The Supreme Leader’s Apprentice Is Running for President

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has everything going for him in his re-election bid – except the backing of the country’s most powerful person.

Iranian presidential hopeful Ebrahim Raisi speaks at Houri mosque in southern Tehran, Iran, Monday, April 10, 2017. Raisi, a hard-line cleric and close ally of Iran's supreme leader, has announced he will run in the May presidential election. Iranian hardliners had hope Raisi would challenge incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is eligible to run for a second term. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian presidential hopeful Ebrahim Raisi speaks at Houri mosque in southern Tehran, Iran, Monday, April 10, 2017. Raisi, a hard-line cleric and close ally of Iran's supreme leader, has announced he will run in the May presidential election. Iranian hardliners had hope Raisi would challenge incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is eligible to run for a second term. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election is in doubt thanks to an unassuming cleric who only recently entered the public spotlight. On April 9, Ebrahim Raisi, a longtime behind-the-scenes operative of the Islamic Republic closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared his candidacy in Iran’s May 19 presidential election.

Though he is the most likely consensus candidate of Iran’s array of “principlists,” the umbrella term for the country’s roughly dozen smaller hard-line political parties, he is neither charismatic nor widely recognized by the Iranian public, and unless there is mass vote-rigging, his chances of unseating Rouhani are next to nothing. But Rouhani’s camp has reason to fear that Khamenei’s inner circle will resort to just such tactics. That would set the stage for a potentially explosive showdown over the future of the country.

Raisi’s rise in the ranks of the regime is purely the product of nepotism by the Islamic Republic’s clerical and security establishments. Despite a nearly four-decade record as a government official, Raisi is not known for any instances of administrative inventiveness or political distinction. His personal background, including his place of birth and the family he married into, served as his indispensable launching pad. His knack, demonstrated over decades, for steadfastly following his superiors’ most controversial orders propelled his rise.

For months, Raisi’s name has been mentioned as the likely next supreme leader. His sudden jump into the presidential fray only makes sense as part of a broader campaign by the hard-line anti-Rouhani camp in the Iranian political establishment to engineer a Raisi win in May and place him on the path for supreme leadership when Khamenei dies. But it is hardly a risk-free strategy. Raisi’s first major crisis could be the domestic upheaval produced by his own election.

Khamenei’s doppelgänger

Though shorter and more austere-looking, Raisi bears a physical resemblance to the 77-year-old Khamenei. Their relationship, however, goes far deeper than that.

Raisi was born in 1960 in a village near the Iranian holy Shiite city of Mashhad, where Khamenei himself comes from. Before the supreme leader’s rise, there were relatively few Mashhadis at the top of the echelons of power in Tehran. Mashhad was notably not a major player in the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamists of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

After Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989, he set out to bring his hometown of Mashhad into the regime’s fold. This was not only about favoritism but a concerted attempt by Khamenei to create a loyal and close-knit base in Mashhad to which he could turn for support. Raisi, who was in his early 30s during the first years of Khamenei’s rule, duly got on the older cleric’s bandwagon.

But Raisi wasn’t just a Khamenei hanger-on; his rise through the ranks of the regime had begun a decade earlier. At the time that the Shah of Iran was toppled, Raisi was a seminarian in Qom, the country’s top religious educational city. Raisi was only 18. Raisi claims to have been one of 70 young seminarians from Qom chosen by senior figures in the new regime for a crash course in statecraft and management as the new post-shah Islamist system attempted to govern. (One of the clerics who gave classes to the hand-picked rising regime operatives was Ali Khamenei, making it the first time Raisi crossed paths with his future patron.)

At the age of 19, Raisi became a clerk at a local court in the city of Karaj, near Tehran. Many Iranian sources identify him as an interrogator and de facto judge who engaged in identifying and handing down sentences to political prisoners. At the age of 20, he became the chief prosecutor at the court in Karaj. At this stage, his personal life becomes intertwined with his political ascent.

Raisi married the daughter of Ayatollah Alam al-Hoda, another prominent regime figure from Mashhad. Hoda, a die-hard reactionary, was throughout the 1980s to the political right of Khamenei, the future supreme leader. When Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989 and set out to forge his own political base, however, the two figures became close allies. This relationship between Khamenei and Hoda, Raisi’s father-in-law, has been very helpful to Raisi’s career.

Over the years, Raisi has held various other posts — but almost all were tied to Iran’s judiciary branch, where he began his career. He has since 2013 served as the lead prosecutor for the Special Court of the Clergy, the office that punishes dissenting voices among Iran’s religious class.

