Two con­ser­va­tives emerge as con­tenders in race to un­seat Iran’s pres­i­dent

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM erin.cun­ning­ham@wash­

istanbul — Iran’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are typ­i­cally tu­mul­tuous af­fairs. Cam­paigns last just a few weeks, and a can­di­date’s star can rise or fall in a mat­ter of days. Rul­ing cler­ics ap­prove only a hand­ful of con­tenders for the race, which takes place ev­ery four years. But the re­sults are al­most al­ways a sur­prise, and dark-horse can­di­dates have been known to sweep to power at the last minute.

This year, there are five chal­lengers to Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, a prag­matic mod­er­ate seek­ing a se­cond term in the May 19 vote. Although polling is un­re­li­able in Iran, two can­di­dates re­cently have nar­rowed Rouhani’s still-wide lead: Ebrahim Raisi, a pow­er­ful conservative cleric, and Tehran’s hard-line mayor, Mo­ham­mad Bagher Ghal­ibaf.

Both have used pop­ulist mes­sag­ing to hit Rouhani on the econ­omy, which they say suf­fers de­spite sanc­tions re­lief, and have com­mit­ted to up­hold­ing the nu­clear deal Iran struck with world pow­ers.

As the cam­paigns en­ter their fi­nal week, here is a closer look at Rouhani’s two lead­ing ri­vals.

Ebrahim Raisi

Raisi, 56, is new to pol­i­tics and was rel­a­tively un­known be­fore the start of his cam­paign. But thanks to his close ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, the soft-spo­ken, un­charis­matic cleric is con­sid­ered per­haps Rouhani’s most cred­i­ble chal­lenger, de­spite wob­bles.

He also has the sup­port of Iran’s in­flu­en­tial clergy and a pow­er­ful coali­tion of con­ser­va­tives known as the Pop­u­lar Front of Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion Forces, or Jamna. The black tur­ban he wears sig­ni­fies his sta­tus as a de­scen­dant of the prophet Muham­mad, and ru­mors have swirled that he could suc­ceed Khamenei. Raisi has cam­paigned on job cre­ation and big­ger cash hand­outs for the poor, but he has re­mained vague on other is­sues, in­clud­ing for­eign pol­icy.

“He’s a pretty col­or­less char­ac­ter,” said Gary Sick, who was the prin­ci­pal White House aide on Iran dur­ing the coun­try’s 1979 Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion. “He is not well­known as a re­li­gious scholar. And he doesn’t have that much back­ground in gov­ern­ment, ei­ther.”

Raisi was born in Iran’s north­east in 1960 and stud­ied in the holy city of Qom. He is a grad­u­ate of the Haghani school there, which Ira­nian Amer­i­can aca­demic Vali Nasr called “the back­bone of the cler­i­cal man­age­ment class that runs Iran’s key po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity in­sti­tu­tions.”

Raisi be­gan his ca­reer as a pros­e­cu­tor in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion. In that role, he al­legedly served as a mem­ber of the “Death Com­mis­sion” that over­saw the ex­e­cu­tions of thou­sands of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in 1988. The gov­ern­ment never has of­fi­cially ad­mit­ted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the killings, but to many they none­the­less have cast a shadow over Raisi’s cam­paign.

“The main thing about Raisi and the one thing that is go­ing to stick in peo­ple’s minds in Iran is his par­tic­i­pa­tion in that panel in 1988, where lots of peo­ple were killed for prac­ti­cally no rea­son at all,” said Sick, who is now a re­searcher at Columbia Univer­sity’s Mid­dle East In­sti­tute.

Raisi sub­se­quently spent decades in the ju­di­ciary, in­clud­ing as deputy to the chief jus­tice and later as at­tor­ney gen­eral. As deputy chief in 2009, Raisi sup­ported crack­downs on pro­test­ers who op­posed the dis­puted re­sults of that year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

A com­mis­sion was es­tab­lished to in­ves­ti­gate the harsh gov­ern­ment re­sponse. In a con­fi­den­tial ca­ble sent to U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies from the U.S. Con­sulate in Dubai and later pub­lished by Wik­iLeaks, the State Depart­ment said that the body, which in­cluded Raisi, was “com­posed of men with long pro­fes­sional his­to­ries of egre­gious hu­man rights abuses.”

“The Ira­nian ju­di­ciary is by its na­ture very conservative and takes a re­stric­tive ap­proach to so­cial and po­lit­i­cal free­doms,” said Farzan Sa­bet, a fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion. “And Raisi’s decades-long ca­reer as a ju­di­cial of­fi­cial re­flects this.”

“It’s not cer­tain,” Sa­bet added, “how this back­ground would trans­late to the pres­i­dency.”

