Meet Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric who challenged incumbent Rouhani for president of Iran

A supporter of Raisi at a rally in Tehran, Iran on May 16, 2017. AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi is an important newcomer to electoral politics.

Last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Raisi custodian of the shrine of Imam Reza and chairman of the foundation that manages its extensive complex. This is no minor post. The foundation nets the regime billions of dollars.

The shrine of Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad, Iran. Iahsan, CC BY-SA

Before this year, Raisi had never campaigned for public office or debated in the national political spotlight. His inexperience has shown. In the three live nationally televised debates, he lacked charisma, sticking closely to his talking points.

While highly visible with the ability to influence public opinion and steer some aspects of national and foreign policy, the Iranian president’s power is limited. The majority of power, including that over foreign policy, national security and media, rests with the supreme leader.

Given the little he has to gain from the uncertain venture, why would Raisi decide to join a crowded field to run against the relatively popular incumbent Hassan Rouhani?

Why run?

One answer is that with his wealth and connection to the supreme leader, Raisi thinks he has a good chance of winning.

The news of the exit and endorsement of his major right wing rival Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf on Sunday certainly supports this theory. For the first time since early in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founding in 1979, the conservative side of the political spectrum has cast its lot behind a single candidate.

Still, observers are keen to point out that history is not on Raisi’s side. Every president since the office was created has served two terms.

Another explanation has little to do with the presidency. There have long been whispers of illness surrounding the supreme leader, who is 77 years old. To avoid chaos and even loss of power, the regime’s ruling clerics will need to swiftly name Khamenei’s successor when he inevitably dies. Raisi is rumored to be on the short list. Hence, Raisi’s candidacy may be a tactic designed to build the confidence of key regime insiders and boost his name recognition around the country to better position him for that coveted role.

It is noteworthy that Raisi entered the race as an independent, despite the fact that his hard-line views neatly align with the country’s conservative Principlist Party. Running without an affiliation is a wise move for someone looking to be the next leader, as both the Constitution and political norms require the supreme leader to be above pedestrian politics and unencumbered by factional allegiance.

Is Raisi a ‘historical criminal’?

As a historian of Iranian politics and media, I’d contend that this election is important not just for its impact in the future of Iran, but for what it says, and does not say, about its post-revolutionary past.

There are a number of unanswered questions about Raisi’s past. One relates to his role on a four-man “death committee” that oversaw the execution of more than 2,000 men and women in 1988. Last summer, the estate of the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, one of the leaders of the Iranian revolution, released a chilling audio recording of the committee’s deliberations and their response to Montazeri’s plea for leniency for the prisoners.

In the recording, Montazeri can be heard condemning Raisi and the other members of the panel as “historical criminals.”

Montezari died in December 2009. Once designated successor of the first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, his funeral was a major inflection point in the politics of the post revolutionary state. It inspired the consolidation of the Green Movement, the most powerful government opposition movement to arise since the toppling of the monarchy in 1979.

The mass executions of 1988 were no doubt a violation of international standards of human rights.

If elected, might Raisi’s past come back to haunt him? Given that another member of the death committee, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is currently serving as Rouhani’s justice minister, domestic consequences are unlikely.

How it will play out on an international stage is less clear. One thing is sure: Raisi will play a part in the shaping of a post-Khamenei Iran.

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