In 2006, thanks to his loyalty, the path was opened for Raisi to become a member of the 86-man Assembly of Experts, a body of supposedly learned clerical minds and membership in which is a minimum requirement for any future supreme leader. Raisi’s relative youth — then only 46 — and feeble theological credentials proved to be of no obstacle in his climb to the top.

His exact religious qualification is a sore point. For a while on his personal website, he would refer to himself as “ayatollah.” When Iranian media investigated and publicized his lack of formal religious education and ran stories casting doubt on his claimed credentials, Raisi balked. Today, he no longer claims to hold that rank and instead refers to himself as hojat-ol-eslam, a clerical rank lower than ayatollah in status and privilege.

An unsavory enforcer

The gaps in Raisi’s résumé, however, matter far less than the fact that he clearly continues to enjoy Khamenei’s confidence. In March 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi the custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, also referred to as the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine.

This is Iran’s most important shrine, which is visited by millions of pilgrims each year, making it an important source of financial revenue. Not only does Raisi now oversee one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites, but with it comes a huge endowment. The Imam Reza charitable organization is worth unknown billions of dollars in assets and is a major economic player in Mashhad.

As custodian of the Imam Reza shrine, Raisi replaced Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi, a very close personal friend of Khamenei who died at the age of 80 after heading the shrine since the revolution. Raisi’s appointment as custodian sparked the first speculation in Iran about whether Khamenei was signaling that the mid-ranking cleric was his preferred choice to serve as his replacement after he dies.

What followed next seemed to confirm as much. There was a noticeable uptick in Raisi’s public and media appearances. The government seemed at pains to introduce him to the broader Iranian population, though his stern and scripted performances did little to earn any public affection.

In an event that was highly publicized by regime media, the top brass of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also went to Mashhad to pay Raisi an official visit. The IRGC is widely believed to be among the principal voices, if not the kingmaker, on the question of choosing the next supreme leader — the image of the top IRGC generals sitting at Raisi’s feet in Mashhad elevated his political profile even further.

But Raisi’s loyalty to the regime is a double-edged sword. In August 2016, new revelations cast his devotion to the Islamic Republic in a new light — and reminded Iranians of his role in a regime crackdown many would rather forget. A son of former Deputy Supreme Leader Hossein-Ali Montazeri — who subsequently fell out of favor with Khomeini and was removed as his deputy in 1989 — released an audio file of a conversation that his father had with four judicial officials in 1988. In the conversations, Montazeri chastised them for the mass executions of political prisoners that happened that year. “History will judge you as killers,” Montazeri said.

One of those judicial officials, a young Ebrahim Raisi, was thus placed as a key player at the heart of one of the bloodiest actions taken by the Islamist regime. This association counts against Raisi both as a presidential candidate and surely also a would-be future supreme leader.

Why the risk?

It was in this context that Raisi declared his candidacy for the presidency on April 9. On paper, Rouhani or any other moderate candidate should be able to crush Raisi at the ballot box. While Rouhani has hardly made good on every pledge he made when he ran for office in 2013, Iranian voters have a proven track record of opting for the most moderate of candidates available if given an opportunity. Raisi’s lack of political experience and reputation as a regime enforcer will further dampen any public enthusiasm for him as a president or future supreme leader.

Raisi’s only sources of hope are his impeccable hard-line credentials and the trust he enjoys from Khamenei himself, which could appeal to the deeply fragmented hard-line camp. For Khamenei and his advisors, the question is whether Raisi can safely be parachuted into the presidential palace without inciting the sort of popular outrage and protest that accompanied Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Khamenei’s circle has presumably made the assessment that they can do so. Why else would they promote Raisi for an opportunity he is otherwise overwhelmingly likely to lose? A candidate Raisi who loses in the May elections would be far less likely to later take over as supreme leader. The perception of popular legitimacy matters, even for the Islamic Republic’s undemocratic offices.

The deep concern in the inner circle of President Rouhani must be that an amalgamation of officials from the Office of the Supreme Leader, the top brass of the IRGC, and other hard-line elements in the security and intelligence services are hellbent on parachuting Raisi into the presidency. Once he has served as president, Raisi’s chances to take over from the 77-year-old Khamenei will markedly increase.

However, even if this is the blueprint that Khamenei is operating from, it is hardly a risk-free endeavor. While Khamenei and his allies might be preparing to propel Raisi forward, they cannot predict nor control the counter-reaction that will surely come from the Rouhani camp and the wider public.

The stakes are high — and Rouhani shows no signs of backing down. The ground is fertile for an epic intra-regime fight in Tehran.

Photo credit: VAHID SALEMI/AP

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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