New President Ibrahim Raisi is set to take the reins as Iran faces numerous challenges



Iran’s new ultra-conservative President Ibrahim Raisi will take power on Thursday. The country is facing an economy battered by US sanctions, a severe health crisis, and delicate negotiations over the 2015 nuclear deal.

Raisi, 60, will work for him on several fronts. Iran is grappling with a deep economic and social crisis after former US President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and reinstate devastating sanctions.

U.S. sanctions choked Iran and its vital oil exports, and the economy contracted more than six percent in 2018 and 2019.

Raisi’s government will try to lift “oppressive” sanctions, but “will not tie the nation’s standard of living to the will of foreigners,” said the new president in his inaugural address on Tuesday.

Iran is also battling the deadliest outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Middle East, with more than four million cases and more than 92,000 deaths.

Environmental issues also pose a challenge as protesters took to the streets in the country’s oil-rich Khuzestan province last month to protest water issues.

But one of its most important tests will be to regain the confidence of the Iranian people. Raisi said Tuesday that the erosion of people’s trust “has caused most of the problems”.

The isolation and economic pain of Iran as well as the bloody suppression of two waves of protests in the winter of 2017-2018 and in November 2019 have left their mark.

Iranians were also dismayed at the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane by the Iranian military in January 2020 amid high tensions with the United States.

In the June elections, voter turnout in a presidential election was record-breaking low at just 48.8 percent.

Key positions of power

Raisi is a close ally of the supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose trust he has earned over the years by filling important positions of power.

Although he wears a turban, Raisa is not an Ayatollah but a Hujjat al-Islam, a lower rank of the Shiite clergy. He is also a Sayyid – a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed in Shiite Islam. This entitles him to wear the black turban, a popular decoration of devout voters.

Like the supreme leader, Raisi is from the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. It was no accident that Khamenei appointed him head of the powerful Astan Quds Razavi religious foundation in 2016. The foundation manages the shrine of Imam Reza – the eighth successor to the Prophet after the Duodecimal Shiites – and is located in the same city of Mashhad.

This major Shiite pilgrimage site attracts billions in donations, money controlled by the Astan Quds Razavi organization. The foundation, which functions as both a charity and a holding company, owns a variety of real estate, farmland, and businesses in fields as diverse as construction, tourism, agriculture, and food. Running this foundation means running an economic empire. Raisi did this for three years before being called by Khamenei to take on another role.

In March 2019, he was appointed head of the Iranian judicial authority. This was another influential appointment for Raisi, who was entrusted by Khamenei with the task of aggressively combating “corruption”.

Khamenei’s loyal soldier, Raisi, has multiplied the number of publicly known corruption cases since he took office. He has targeted state dignitaries and, in a new development, judges.

These trials have enabled him to oust some major political opponents, such as his predecessor at the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, whose close adviser was implicated in one of these corruption scandals. Larijani is also the brother of Ali Larijani, whose own candidacy for the presidential election was probably banned by the Guardian Council due to this family affair.

Raisi made the fight against corruption one of his central election slogans, presented himself as an “opponent of corruption, inefficiency and aristocracy” and promised to fight tirelessly against poverty if he was elected.

On the issue of moral liberation, Raisi has the support of the hardliners. His father-in-law is none other than Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the representative of the Supreme Leader in the northeastern province of Khorasan.

The cleric, known for his thrift, distinguished himself in 2016 by banning Iranian music concerts in the city of Mashhad, which is subject to his religious authority. They had boomed after being approved in other major cities in a modernized Iran, but Alamolhoda was determined not to let them take place in his city.

“We should know that we live in the city where Imam Reza is buried. It is not possible to give Imam Reza concerts in the city and we should not argue about it with people and some narrow-minded officials. If you want a concert, go live somewhere else, ”he said.

The name Raisi, which evokes the darkest hours of the Islamic Republic, is a cause of much concern among human rights organizations, and particularly in the Iranian diaspora.

The ultra-conservative, who headed the judiciary for more than two decades, including as deputy prosecutor at the Tehran Revolutionary Court in the late 1980s, took part in a number of political trials as a judge in 1988. By the end of these hundreds of detained opponents had been executed. This is a legal past that Raisa’s critics still accuse him of today, but which gives him even more legitimacy in the eyes of the powerful conservative people of Iran.

Potential successor to the supreme leader

Raisa is even seen as a likely successor to the supreme leader. He was recently elected Vice President of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for proposing a new Supreme Leader in the event of Khamenei’s death.

It is worth remembering that Khamenei was himself president of Iran when he was appointed supreme leader after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Given Khamenei’s age – he is 82 – and questions about his health, there are very specific suggestions that Raisi could actually become his successor. The presidency could be Raisi’s stepping stone to the position of supreme leader.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)



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