Ebrahim Raisi at a presidential election rally in Tehran in 2017
Ebrahim Raisi’s new focus on economic and foreign policies has been taken as a signal that he has his sights on becoming Iran’s next president or supreme leader, or both © Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

During his two years as judiciary chief in Iran, Ebrahim Raisi has fought hard to bring the corrupt children of the moneyed Iranian elite to justice, a battle that has made him popular with a population weary of graft.

But in comments this month, he focused less on judicial reform and more on economic and foreign policies — a clear signal some say that he has his sights set on becoming president or supreme leader or even both.

Talks with global powers to lift US sanctions on the Islamic republic are pointless, according to Raisi, 60. “Some [ politicians] hold sessions to see what they can get from westerners. If they had held sessions [at home] on how to boost production and remove obstacles, many problems would have been resolved by now,” he said.

His comments come ahead of a crucial presidential election on June 18. With centrist president Hassan Rouhani set to step down after two terms, hardliners are expected to capitalise on the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal and romp to victory.

Talks with western powers on the resumption of the deal are taking place in Vienna now. The US abandoned the deal, under which Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear activities in exchange for the removal of US sanctions, in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions. President Joe Biden is willing to return to the deal provided Iran also goes back to full compliance. But reformists allege hardliners will try to block talks to boost their chances in the poll.

“Iran is a revolutionary country. Reformists cannot say we failed once but please give us another chance to hold talks with the US,” said a hardliner. “When you fail in the talks . . . then you will lose the presidential election, too.”

Raisi, centre, with other leading officials waiting to greet Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, at a memorial ceremony last year
Raisi, centre, with other leading officials waiting to greet Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, at a memorial ceremony last year © Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Hardline vetting institutions are unlikely to give reformists such as foreign minister and nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif the green light to run. In audio leaked in recent days the minister said diplomatic efforts had been damaged by the interventions of military men.

Raisi is however expected to be approved, not least because hardliners think he has broad appeal. Raisi, who has spent most of his career in the judiciary and was once custodian of an important shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, “must run” to help “create consensus” among hardline political groups and establish “a strong and incorruptible” government to break “the dead end” in the country, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a senior hardline member of parliament, told Fars news agency last week. Other potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Speaker of parliament, and Ali Larijani, former Speaker of parliament.

But “no figure other than Mr Raisi can establish such a government”, said Farahani. “He has put the judiciary on the right track, which can be pursued by his successor. Managing the government is far more significant now.” The majority of members of the hardline-dominated parliament, in a letter on Sunday, called on Raisi to run for president.

This is a far cry from 2017, when Raisi lost to Rouhani in a contest dominated by mudslinging. Once lambasted for his alleged involvement in mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, Raisi has recast himself as a populist, talking to ordinary people about their court cases and travelling to deprived provinces even during the pandemic.

Thanks to his reforms, the number of new jail sentences has declined by 11 per cent and clemencies have almost doubled during the past Iranian year, which ended in March, compared with the previous year, according to the judiciary. While Iran is second only to China in the number of executions it carries out, according to Amnesty International, public hangings have become rare. During the coronavirus pandemic, Raisi granted leave to 100,000 prisoners.

In a 69-page “judicial development document” published late last year, Raisi said the two top priorities of the Islamic republic should be fighting corruption and increasing efficiency of the system. The document stresses the importance of technology and a democratic easing, suggesting people should have the freedom to organise peaceful rallies, there should be more media freedom and political trials should be held openly.

The risk for Raisi of a presidential run, a hardliner said, was that if he swept to power with a low number of votes then this might damage his chances of becoming supreme leader should Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 82, die during the next president’s term. Others say Raisi’s close relationship with the elite Revolutionary Guards means he is in a strong position.

The Experts Assembly, comprised of senior clergy, will decide who becomes the next supreme leader. The guards have no direct role in the process but analysts say they will influence the choice and be key to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power.

With many middle-class reformist voters considering boycotting the ballot and the supreme leader keen for a high turnout, hardliners have placed a lot of importance on poorer voters — and the price of basic goods.

“Iran’s rightists [hardliners] are some of the world’s most materialistic groups in the world. They are constantly talking about meat, chicken and eggs,” said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst of Iran’s political economy. “Those days are gone when the Islamic republic was talking about preserving its ideological values.”

In this context, Raisi appeals to a broad swath of the Iranian population. “I may vote for Raisi. My husband says Raisi might benefit us more. He keeps travelling to poor provinces to resolve their problems,” said Khadijeh, a 35-year-old cleaner.

“I have no intention to vote but if Raisi runs, then I can reconsider my decision,” says a worker at a fruit and vegetable shop. “It seems Raisi is better than other politicians and has fought with corruption.” 

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