Raisi serves as the head of the As­tan Quds Razavi, a char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion linked to the Imam Reza Shrine in Mash­had, the holi­est site in Iran. It is the coun­try’s largest en­dow­ment, with busi­ness and real es­tate hold­ings worth bil­lions of dol­lars. Khamenei ap­pointed Raisi to the post — which many Ira­ni­ans take as ev­i­dence of his sup­port for his pro­tege.

“He has been able to por­tray him­self as a vir­tu­ous and com­pe­tent can­di­date who is trusted by the supreme leader,” Sa­bet said.

Mo­ham­mad Bagher Ghal­ibaf

The third time’s a charm — at least that is what Ghal­ibaf seems to be hop­ing. This year marks the 55-year-old Tehran mayor’s third run for pres­i­dent, fol­low­ing bids in 2005 and 2013. Dur­ing his long ten­ure on the Ira­nian po­lit­i­cal scene, he has mor­phed from war hero to showy politi­cian to ca­pa­ble tech­no­crat.

To­day, Ghal­ibaf casts him­self as an eco­nomic pop­ulist ready to care for the coun­try’s poor, and he is run­ning neck-and-neck with Raisi in the polls. Much like Raisi, he has pledged to boost cash sub­si­dies and cre­ate “5 mil­lion jobs.”

Un­like Raisi, Ghal­ibaf has na­tional name recog­ni­tion. But re­cent cor­rup­tion scan­dals and “a his­tory of flip-flop­ping be­tween lib­eral and conservative po­si­tions” prob­a­bly will hurt his chances, said Cliff Kupchan, chair­man of the po­lit­i­cal-risk firm Eura­sia Group.

Mo­ham­mad Ali Sha­bani, ed­i­tor of Iran cov­er­age at Al-Mon­i­tor, an on­line news por­tal fo­cused on the Mid­dle East, said, “His one big weak­ness is the pub­lic’s lack of clar­ity about who he re­ally is and what he seeks.”

The son of a dried-fruit seller, Ghal­ibaf was born in Mash­had in 1961. At a young age, he rose to promi­nence as a com­man­der in the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps dur­ing the Iran-Iraq war. He flew sor­ties over Iraq and helped re­cap­ture the Ira­nian city of Khor­ramshahr. He was pro­moted to head of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard’s air force, where he signed on to a now-in­fa­mous let­ter urg­ing Khamenei to crack down harder on stu­dent-led demon­stra­tions in 1999.

Later, Ghal­ibaf be­came chief of Iran’s uni­formed po­lice and, in con­trast to his ear­lier hard-line stance, is said to have pro­fes­sion­al­ized the force and curbed many of its ex­cesses.

Ghal­ibaf’s stew­ard­ship of the po­lice “has given him the rep­u­ta­tion of a com­pe­tent, apo­lit­i­cal man­ager,” the U.S. Con­sulate in Dubai wrote in a con­fi­den­tial ca­ble in 2005.

But that same year, Ghal­ibaf ended up run­ning a failed pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — in which he traded his uni­form for white suits and flashy sun­glasses — against the fire­brand pop­ulist Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad. He then was cho­sen as mayor of Tehran, where he con­tin­ued to forge a record as a skilled man­ager.

As mayor, Ghal­ibaf has ex­panded green space in an oth­er­wise crowded and pol­luted city, up­graded road in­fras­truc­ture and be­gun work on a new metro line.

“Most peo­ple give him a lot of credit for mak­ing Tehran more liv­able,” Sick said.

But then the al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion be­gan to sur­face. And when the city’s Plasco high-rise caught fire and col­lapsed this year, killing at least 20 fire­men, many res­i­dents blamed Ghal­ibaf.

Some see the Plasco in­ci­dent “as a fail­ure on the part of his of­fice to en­force safety stan­dards,” Stan­ford’s Sa­bet said.

Another weak­ness, ob­servers say, is Ghal­ibaf ’s con­nec­tion to Iran’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. Although his mil­i­tary cre­den­tials make him palat­able to Khamenei and the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard, which wields enor­mous in­flu­ence, they could alien­ate younger vot­ers, many of whom want the pow­er­ful se­cu­rity forces out of pol­i­tics.

Ghal­ibaf has “a very warm and per­son­able style and ap­pear­ance,” the U.S. Con­sulate in Dubai wrote in the 2005 ca­ble. “But Ira­ni­ans don’t like the mil­i­tary when it comes to se­lect­ing civil­ian lead­ers.”


Sup­port­ers of Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani cheer in front of an elec­tion ban­ner de­pict­ing him dur­ing a cam­paign rally in Tehran.

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