Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

Iran’s election is about succession

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Change will not come after Iran’s next presidential election on June 18. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will remain the supreme decision-maker both before and after the contest. While the personalities at the helm of Iran’s government may fluctuate, the policies—especially those which most concern the international community—will not. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that the election does not matter at all. It is possible that the next president of the Islamic Republic could very well be Khamenei’s last given his 82 years of age. Thus, the race is more about succession and the constellation of power than anything else.

There has been one game-changing development thus far in the electoral process—Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi’s registration as a candidate. The consolidation of the electoral field from 592 registrants to seven qualifiers shows a determination to have a conservative candidate run and win, especially after the disqualification of more pragmatic and formidable candidates like Ali Larijani, who was the longest-serving speaker of parliament since 1979. Additionally, many onetime contenders—including former senior commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—have thrown their support behind Raisi. Given the lower profiles of the remaining candidates, the contest at this juncture is turning into a Khamenei-orchestrated coronation of Raisi rather than a campaign.

Raisi’s Rise

Raisi’s rise has been nurtured by his relationship with Khamenei, family ties, as well as a brand built on anti-corruption which he has used to climb the ranks of Iran’s judiciary and beyond. His association with Khamenei harkens back to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution when Raisi met him while he was taking part in a Khomeinist training course.

Both men are from Mashhad. The increased pace of Raisi’s promotions coincided with Khamenei’s elevation as supreme leader in 1989, transitioning from a provincial and deputy Tehran prosecutor—when he also served as a member of a death commission which greenlit the executions of thousands of political prisoners—to a national platform as chief prosecutor-general of Tehran, head of the judiciary’s General Inspection Office, deputy chief justice and later attorney general.

In 2016, Raisi’s fortunes significantly rose as he left the judiciary to lead Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran’s largest religious foundations and economic conglomerates. Such a position provided Raisi with financial, religious, and political visibility to further promote his career, leading to an unsuccessful presidential run in 2017.

Along the way, Raisi, whose own father died when he was five, has also been able to count on his father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, to cultivate a family power base in Mashhad—one of Iran’s most important religious cities. Alamolhoda’s positions as a Friday Prayer Leader in Mashhad as well as the supreme leader’s representative in Razavi Khorasan Province have provided a platform for Raisi to survive and thrive in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy.

In 2019, Khamenei named Raisi as Iran’s chief justice. He has also served as deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which will eventually select Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor, further increasing his influence.

Is Iran’s Election a Selection?

Raisi enters the presidential fray with many advantages: name recognition as the head of the judiciary; previous political experience; connections with Iran’s supreme leader; and most significantly he is seen as a leading contender to replace Khamenei upon his demise. Indeed, during the campaign, Raisi has been photographed in Khamenei-like styles and settings—praying alone over martyrs’ gravesites and paying homage to the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic’s institutions are being deployed for his benefit. Officials are warning candidates that they must not cross the red line of insulting the judiciary during the campaign – a position that Raisi conveniently maintains while campaigning and avoiding scrutiny.

Even before the race started, Iran’s supreme leader left little doubt that the election was about succession. Media reports indicated that Khamenei advised the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Hassan Khomeini, to forfeit any ambition of pursuing the presidency. This was part of a longer-term strategy by Khamenei to consolidate his own power, and in recent weeks he has humiliated and ostracized three of Iran’s leading revolutionary families—the Khomeinis, the Rafsanjanis—Mohsen Hashemi, the son of the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was also disqualified—and the Larijanis. This is all an attempt to shrink the inner circle of power in the Islamic Republic so Khamenei can further exert his control over the election and succession.

If Raisi wins the election, he will be considered by some as a natural successor to Ayatollah Khamenei. This is because of the precedent that Khamenei established when he took over after Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989—Khamenei transitioned from the presidency to the supreme leadership. In resume alone, Raisi would outflank the competition to serve as Khamenei’s heir. But even if he wins the presidency, there is no guarantee he will become the Supreme Leader.

With the exception of Khamenei, Iran’s presidency has traditionally been a political death sentence for its occupants. There are also other candidates on the scene who remain players in Tehran’s halls of power—including Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s son, as well as figures like head of seminaries Alireza Arafi. Indeed, their relevance may increase should there be an upset if Raisi loses the presidential race or standing if he wins.

However, a Raisi administration does guarantee that he would play a decisive role in the future of the Islamic Republic should Khamenei either become too ill to fulfil his duties or passes away. In addition to the presidency, Raisi will still be a member of the Assembly of Experts. These roles will provide him—a trusted Khamenei protégé—with significant constitutional authority during an eventual leadership transition, regardless of whether he becomes supreme leader.

Ultimately, the 2021 presidential contest in Iran is about much more than the next four or eight years. It is about the next few decades of leadership selection and the preservation of the Islamic Republic.

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