Hardline decide beneath U.S. sanctions wins Iran presidential election

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Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential election, waves to the media after casting his vote at a polling station on June 18, 2021, the day of the Islamic Republic’s presidential election.

Majid Saeedi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judge under US sanctions for human rights violations, won a landslide victory in Iran’s presidential election on Saturday after apathetic contest over economic hardship and political restrictions.

With 28.9 million ballots counted, Raisi was elected with 17.9 million, said Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on state television. The turnout in the four-man bobsleigh race on Friday was a record low of around 48.8%.

Raisi was appointed senior justice chief by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2019 and was placed under US sanctions a few months later for human rights violations.

This included the role that human rights groups say Raisi played in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 and in the violent crackdown on civil unrest in 2009.

Iran has never recognized the mass executions, and Raisi himself has never publicly addressed allegations about his role.

Considered by analysts and insiders to represent the security establishment in its most formidable form, 60-year-old Raisi had received widespread praise for winning the competition thanks to Khamenei’s support.

While Iran’s regional allies – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, militant Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah – welcomed Raisi’s election, Amnesty International’s General Secretary Agnès Callamard said his victory was “a grim reminder that Iran is impunity”.

“We continue to demand that Ebrahim Raisi be investigated under international law for his involvement in past and ongoing crimes, including by states that exercise universal jurisdiction,” she said in a statement.

Outgoing pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani, who is constitutionally barred from a third term, visited Raisi in his office to congratulate him, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he would run Iran well.

“In the next 45 days, when the new government takes over (early August), we will work fully with the President-elect,” state media quoted Rouhani as saying.

Nuclear talks

Raisi’s choice comes at a critical time.

Iran and six major powers are in talks to revive their 2015 nuclear deal. The then US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 and once again imposed crippling sanctions that depressed Iran’s oil revenues.

However, with Iran’s ruling clergy aware that their political fortunes depend on tackling worsening economic difficulties, Raisi’s victory will not disrupt Iran’s efforts to revive the pact and move away from harsh US oil and financial sanctions to free.

Still, some analysts predicted that his tough stance could scare off foreign investors.

“Raisi’s tough political and economic convictions will limit the scope for significant foreign investment if an agreement is reached, further isolating Tehran from the West,” said senior analyst Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group.

Khamenei, not the president, has the final say on all state issues such as Iranian foreign and nuclear policy.

“We will make every effort in the new government to solve the problem of people’s livelihoods,” state media quoted Raisi as saying.

To attract voters interested in bread-and-butter issues, Raisi has promised to create millions of jobs and fight inflation without offering a detailed political or economic program.

Lack of choice

The country’s clerical rulers urged people to vote on Friday in hopes of bolstering their legitimacy, but simmering anger over economic difficulties and restrictions on freedoms kept many Iranians at home.

Khamenei said the turnout showed the popularity of the clerical establishment. But more than half of the electorate were too dissatisfied to vote, or appeared to have followed calls from hundreds of dissidents at home and abroad to boycott the election.

Another deterrent to many reform advocates was the lack of choice after a tough electoral body denied office to heavyweight moderates and conservatives.

A US State Department spokesman said Friday: “Iranians have been denied the right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process” – a likely indication of the disqualification of candidates.

Many reform-friendly Iranians fear that Raisi’s presidency could initiate further repression.

“I’m scared. I don’t want to go back to prison. I’m sure that any kind of contradiction will not be tolerated,” said Hamidreza, 31, who refused to give his full name. He was jailed for participating in riots in 2019 that broke out over fuel price hikes and quickly turned political.

Analysts say the election victory could increase Raisi’s chances of succeeding Khamenei, who himself served two terms as president before becoming top leader in 1989.

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