Khamenei Protege Wins Iran Election Amid Low Turnout

By Reuters
Reuters
Reuters
June 20, 2021 Updated: June 20, 2021

DUBAI—Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judge who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, secured victory as expected on June 19 in Iran’s presidential election, in a contest marked by voter apathy over economic hardships and political restrictions.

With all 28.9 million ballots counted, Raisi was elected with a tally of 17.9 million, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said on state TV.

Turnout in the June 18 four-man race was a record low of around 48.8 percent, and there were 3.7 million invalid ballots that were likely to have been mostly blank or protest votes.

Appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the high-profile job of judiciary chief in 2019, Raisi was placed under U.S. sanctions a few months later over human rights violations.

Those included the role that human rights groups say Raisi played in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 and in the violent suppression of unrest in 2009.

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

Seen by analysts and insiders as representing the security establishment at its most fearsome, Raisi, 60, had been widely tipped to win the contest, thanks to Khamenei’s endorsement.

Iran’s regional allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and terrorist group Hamas welcomed Raisi’s election. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard said his victory was “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”

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

Outgoing pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, barred by Iran’s constitution from seeking a third term, visited Raisi at his office to congratulate him, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he would lead Iran well.

Raisi, who takes office in early August, said he will be a president for all Iranians—whether they voted for him, for the other candidates, or didn’t vote at all.

Iran's outgoing President Rouhani meets with the Iran's President-elect Raisi in Tehran
Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani (L) meets with Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi (R) in Tehran, Iran, on June 19, 2021. (Official Presidential website/Handout via Reuters)

Nuclear Talks

Raisi’s election comes at a critical time.

Iran and six major powers are in talks to revive their 2015 nuclear deal. Then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s oil income.

However, with Iran’s ruling clerics aware that their political fortunes rely on tackling worsening economic hardships, Raisi’s win won’t disrupt Iran’s effort to revive the pact and break free of tough U.S. oil and financial sanctions.

Nonetheless, some analysts have predicted his hardline stances could deter foreign investors.

“Raisi’s hardline political and economic beliefs will limit the scope for significant foreign investment if a deal is reached and further isolate Tehran from the West,” senior analyst Henry Rome at Eurasia Group said.

Khamenei, not the president, has the last say on all issues of state, such as Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

Seeking to win over voters preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues, Raisi has promised to create millions of jobs and tackle inflation, without offering a detailed political or economic program.

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi at a polling station during presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

Lack of Choice

Hoping to boost their legitimacy, the country’s clerical rulers had urged people to turn out and vote on June 18, but simmering anger over economic hardships and curbs on freedoms kept many Iranians at home.

Khamenei said the turnout displayed the clerical establishment’s popularity. But more than half of eligible voters were too dissatisfied to vote or appeared to have heeded calls by hundreds of dissidents, at home and abroad, to boycott the vote.

Another deterrent for many pro-reform voters was a lack of choice, after a hardline election body barred heavyweight moderates and conservatives from running in the election.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said on June 18: “Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process”—a likely reference to the disqualification of candidates.

Many pro-reform Iranians fear Raisi’s presidency could usher in more repression.

“I am scared. I don’t want to go back to jail again. I am certain that any kind of dissent will not be tolerated,” said Hamidreza, 31, who declined to give his full name.

He was jailed for participating in unrest in 2019 that broke out over fuel price hikes and quickly turned political.

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

By Parisa Hafezi

Reuters
Reuters