Raisi’s hot rise to power after Iran’s 2021 presidential elections

  • Raisi won Iran’s presidential elections and is one day expected to become Iran’s Supreme Leader.
  • Raisi’s ascent to power was made possible by dissatisfaction with Rouhani, a rigged election and endorsement by Supreme Leader Khamenei. 
  • While Raisi is a hardliner willing to moderate his views, he is likely to endorse Khamenei’s hard line stances during his time as president in order to prove his loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

Why is Ebrahim Raisi’s heat level hot?

Answer: After winning the presidential elections he will hold the second most powerful post in Iran, and is expected to one day succeed Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s presidential elections that were held on June 18, and should be inaugurated in August. In Iran, the president is the second highest-ranking official, the first being the Supreme Leader. Therefore, although Supreme Leader Khamenei will have the final say over all state matters, he will still be able to influence state policy, both domestic and foreign. Moreover, he is expected to one day inherit the post of Supreme Leader of Iran for two reasons.

First, Supreme Leader Khamenei has visibly endorsed Raisi during the presidential campaign. The very same qualities that Raisi’s supporters have used to describe him (such as religious, revolutionary, supporter of justice and fighter against corruption) are those that Khamenei has stated are desired in a president. Khamenei’s support is important because the Supreme Leader is said to have significant influence over the election of his successor.

The Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts whose members are in turn elected by Iranians every eight years. However, the candidates must first be approved by the Guardian Council whose members are chosen by the Supreme Leader. This has allowed Khamenei to ensure that individuals that he can expect to follow his guidance when choosing his successor are elected for the Assembly of Experts.

Second, Raisi will most likely be able to impact the future election of Iran’s Supreme Leader through the influence he has over the Assembly of Experts as its vice-president and thanks to the power that he will be able to consolidate during his time as Iran’s president. Furthermore, he could also use his time as president to improve his religious legitimacy by acquiring support from top ayatollahs.

Although a cleric with the title of hojjat-ol-eslam, a rank below that of ayatollah, his training has always been questionable as there is no evidence that he actually completed a degree program. If he serves for two four year terms, as most of his predecessors have, he will probably still be president when Khamenei steps down. Therefore, unless he fails to stay in Khamenei’s good graces, Raisi will be holding on to considerable power and will have greater religious legitimacy when the Supreme Leader is being chosen, making him a top contender for the post.  

Who is changing Raisi’s temperature?

Answer: He won the 2021 presidential elections thanks to domestic dissatisfaction, a rigged electoral system, and support from the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

In 2017, Raisi lost the presidential elections to Hassan Rouhani, who won by a landslide. However, Rouhani has steadily been losing public support. While Rouhani had managed to secure the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action during his first term as president in 2015, the plan has since collapsed due to US withdrawal in 2018 giving rise to new sanctions that have exacerbated Iran’s economic crisis.

According to the IMF, after 2018 Iran’s economy contracted, prices for food and other necessities are increasing and jobs are scarce. Iranians blame Rouhani for worsening the economy, deteriorating Iran’s standard of living and increasing income inequality through domestic mismanagement. As a result of dissatisfaction with Rouhani, Iranians have been reluctant to vote for his supporters. Indeed, the presidential candidate Abdolnaser Hemmati only managed to gather 8.5% of votes in the elections, due to his association with the administration of Rouhani.  

However, public disappointment with Rouhani is not the only factor that brought Raisi his victory. Flaws in Iran’s electoral system also played a role. The elections are widely believed to have been engineered for Raisi to win. Out of 600 individuals registered to be candidates in the elections, only 7 were approved by the Guardian Council, with three pulling out the day before polling began. Perceiving that the elections were not competitive, many decided not to vote at all. A massive fall in voter turnout compared to 2017 (from 70% to 48.8%) may have contributed to Raisi’s win since it is believed that those who decided not to vote were individuals that would have voted for moderate candidates.

Finally, Raisi’s victory was made possible by Khamenei’s endorsement (due to his influence in the Guardian Council). It is suspected that the Supreme Leader decided to support him because he needs a compliant president in order to cement his legacy and oversee the transition from one generation to the next. His predecessors all disagreed with Khamenei over certain matters, while Raisi is expected to share Khamenei’s views on domestic and foreign policy choices due to his loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

What is driving Raisi?

