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Home >Politics >News >Who is Ebrahim Raisi? Hard-line judge wins Iran’s 2021 presidential election


Iranian chief justice Ebrahim Raisi won the country’s presidential election early Saturday, after the remaining candidates in the race conceded, including his politically moderate main challenger.

Iranians headed to the polls Friday to elect a new president, as the Islamic Republic confronts challenges from a cratering economy to heightened tensions with its regional rivals.

Many Iranians feel sidelined by Iran’s authoritarian clerical establishment. Millions boycotted the election. The country’s election watchdog, the Guardian Council, disqualified nearly all nonconservative candidates ahead of the vote, narrowing the choice among moderates and reformists while deepening the apathy of would-be voters.

Mr. Raisi is set to take over at a time when Iran and the U.S. are negotiating terms to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, which the Trump administration exited in 2018 before reimposing harsh economic sanctions. Iran’s foreign policy, in particular its relationship with Washington, is determined by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but the country’s president can set the tone with the nation’s friends and adversaries alike.

Who is Ebrahim Raisi?

Mr. Raisi, a conservative judge, was the front-runner heading into the vote. The 60-year-old cleric lacks political experience but has a long career in the judicial system, which has earned him a reputation as a hard-liner with little patience for political dissent.

Iran’s interior ministry said Mr. Raisi had received 17.9 million votes, or about 62% of the ballots cast. Mr. Raisi lost the last election to Mr. Rouhani in 2017, before being appointed to head Iran’s judiciary two years later.

The consensus candidate for Iran’s hard-liners, Mr. Raisi has close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a decadeslong relationship with Mr. Khamenei. He is known for his role in a 1988 commission that condemned thousands of political prisoners to death. Mr. Raisi has also presided over mass imprisonments of journalists, political activists and dual citizens, including Americans.

Mr. Raisi has provided few details about his political platform, be it on the economy, domestic policy or foreign affairs. While he doesn’t oppose Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, his administration is expected to pivot Iran’s foreign policy toward Russia and China at the expense of diplomacy with the West, a stance the supreme leader has long favored.

Who is Abdolnaser Hemmati?

The only nonconservative candidate in the race, Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former insurance regulator and banker, also has limited political experience. But the 64-year-old is closely associated with the administration of Mr. Rouhani, who in 2018 appointed him first as ambassador to China, then to head the central bank.

Mr. Hemmati had staked out the middle ground in Iranian politics, casting himself as a reform-friendly moderate who seeks to improve Iran’s foreign relations, including with the West, and grant Iranians more social and political freedoms.

Having presided over the central bank at a time when Iran endured a severe economic crisis, but didn’t completely collapse under U.S. sanctions, Mr. Hemmati said he was the only candidate with the necessary insight and experience to repair Iran’s battered economy.

To force a second-round runoff, Mr. Hemmati needed to convince millions of disillusioned Iranians to turn out to prevent his hard-line opponent from winning 50% of the vote.

Mr. Hemmati received about 8.5% of the vote. He congratulated Mr. Raisi with his victory on Instagram, saying “I hope your new administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran."

What was the turnout?

Iran’s Interior Ministry on Saturday morning said 28.6 million voters took part in the election, which equals a historically low turnout of 48%. Polls ahead of Friday’s vote had predicted an even lower turnout, but on Election Day, many voters arrived late at polling stations, prompting authorities to extend voting hours until 2 a.m. The last presidential election in 2017 had a turnout of 73%.

Iran’s clerical-led establishment has traditionally touted a high voter turnout as evidence of its popularity, but this year the spokesman for the election watchdog said a potential low turnout wouldn’t harm the system’s legitimacy. A high turnout has historically boosted the chances of nonconservative candidates, as reformists are more likely to stay home in protest against the political establishment and its restrictions of the electoral process.

Mr. Khamenei called on Iranians to vote to strengthen the system when he cast his ballot early on Friday. “Every single vote counts," the supreme leader said in televised remarks. “Today belongs to the people. Showing up at the ballot box and casting your vote helps build the future."

Who else was on the ballot?

Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander known for incendiary remarks against Iran’s rivals in the region, ran for president for the fourth time. He has been wanted by Interpol since 2007 for his alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi is a lawmaker and former member of and spokesman for the far-right Front of Islamic Revolution Stability party, which supports Mr. Raisi’s candidacy. Mr. Ghazizadeh-Hashemi has a limited public profile and was polling in the low single digits.

What are the main issues at stake in this election?

For most Iranians, the main concern is economic hardship. American sanctions imposed since 2018 worsened an already serious economic crisis. Inflation and unemployment are rampant and the local currency, the rial, has plummeted in value, battering local households. Many Iranians said they would either vote for the candidate with the best solution to the economic crisis, or refuse to vote because no candidate has a convincing response to it.

Another top issue is foreign relations and national security. The vote took place amid heightened regional tensions, particularly with Israel, which Tehran accuses of conducting attacks on its nuclear facilities and a high-profile assassination of a top nuclear scientist last year. Israel has refused to comment on the allegations.

Meanwhile, Iran and the U.S. are currently trying to agree on terms via indirect talks in Vienna to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal. Many Iranians had hoped the agreement would bring some level of economic prosperity and international business opportunities.

Iranians concerned about the state of human rights in the country also worry that a victory for Mr. Raisi would worsen conditions for political dissidents and activists, and lead to further curbs on freedom of speech.

How has Iran been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

Iran was the first country in the Middle East to be badly hit by the pandemic. The official number of infections has passed three million in a population of about 83 million, causing nearly 83,000 deaths. Covid-19 has also contributed to Iran’s economic slump, pushing more families into poverty.

Iran has so far vaccinated some 4.5 million people, or about 5% of the population, with one dose.

The pandemic also put limitations on the size of election rallies, although some have broken health protocols. It prompted Iran’s interior ministry to increase the number of voting booths for Friday’s vote across the country. Ballots were placed in open-air spaces wherever possible.

What does the election mean for U.S.-Iran relations?

Iran’s foreign policy is determined by Mr. Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council, not by the government.

However, the president can set the tone of Iran’s international relations and help influence the supreme leader. He sits on the Supreme National Security Council, to which he also appoints some members. Individual members of a government can also establish good working relations with foreign officials, as was the case with departing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and then Secretary of State John Kerry.

While Mr. Hemmati said he would work to improve Iran’s diplomatic and business relations with other countries, including the U.S., Mr. Raisi is expected to pivot more toward China and Russia, at the expense of improving ties with Washington.

What are the prospects for Iran’s nuclear deal?

All matters of national security are also determined by the supreme leader, who endorsed the Rouhani government’s negotiations with six world powers that led to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Both Mr. Raisi and Mr. Hemmati said they support the accord, and a change in presidency isn’t expected to change Tehran’s position in the continuing talks in Vienna, where Iranian and American negotiators are hashing out an agreement that returns Washington to the deal in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Longer term, a Raisi presidency will likely pose challenges to Western diplomacy and could complicate President Biden’s goal of negotiating a broader and more comprehensive security agreement with Iran. The U.S. wants curbs on Iran’s conventional missile arsenal and seeks to roll back the footprint of Iranian-backed militias across the Middle East, both of which threaten Israel and, according to Washington, foment unrest in the region. Iran has so far refused to discuss these issues with the U.S.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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