerical family, Raisi’s path to the top became evident five years ago when Khamenei appointed him keeper of Imam Reza’s shrine in his hometown of Mashhad, a powerful position overseeing the most sacred of Iran.
After Khamenei appointed him as head of the judiciary, one of the main centers of outright power, in 2019, he used the post to launch a crusade against corruption that won him applause, even among some of its detractors. Others, however, saw the move as a boost to his political ambitions.
During the election campaign, he offered few details on politics, but said domestic issues were his priority. He sought to appeal to Iranians who suffered from economic hardship, sometimes referring to his own modest upbringing.
“I have not only known poverty, I have tasted poverty,” he repeated.
He has made only fleeting references to foreign policy and few expect significant changes, whether it be Iran’s hostile relations with the United States, its support for regional militant groups, or expanding its missile program.
Unlike Rouhani, Raisi has had little exposure abroad, and regional policy and major security decisions are made by Khamenei.
Analysts add that he is likely to be less overtly radical than Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s last radical president. His first term was characterized by bombastic tirades against the United States and Israel and costly populist domestic policies that sparked economic chaos.
But even conservatives admit that Raisi faces a daunting mission.
“It is not unlikely that the term of Raisi will become similar to that of Ahmadi-Nejad and Rouhani [chaotic last years]”Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative analyst, said.” The political boat in Iran is rocking a lot. “