TEHERAN – After many Iranians skipped the vote in Friday’s presidential election because they saw them being manipulated in favor of an ultra-conservative candidate, that candidate – radical justice chief Ebrahim Raisi – won the Iranian presidency on Saturday, paving the way for the country’s leadership to way consolidate the conservative legacy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Raisi, 60, a clergyman preferred by Ayatollah Khamenei, is believed to be a possible successor to the Supreme Leader. With his election, the Ayatollah will finally have a president who will hardly challenge him, so that the urban middle class who has consistently supported social reforms and engagement with the outside world has no voice at the top.
Mr. Raisi has reported grave human rights violations, including allegations of mass execution of political opponents in 1988, and is currently under US sanctions.
However, its background does not seem to hamper renewed negotiations between the United States and Iran to restore a 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in exchange for lifting American economic sanctions. Mr Raisi said he will stay true to the deal and do everything in his power to lift the sanctions.
“As people trust me, there is a great responsibility on my shoulders and I will do my best, with the help of God and the Prophet and his descendants,” Raisi said at a press conference on Saturday. “I hope that I can carry the heavy burden on my shoulders.”
The Interior Ministry announced on Saturday that Raisi won the previous day’s vote with almost 18 million of 28.9 million votes cast. The turnout was 48.8 percent – a sharp drop from the last presidential election in 2017, when the country’s moderate and liberal voters allowed the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist pragmatist whose government signed the first nuclear deal with the United States States negotiated states.
Many of those voters put the election on hold, saying the campaign was designed to get Mr. Raisi into office or that the election would make no difference whether the winner was moderate or conservative. He was expected to win easily, despite late attempts by the more moderate reformist camp to cement support behind their lead candidate – Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor.
The breakup of the reformist camp and the disgust for Mr Rouhani, who could only watch as President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reinstated the sanctions, ultimately led to a poor performance by the moderates.
The Interior Ministry announced that Hemmati finished third with around 2.4 million votes, after second-placed Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander in chief of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who received around 3.4 million votes.
There were also about 3.7 million “white” ballots or ballot papers with no candidate’s name. Some Iranians said they cast white ballots to exercise their right to vote while protesting the lack of candidates to express their views.
“This is the first government to be fully committed to Ayatollah Khamenei,” said Ali Vaez, Iranian director of the International Crisis Group. “Khamenei has created a situation that takes advantage of the feeling of indifference and helplessness within society to initiate changes that he believes are essential to his legacy.”
These changes can even include profound changes in the structure of the Islamic Republic, such as moving from the election of a president to the appointment of a prime minister.
The close identification of Mr. Raisi with the supreme leader and thus also with the Islamic Revolution, which brought the spiritual leaders of Iran to power in 1979, is part of his appeal to his supporters. Election posters showed the face of Mr Raisi next to the face of Mr Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as Major General Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in an American air strike last year caused a wave of grief and anger to Iranians.
Raisi’s supporters also cited his rÃ©sumÃ© as a staunch conservative, his promises to fight the corruption that blames many Iranians for the country’s deep economic plight as well as the American sanctions, and their commitment to redressing inequality among Iranians.
Hundreds of Raisi voters gathered on Imam Hussain Square in a working-class district in eastern Tehran on Saturday evening to celebrate the victory. They waved Iranian flags while a singer and boys’ choir sang patriotic hymns in front of the crowd. Fireworks broke from the roof of a small rotunda that houses the tombstones of several Iranian martyrs; Women cheered to celebrate.
“Rouhani goes, hurray, hurray,” sang a passing motorcyclist, referring to the outgoing president.
Participants in the rally said they were satisfied with Mr. Raisi’s victory.
But overall voter turnout was low despite admonitions from the Supreme Leader to participate and an election campaign that appealed to Iranian patriotism and played out their fears: A banner showed a picture of General Suleimani’s bloodstained severed hand still wearing his deep red trademark ring, and urges the Iranians to vote “for his sake”. Another showed a bombed-out street in Syria, warning that if voters stay home, Iran is in danger of turning into this war-ravaged country.
Elections were presented less as a civic duty than as a proof of belief in the Islamic Revolution, also because the government has long relied on a high turnout to underpin its legitimacy.
Although Iran has never been a democracy in the Western sense, in the past it has allowed candidates from various factions and political positions to run for office in a government whose direction and main policy were determined by the unelected clerical leadership. During the election season, the country was full of lively candidate forums, political debates and competing rallies.
But since protests erupted in 2009 over allegations of manipulation of the presidential election that year, the authorities have gradually sifted out the limits of freedom of choice, leaving almost no elections this year.
Many prominent candidates were disqualified last month by the Iranian Guardian Council, which is reviewing all candidates, making Raisi the clear favorite and discouraging relative moderates and liberals who had and now have no one to unite behind.
Analysts said the supreme leader’s support for Mr Raisi could give him more power to drive change than the outgoing president, Mr Rouhani. Mr Rouhani eventually angered the supreme leader and disappointed voters who had hoped he could open the Iranian economy to the world by signing a permanent deal with the West.
The prospects for a renewed nuclear deal could improve after the elections. Mr Khamenei, who directs the nuclear negotiations and has the final say on all major state affairs, appeared to stall the ongoing talks in the run-up to the elections. But American diplomats and Iranian analysts said there could be movement in the weeks between Mr Rouhani’s departure and Raisi’s rise.
However, Mr Raisi’s conservative views may make it difficult for the United States to conclude additional agreements with Iran and forcing concessions on critical issues such as the country’s missile program, support for proxy militias in the Middle East and human rights.
The conservative Iranians who have chosen Raisi, many of whom view the West with suspicion, are not necessarily opposed to a new deal, given how much Iran would benefit from ending the sanctions. However, some said in interviews that they will only support negotiations if the United States shows it will honor its commitments – unlike last time.
If the negotiations go well, Masoud Mohamadi, 52, an electrical engineer with relatives in the United States, hopes he can use his American contacts for business.
âBut my pride will not allow me to do this for my own benefit,â he said at Mr Raisi’s victory rally on Saturday. âAmerica once demonstrated that it is unreliable and untrustworthy. If you lift all sanctions first, we will go back to compliance. “
Farnaz Fassihi contributed the coverage from New York.