Answer: He is driven by power

He seems to primarily be driven by power. Throughout his life, he has held influential positions mainly in Iran’s judiciary where he started his career under the training of Khamenei. Most notably, from 2016 to 2019 he served as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran’s wealthiest religious charitable trusts before finally being appointed as head of judiciary in 2019. 

Raisi’s path to power was made possible by his loyalty to Iran’s ruling clerics. He has had close ties with Khamenei for decades. Moreover, like Khamenei, he is a conservative hardliner willing to take harsh measures. Raisi is perceived to be a conservative hardliner mainly due to his legitimization of the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi stated that such actions were made lawful by a religious ruling by former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Raisi is also widely perceived as being ruthless because he sat as judge on one of the secret tribunals known as the Death Committee that were responsible for the mass executions in 1988, even though he has denied his involvement.

However, during the last few years as Judiciary Chief, Raisi has initiated a wide ranging set of judicial reforms that lightened punishments for many crimes and allowed a large number of convicts to avoid imprisonment and the death penalty. Indeed, during the coronavirus pandemic Raisi has granted leave to 100 000 prisoners and public hangings have become rare. Raisi consciously took these measures to improve his public image ahead of the presidential elections, proving that he is willing to moderate hardline stances when it suits his interests. Nonetheless, in the beginning of his presidency it will be in Raisi’s interest to prove his loyalty to Khamenei by sharing his domestic and foreign policy views.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Supporting Khamenei’s views, Raisi may make Iranian society more conservative but also economically stronger and is widely expected to adopt a firmer anti-western stance, strengthen the Axis of Resistance and seek to normalize ties with Gulf Arab neighbors. 

Once Raisi is inaugurated, hardliners will have taken hold of all of Iran’s branches of power (executive, legislative and judiciary). Moreover, while Raisi could bring to his government politicians belonging to other factions, he will likely refrain from doing so precisely in order to maintain harmony between different centers of power. This means that Raisi’s as well as Khamenei’s policies will likely go unchallenged.

Therefore, Raisi will be able to reinforce a puritanical system of Islamic governance favored by hardliners, and repress any criticism that such actions could provoke. However, Raisi has also expressed that he wishes to live up to the people’s trust by delivering on campaign promises. Raisi is thus expected to continue combating corruption, to reduce unemployment and build an economy that is not dependent on the west and on Iran’s nuclear program and thus more resilient to US sanctions. 

With regards to foreign affairs, it is difficult to predict whether and what changes Raisi’s presidency will bring since he has not provided detailed policy pronouncements. Nevertheless, there seems to be agreement among analysts that Raisi’s presidency is unlikely to alter Iran’s stance in the negotiations in Vienna. Like the current president, Raisi wishes to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action as it would help lift US sanctions and revive Iran economically. 

Despite cooperation with the West over the nuclear agreement, in order to endorse Khamenei’s views, Raisi is expected to pivot Iran’s broader foreign policy towards Russia and China. Indeed, when asked in a press conference held on June 21 whether he would meet with Biden if the US lifted sanctions, Raisi replied no. Such a stance could make it more difficult for the US to reach agreements with Iran in the future, for instance with regards to its missile program that the US believes threatens Israel and destabilizes the region. Raisi has already hinted towards a tough stance on Iran’s missiles and militias by stating that Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional policies were non negotiable

Furthermore, Raisi is expected to give the Axis of Resistance distinct support due to his revolutionary past, although it is still unknown what form this support will take. Raisi has previously stated during a trip to Iraq that “there are no states closer to [Iran] than Iraq” and will be further motivated to nourish these relations now that Iraq is hosting talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Raisi is also expected to continue Iran’s close ties with the Assad regime in Syria, as well as with Hezbollah and Hamas, all of whom congratulated Raisi for his win in the elections. 

Some analysts claim that Iran will be able to take a more prominent role in the region thanks to the US’s planned military withdrawals. The Biden administration seems to want to direct the focus of the US’ armed services on China and Russia. However, the US’ military presence in the region is still great and its allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have strengthened their own military capabilities.

Iran’s efforts to establish greater regional presence will therefore not go unchallenged. This is problematic as Raisi has recently stated that Iran’s foreign policy priority should be improving ties with Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia with which it is now engaging in diplomatic talks. In sum, a foreign policy challenge for Raisi may be to take advantage of a weakening US presence to increase Iran’s influence while maintaining regional peace and stability.