The Jerusalem Post
Iran votes for president today as nuclear deal talks continue
Khamenei’s pick likely to win • Low turnout expected
Iran’s presidential election was set to kick off on Friday with Ebrahim Raisi, the pick of Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expected to win in a landslide.
Of over 500 candidates who submitted their candidacy, only seven were initially approved to run by the country’s Guardian Council, three of whom dropped out this week.
In the past, the Guardian Council has disqualified most candidates who might criticize and clash with the regime, but it had allowed so-called pragmatist insiders like current President Hassan Rouhani to run against its hard-liner candidates.
For this round of elections, Khamenei instructed the council
to even disqualify First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri and former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.
Both have ties to the regime, but analysts say they were disqualified as Khamenei saw them having the potential to draw votes also from the pragmatist and reformist camps, in which case they could have presented Raisi with a real challenge.
The only reformist-pragmatist candidate left – former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati – lacks either charisma or name recognition, and is seen by many analysts as more of a fig leaf and a lightweight who was green-lighted so the regime could say an opposition-style candidate was allowed to run.
Hemmati has also served in a variety of roles including vice president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
Even against the well-known Rouhani, Raisi grabbed almost 16 million votes in the 2017 election, close to 40% of actual voters, and Rouhani cannot run
again having finished his second term.
Raisi’s election could carry even greater significance than usual as Khamenei, 82, has had deteriorating health issues for years, and many expect Raisi could be the next supreme leader.
In addition, many analysts predict that a victory by the hard-line Raisi could lead to a purge of any remaining moderates at the higher echelons of state institutions.
Despite Raisi’s long record of criticizing the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, he expressed an openness to return to the deal’s limits as part of an agreement with the US, if Washington properly considered the Islamic Republic’s concerns.
However, in a Media Central session for the press, Iran expert and IDF Lt.-Col. (res.) Michael Segall noted that Raisi could support the deal, while still promoting Iranian hegemony throughout the Middle East via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
The IRGC is also expected to gain greater power if Raisi is elected.
Due to the regime’s unprecedented interference – even by Iranian standards – voters are expected to protest by refusing to vote, with turnout predicted to be as low as 30%-40% compared with around 70% in 2017.
Iran expert Dr. Thamar Eilam Gindin pointed out during the Media Central session that even the number of candidates who filed to run in this election was only around one-third of the 1,636 who sought to run in 2017.
Still, top Iranian officials hit the airwaves on Wednesday and Thursday to try to increase voter turnout.
Rouhani appealed to voters to set aside their grievances and take part in a presidential election on Friday that record numbers of people are expected to boycott due to economic hardship and frustration with hard-line rule.
He urged Iranians on Thursday not to let the “shortcomings of an institution or a group” keep them from voting, an apparent reference to the Guardian Council.
“For the time being, let’s not think about grievances tomorrow,” Rouhani said in televised remarks.
Khamenei himself urged people on Wednesday to turn out in large numbers, calling it a religious obligation, and saying that high voter turnout would thwart “satanic forces” and alleged manipulations by foreign powers to undermine the country’s strength.
In addition to anger over the disqualification of prominent moderates, grievances include economic hardship exacerbated by US sanctions as well as official corruption, mismanagement, and a 2019 crackdown on protesters when between 150 and 1,500 were killed, which was triggered by rising fuel prices.
The accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian plane in Iran in January 2020 that killed 176, many of whom Iranians, also undermined public trust.
“Voting would be an insult to my intelligence,” said 55-year-old Fatemeh, who declined to give her second name for fear of reprisals.
“Raisi has already been selected by the government regardless of who we vote for.”
Prominent dissidents inside and outside the country have called on fellow Iranians to snub the election, including exiled former crown prince Reza Pahlavi and opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011.
On the other hand, many leading reformists have rallied behind Hemmati, including former president Mohammad Khatami, arguing that a massive boycott would guarantee a Raisi win.
Even in 2019, there were signs that Raisi had emerged as the leading candidate to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader, said INSS Iran expert Raz Zimmt. Since Raisi’s appointment as head of the judiciary in March 2019, Zimmt said, the conservative cleric had expanded his efforts to advance changes in the legal system, improve his public image, and increase his media exposure.
The new marketing effort, and Khamenei overtly supporting these efforts, were highly significant in that they occurred despite Raisi’s losing the presidential race in 2017.
Khamenei’s message appeared to be clear, noted Zimmt: he did not care that Raisi lost to Rouhani, he wanted Raisi as his successor.
Zimmt added that Raisi’s “closeness to the supreme leader, his experience in the judicial authority, his tenure as chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi foundation (and the Imam Reza Shrine) in the city of Mashhad, and his hard-line positions alongside his increasing efforts to improve his public standing, make him the leading candidate at this stage in the battle of succession.”
Raisi was born in December 1960 in Mashhad.
Since the early 1980s, he has filled a series of positions in the judicial system, including as Tehran prosecutor, head of the General Inspection Office of the judicial authority, first deputy chief justice, and attorney-general of Iran.
He was appointed by Khamenei in 2016 as chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi foundation in Mashhad, which Zimmt wrote is a powerful foundation that controls significant Islamic trusts, a wide range of assets, and large budgets.
Besides those posts, Raisi serves as a member of the Expediency Council and as deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for overseeing the Supreme Leader’s activity, appointing his successor, and even potentially removing him from office if he is found unfit to continue to serve.
Shortly after he became head of the judiciary, Raisi announced changes, including achieving greater efficiency.
Zimmt said that Raisi placed the war on corruption toward the top of his agenda.
For example, Raisi dismissed dozens of judges who were accused of involvement in corruption.
In addition, Raisi announced he was reducing how many bank accounts he had, and would issue annual reports.
This seemed an attempt to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Sadeq Larijani, who allegedly held more than 60 bank
accounts with funds from citizens who had cases in the courts, wrote Zimmt.
In mid-June 2019, Raisi published an unusual post on his Instagram account calling on Iranians to contact him through his personal social media accounts to suggest necessary improvements to the judicial system.
“This initiative was warmly received, particularly by the pro-reform media, which expressed the hope that this would lead to a reexamination of the current policy of blocking social networks, and would strengthen the public’s trust in the judicial system,” Zimmt wrote.
Likewise, in the same month, the Iranian media published pictures showing Raisi traveling to work on Tehran’s metro, apparently to strengthen his image as leading a simple and modest lifestyle, and he was granted an extensive media interview during Judiciary Week.
Raisi has had problems with the reformist camp of Iranians due to his involvement in the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988, said Zimmt.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 2 a.m. on Saturday. The interior minister told state TV that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, voting will take place outside at 67,000 sites across the country, with social distancing and the donning of face masks required.
The Interior Ministry has advised that results will be announced by midday on Saturday, less than 12 hours after the polls close.
Reuters contributed to this report.