Election may have lessened Raeisi’s chances to succeed Khamenei
Washington - Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s third tilt at the Iranian presidency ended in failure. Not only did he withdraw rather than face another defeat, the swing against him in local elections the same day means he will no longer be mayor of Tehran.
For Ebrahim Raeisi, who won 38% of the votes against 57% for re-elected President Hassan Rohani, the picture is more complex. The former prosecutor-general, appointed last year by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to lead the influential Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, was a surprise candidate. It was widely assumed he was a possible successor to Khamenei and would keep his powder dry for the greater challenge.
Raeisi based his campaign on an egalitarian message, including higher subsidies for less well-off Iranians, but this was not enough to counter Rohani’s calls for improving the economy through foreign investment and a calmer relationship with the outside world. Reformists were galvanised to back Rohani partly because of Raeisi’s role in a wave of state-sanctioned prisoner executions in 1988.
With continuing support from conservatives like parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, Rohani is likely to make steady progress in economic reform and in attracting investment, even with hostility from the Trump administration in the United States. The 2015 nuclear agreement, the centre-piece of Rohani’s first term, seems set to stay, enabling Rohani to improve relations with Russia and the European Union and further isolate his domestic principlist critics, who talk of establishing a shadow government under former top security official Saeed Jalili.
Perhaps the most intriguing consequences of the 2017 presidential election lie in the contest to succeed Khamenei, over which speculation has been building since Iranian media publicised Khamenei’s prostate operation in 2014. With the leader turning 78 next month, his mortality will again be raised. Khamenei’s appointment of Raeisi to lead the Imam Reza foundation in 2016 was widely seen as a sign that Khamenei favoured him as successor ahead of Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi and Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief.
The choice, when it comes, will be made by the 88 clerics of the Experts Assembly, currently in an 8-year term that began after an election last year, although they will be influenced by various stakeholders including senior clerics and leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii, said Raeisi may have been weakened by the 2017 presidential election.
“His performance and the people he chose to run his campaign may have undermined his chances for the position of leader,” she said. “At the end of the campaign, I suppose to counter the support Rohani was getting from artists and entertainers, Raeisi met with Amir Tataloo, the tattoo-covered underground rap singer, who has even spent some time in prison.
“This was a sight to relish given that, in the past year, the city of Mashhad, under the tutelage of Raeisi’s father-in-law [Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Mashhad Friday prayer leader], has prevented music concerts. The meeting shocked conservatives and led Rohani to say, with a definite smirk on his face, that he was glad music was now OK — even if he himself preferred finer music!
Rohani’s win affects calculations over the succession. The constitution stipulates that in any interregnum after a leader’s demise his vast powers be exercised by a three-man council comprising the president, the judiciary chief and a member of the Experts Assembly chosen by the Expediency Council chairman, currently Khamenei’s ally Ayatollah Mohammad Movahedi-Kermani. Should the succession occur during Rohani’s second term, two of these three (Rohani and Larijani, himself a likely leadership contender) would not support Raeisi as leader.
This suggests Raeisi supporters could make a pre-emptive move within the Experts Assembly, Saeid Golkar, lecturer at Northwestern University and senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said: “Based on the numbers and because Rohani is president, I think the hardliners may try to select the successor of Ayatollah Khamenei before his death, to prevent, even in the short term, any transfer of power to a council.”
Khamenei remains crucial in shaping the succession and his legacy. The 2017 election has shown him as a neutral figure, an arbiter in disputes among Iran’s political class. While Khamenei has sometimes taken tough decisions — as in backing the crackdown on unrest after the disputed 2005 presidential election, prompting protesters to call him a dictator — he has enhanced the durability of the Islamic Republic through knowing when and how to adapt and make compromises.
This is where the 2017 election leaves lingering questions. Could Raeisi play the same role of leader-as-arbiter or has he lowered himself clumsily and inescapably into the day-to-day political fray? Might this make him a divisive choice as leader and prompt Khamenei and other stakeholders to look elsewhere?