June 16, 2021

Who is the Frontrunner in Iran’s Presidential Race?

Iranians will vote for a new president on June 18th after eight years of moderate President Hassan Rouhani. The election occurs in a political context where Iranian conservatives have steadily consolidated power after the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, which was Rouhani’s signature achievement. The most hardline forces in Iran are now poised to take total control over all levers of power in Iran and sideline their moderate and reformist rivals.

The conservative consensus candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, is heavily favored to win the race. The odds were preemptively rigged in his favor after the disqualifications of prominent moderate and reformist candidates who registered to run. The main moderate candidate in the race is Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former Central Bank Governor who served under Rouhani, who has a slim chance of defeating Raisi.

But what is the background of Raisi? What are his views on foreign policy? This explainer will give an overview of the frontrunner in Iran’s presidential race.

Raisi Has Signaled Support for the JCPOA

  • Raisi is closely affiliated with the political forces in Iran that strongly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and are averse to negotiations with the United States.
  • Raisi has said scant little about foreign policy during his presidential campaign. The focus of his campaign has been on domestic matters, especially on improving the economic situation and combating corruption.
  • However, recent televised presidential debates shed some light on Raisi’s positions on key foreign policy foreign policy issues, including the JCPOA.
  • In the final debate, Raisi signaled support for the JCPOA, stating: “I explicitly say: We are certainly committed to the JCPOA as an agreement that the Leader [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei] approved with nine conditions and as an agreement and commitment that governments must abide by.”
  • Raisi significantly couched his support for the JCPOA in Khamenei’s past support for the deal, making it more politically palatable for his base. He specifically referenced the nine conditions Khamenei laid out for supporting the JCPOA in 2015.
  • Raisi also reprimanded the Rouhani administration “for not being able to implement the JCPOA.” He said only a “strong government” in Iran can implement the JCPOA, suggesting that he would be better able to preserve the deal than Rouhani.

Raisi Talks about Engaging the World but Much Remains Unknown

  • Based on Raisi’s recent rhetoric, his presidency is unlikely to mark the end of recent ongoing diplomatic efforts to revive the JCPOA and foster détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia and other regional powers.
  • When Raisi registered as a candidate in May, he talked about foreign policy and emphasized engagement with Iran’s neighbors, stating: “The foreign policy of the system is engagement with all countries, especially neighboring countries. With those who don’t seek to be enemies with us, we will engage them in a friendly, honorable, and authoritative way.”
  • In the final presidential debate, Raisi also signaled potential support for dormant legislation that would bring Iran’s banking sector in line with rules set by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which regulates money laundering and terrorism financing.
  • Raisi said Iran was already abiding by most of the FATF’s regulations and that he would consider supporting legislation bringing Iran into full FATF compliance if it is in “Iran’s national interests.”
  • The direction of Raisi’s foreign policy will depend in large part on the cabinet he forms. If he gives senior posts to the anti-diplomacy hardliners who have long been his allies, prospects for broader negotiations with Iran following a return to the JCPOA may become dim.
  • In this case, the Biden administration may find it difficult to foster follow-on negotiations aimed at a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal and eliciting concessions on Iran’s missile program and regional activities.

Raisi is a Product of Iran’s Judiciary & Has a History of Abuses

  • Raisi’s background is in Iran’s judicial system. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, he has gradually moved up the ranks in Iran’s judiciary and in March 2019, was appointed by Khamenei as head of the powerful judicial branch of Iran’s government.
  • Raisi previously ran in Iran’s 2017 presidential election and lost to Rouhani by a significant margin. During that race, it was revealed Raisi had a role in the mass executions of the Islamic Republic’s opponents in 1988.
  • Raisi was implicated in the killings by the late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri in a leaked audio tape. Montazeri at the time was the designated successor to the Islamic Republic’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini.
  • In the tape, which is from August 1988, Montazeri addresses Raisi and three other members of a judicial committee established at the time to prosecute political prisoners. Montazeri severely reprimanded them, stating: “The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic and that history will condemn us for was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.”
  • According to Montazeri, as many as 4,000 were executed in the summer of 1988 at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War. Montazeri would end up losing his position in the Islamic Republic and being placed under house arrest in part because of his opposition to the executions.
  • During the 2017 election, Rouhani strongly criticized Raisi’s track record in the judiciary, saying at one point: “The Iranian people do not accept those who in the past 38 years only know of executions and prisons.”
  • Raisi has also presided over a number of human rights abuses during his tenure as judiciary chief. This includes the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari, which sparked global outrage, and long sentences handed out to protesters arrested during country-wide protests in November 2019, which were brutally cracked down upon.

Raisi is Khamenei’s Student & Many Speculate He is Being Groomed for Succession

  • Raisi is close with Ayatollah Khamenei and was a student of Khamenei’s religious seminars for 14 years starting in 1991.
  • Raisi is also from the same northeastern province as Khamenei, which is home to the religious city of Mashhad. In 2016, Raisi was appointed by Khamenei as the head of Astan Quds Razavi, Iran’s largest religious foundation which oversees the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.
  • Khamenei tasked Raisi with combating corruption when he appointed him judiciary chief in 2019. Raisi subsequently started a far-reaching anti-corruption drive that has seen hundreds arrested and sentenced from all branches of government and the military, including senior figures in the judiciary. Raisi’s public approval ratings increased to record high levels over the past year, based on polling done by Western institutions.
  • Raisi’s appointment as head of the Astan Quds Razavi, close ties with Khamenei, and subsequent presidential campaigns have fed speculation that he is being groomed to eventually succeed the 82-year-old Khamenei.
  • Khamenei’s successor will be decided by a clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts. The body is elected, but only candidates approved by the Guardian Council can run for it. It is currently dominated by conservatives.
  • How Khamenei’s succession will play out will largely be a factor of the domestic balance of political power. If Raisi wins the election and Khamenei passes away during Raisi’s tenure as president, the conservative political camp will be strongly positioned to have decisive influence over Khamenei’s succession. 
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