Little-known Raeisi could give Rohani a run for his money

Sunday 30/04/2017
In the spotlight. Ebrahim Raeisi gestures after registering his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections in Tehran, on April 14. (AFP)

London - An Iranpoll survey in April indicated that 46% of Iranian respondents said they have not heard of Ebrahim Raeisi, chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the powerful foundation managing the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad.

And yet his candidacy in Iran’s presidential election on May 19 could be the strongest challenge to the incumbent, Hassan Rohani.

Iran’s conservative principlists have been regrouping since Rohani was elected in 2013 and redoubled their efforts after the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, which many of them opposed.

Part of their task was finding a suitable challenger and part was finding a mechanism — given Iran’s lack of effective political parties — to agree on a single candidate.

A social media campaign backing Raeisi began after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ap­pointed him to head Astan Quds Razavi in March 2016 after the death of Ayatollah Abbas Vaez- Tabasi, an ally of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Raeisi’s appointment consoli­dated links between the leader’s office and the shrine, which has an annual financial turnover — with endowments, property and compa­nies — of many billions of dollars.

Many in Tehran assumed Raeisi’s appointment was a signal from Khamenei that he favoured him as a likely successor as supreme leader.

The previous month, Iranians had elected the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with choosing a new leader when the need arises.

Khamenei’s frailty — he will be 78 in July — and his widely publicised prostate surgery in 2014 reminded Iranians that the assembly might during its 8-year term lasting until 2024 be required to pick a succes­sor.

Hence, Raeisi surprised many people when he announced his candidacy for president. They as­sumed his focus was on the leader­ship, a post with far more powers than the presidency.

While being president might give Raeisi greater sway in any short interregnum before a new leader might be chosen, it would expose him to the everyday criticism he currently avoids over unemploy­ment, the price of chicken or how the morality police deal with bad hijab.

As for the presidential campaign, Raeisi will enjoy access to influen­tial clerical and security networks. What role Khamenei might play is unclear. While a factional operator and the country’s most powerful decision maker, Khamenei is also an arbiter keen to distance himself from the mundane political fray.

Without doubt, an election cam­paign will place Raeisi in a spotlight he is not used to. His main rivals are accomplished performers. Ro­hani prospered in 2013’s televised debates. Tehran’s mayor, former Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander and fellow principlist Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, have valuable experience from unsuc­cessful presidential campaigns in 2005 and 2013.

Raeisi, who holds the clerical rank of hojatoleslam, may moti­vate reformist voters who could be important for the centrist Rohani. Raeisi’s career has been largely in the judiciary, not a universally pop­ular group.

From 2014-16, he was prosecutor-general. In the 2015 anniversary ral­ly for the Islamic Revolution, Raeisi announced that the security forces had “identified and cracked down on a network of penetration in me­dia and cyberspace and detained spies and writers hired by Ameri­cans.”

In 2014, he accused the West of promoting homosexuality in the name of human rights and he has reportedly defended amputating the hands of thieves.

Since 2012, Raeisi has also been the prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy, a body answerable to the leader outside the usual judicial process that has indicted several reform-minded clerics.

From 2004-14, Raeisi was deputy head of the judiciary — first un­der Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and then under Sadegh Larijani, the two men considered to be his main rivals to succeed Khamenei.

The reformists’ distaste for Raeisi was highlighted in August 2016 when a son of the late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri released an audio tape shedding sharp light on his father’s opposition to the execu­tions in 1988 of 3,000-5,000 politi­cal prisoners ordered by then-lead­er Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

At the time, Montazeri was Khomeini’s designated successor but his opposition to the execu­tions led to his dismissal from sen­ior posts and to house arrest.

In 1988, Raeisi was deputy pros­ecutor in Tehran, a role he had held since 1984 or 1985. On his website, he said Khomeini in the Iranian year 1367 (1988-89) handed him “important cases.” The tape re­leased in 2016 apparently showed Montazeri in conversation with a committee of four, including Raei­si, that was handling the execu­tions.

Leading dissident journalist Ak­bar Ganji has written from exile that “by publicising the 1988 audio tape, Ahmad Montazeri [the son] tried to warn the Iranian people, political factions and the world at large that Iran’s hard-liners are trying to elevate a criminal to be Khamenei’s successor.”

These strong words reflect Gan­ji’s radical reformism and perhaps his own imprisonment from 2000- 06 but they raise an intriguing is­sue: Will becoming better known through the election campaign help or hinder Raeisi in his efforts to be president?