Explained: Who is Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line cleric set to be Iran’s next president?

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Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential elections waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP Photo)

Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi is set to become Iran’s president after a partial counting of the votes revealed a significant lead for him after Saturday’s presidential elections.

Who is Ebrahim Raisi?

Raisi first came to prominence when he became the Prosecutor General of Karaj in 1980, when he was 20 years old. Subsequently, he became the Prosecutor of Tehran and the First Deputy to the Head of Judiciary from 2004 to 2014 after which he became the Prosecutor General of Iran from 2014 to 2016.

In 2019, Raisi was appointed the head of Iran’s judiciary, an appointment that sparked concerns because of his involvement in the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war.

Amnesty International has identified Raisi as a member of the “death commission” that carried out “enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions of several thousand political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran between late July and early September 1988. Victims’ bodies were mostly buried in unmarked mass graves.”

Raisi also has ties to the paramilitary group Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Former in charge of the Quds Force of the IRGC, Qassem Soleimani was killed in an airstrike whose responsibility was claimed by the US in 2020. The Quds Force was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2019.

A hard-line cleric, Raisi ran for elections against current president Hassan Rouhani in 2017 and was considered to be the successor of Khameini at a point of time. In 2015, it was Rouhani’s government that reached a JCPOA deal with the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council which includes the UK, US, Russia, France and China) and Germany and the European Union. Under the Trump administration, the US unilaterally left the deal in 2018 after which relations between the countries have continued to deteriorate.

Presidential elections in Iran

Iran’s 13th presidential elections were held on June 18, contested by seven candidates — Saeed Jalili, Ebrahim Raisi, Alireza Zakani, Seyed Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, Mohsen Rezaei, and Abdolnaser Hemmati. Three of these candidates including Mehralizadeh, Zakani and Jalili withdrew from the race on Wednesday.

According to Iran International, in these elections there were over 59 million eligible voters including 1.39 first-time voters. Iran has a total population of over 85.9 million and those over 18 years are eligible to cast their vote.

While the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini has urged people to cast their votes, the voter turnout remained 50 percent, which is one of the lowest in the history of the country. Out of the total eligible voters, some 28 million people cast their votes.

What is the sentiment among Iranians?

A significant number of people did not cast their votes this time because they believe that the elections are rigged and do not trust the election watchdog called the Guardian Council (a panel of 12 members including six clerics and six jurists appointed by the Supreme Leader ) that disqualified some of the candidates favoured by the public.

Candidates in Iran’s elections are screened by committees of the government, and thereafter by the Guardian Council. The Council is a hardline watchdog body that vets all candidates for their commitment to Islam, the system of religious law, and the Islamic Republic itself. Like elections in recent years, this time too the watchdog has disqualified reformist candidates from contesting.

The people also believe that casting their votes would mean supporting elections that are perceived to be unfair. Out of the seven candidates that were ultimately allowed to run for president from a pool of over 600 candidates, none of them had popular appeal and Raisi was considered to be the frontrunner.

Some candidates were disqualified because of the new age threshold as per which the candidates should be between 40-75 years of age. Further, all women candidates were disqualified even though they are not officially barred from contesting elections.

As per rules, the president should be a Shiite Muslim. Over 90 per cent of Iran’s population is comprised of Shiite Muslims.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) notes that the most pressing issue for Iranians at the moment is the economy that has been significantly impacted by US sanctions since it left the nuclear deal – formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in 2018. The economy shrunk by nearly five per cent in 2020 and has not grown since 2017, CFR notes.

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