A frontrunner with a dark past

All the potential obstacles to Ebrahim Raisi’s bid for the presidency appear to have been overcome. Although he has no track record in government, he does have ample experience with suppressing political opposition.

Image: Rezaee

Omid Rezaee



Clothes make the man, even in the Islamic Republic. Viewed from that angle, Ebrahim Raisi, the most promising candidate vying for the Iranian presidency, has altered his style several times. With a political message in each case, of course.

The garment worn under the robe that denotes him as a Shiite cleric is crucially important in this context. The classic version, known as a qaba, is loose cut and skims the body. It is favored by more traditional religious figures, such as former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini or his successor Ali Khamenei. The competing style, labbade, is tighter fitting and made of thicker fabric, with a high-necked collar. Mohammad Khatami, the Reformist former president, is associated with this style, generally preferred by more modern representatives of the clerical class.

Raisi initially forged his career sporting the more traditional variant. Photos from the 1980s show him in a qaba. During the 2017 election campaign, when he first ran for president, Raisi suddenly appeared in a labbade. He may have speculated that this would attract more votes in the election, although ultimately it did not pay off. Having been appointed as chief justice in 2019, he once again began wearing the qaba.

It would not be the last switch. During the current campaign for the upcoming presidential elections, Raisi has repeatedly alternated between the qaba and labbade for his public appearances.


Election Campaigning without Opponents

All the potential obstacles to Ebrahim Raisi’s bid for the presidency appear to have been overcome. All the candidates that might have posed even the slightest challenge to him were not permitted to run in the election. The Guardian Council, which is close to Khamenei, was responsible for this extensive debarring of presidential aspirants. It appears that not only Khamenei but also all the most powerful state institutions are rooting for Raisi.

The security authorities are also backing Raisi, literally with all their might: on May 19th, just four days after his candidacy was announced, the Attorney General’s office, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence service, apparently issued a warning instructing several media professionals not to criticize Raisi publicly. In addition, a dozen journalists were summoned and ordered to delete tweets critical of Raisi.

Even those conservative candidates that have been authorized to stand do not constitute a serious challenge to Raisi. Since he is considered the favorite of the country’s supreme leader, it is fair to assume that most voters in the hardliner camp prefer him to the other candidates.


Blood-stained Past

Now that he is again in the national spotlight, Raisi’s past is catching up with him. Until 2016, when he was appointed as chairman of the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi bonyad (charitable trust), one of the most important religious-commercial forces in the Iranian economy, Raisi was known primarily for his leading role in the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. During the 2017 campaign, Rouhani said “The people do not accept those who know only executions and arrests.” Though he did not explicitly name Raisi, it was clear he was referring to his principal challenger.

Although he lost the election in 2017, Raisi nonetheless achieved a respectable outcome with 38 percent of the vote. More than 15.8 million Iranians cast their ballots for him – the highest level of votes ever recorded by a candidate who lost the presidential election. Raisi enjoyed the support of the country’s largest conservative parties, which are now backing him once again.


Fighting Corruption as a Campaign Slogan

In the current election campaign, Raisi is adopting a much more proactive stance than four years ago. This involves head-on attacks and criticisms of Rouhani and his government. Raisi has pledged to correct the current incumbent’s mistakes.

Significantly, the current chief justice is using the fight against corruption to win votes. He underlines that legal measures can be deployed against corruption, as he has done in recent years. However, he also notes that the executive branch could, on the other hand, prevent corruption at the source. Raisi emphasizes that his fight against corruption is boundless and there are red lines that no one can cross. This suggests that he also intends to take action against members of the political elite – a blatant threat to Rouhani and other political competitors.

Fostering transparency is Raisi’s second major campaign topic, with a particular focus on the economy. He seeks to reveal the circumstances that the Iranian population face, as he did vis-à-vis the judiciary and Astan-e-Qods-e Razavi, to cite one of Raisi’s preferred campaign slogans.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Raisi has been traveling around the country for weeks, meeting regularly with entrepreneurs and promoting his program of “support for production”. Raisi never misses an opportunity to lambast the Rouhani government for doing too little for the economy and for Iranian manufacturing. Raisi highlights poverty and unemployment as the key problems facing Iranians, making grandiose promises to create four million jobs during his four-year term in office. “I have come to eliminate absolute poverty,” Raisi has stated.


Resounding Silence on Freedom and Culture

Raisi rarely addresses issues such as democracy or freedom of the press, which presumably would have been on the reformists’ campaign slate had they been allowed to run. In this respect, Raisi merely notes that his government will be open to criticism – in contrast, he maintains, to Rouhani’s government. To back up his claims he cites the many charges of Rouhani’s government against their critics.

However, such pledges are hardly credible given his background as attorney general, deputy chief justice, and now chief justice. Raisi’s tenure as chief justice (2019-2021) has on the contrary been accompanied by significantly heightened state repression. This includes greater use of solitary confinement, rising numbers of confessions extracted under torture, and refusal of access to medical treatment for political prisoners. In addition, in July 2020, for the first time in two decades, a man was executed for consuming alcohol. Furthermore, Iran ranks second globally in terms of the absolute number of executions reported, just behind China, and it carried out more than half of all executions in the Middle East and North Africa in 2020. The unprecedentedly brutal repression of the mass nationwide protests in November 2019 also took place on Raisi’s watch as chief justice. In addition to the hundreds – if not thousands – of deaths, thousands of protesters remain in custody.

It is not only when dealing with dissidents that Raisi leaves a trail of blood in his wake. The positions that he adopts on other issues are similarly reactionary, even by the standards of the Islamic Republic. Raisi, for example, is more than a strict advocate of gender segregation in the public realm. In the 2017 election campaign, he also called for further Islamization of academia and universities and urged Iran to resist Western culture. In 2016, when a judge in Yazd, a city in central Iran, ruled that a man found guilty of theft should have his hand amputated, Raisi vigorously supported the sentence. “We are proud to be able to introduce Sharia law,” he proclaimed at the time.

In his election campaign, however, Raisi rarely addresses these issues. Instead, he focuses on the population’s economic plight.

While Raisi plays down these potentially controversial aspects of his agenda, the background of his entourage speaks volumes. The head of cultural policy in his campaign team, for example, is a film producer who previously produced a TV series for the Revolutionary Guards that denigrated Rouhani’s government as naïve and bitterly criticized the nuclear deal.

Although Raisi has not yet expressed a clear stance on the nuclear agreement, the company he keeps gives an indication of his views. Raisi does emphasize that he wants to pursue a foreign policy that seeks good relations with every country that “is not hostile to us.” However, he is supported by hardline political parties and organizations that are extremely skeptical of the West and that consider hostility toward the United States in particular an essential part of the Islamic Republic’s identity and ideology.


Ahmadinejad’s Shadow

In addition, Raisi’s circles include numerous members of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. The controversial former president, who held office from 2005 to 2013, made headlines with his aggressive foreign policy toward the West and Israel, as well as with his mismanagement of domestic affairs. Even though many of these figures have since distanced themselves from Ahmadinejad, they remind numerous Iranians of his presidency. The younger generation in particular considers the Ahmadinejad era the diametric opposite of what they want for Iran. There are few things that Iran’s middle class detests more than Ahmadinejad’s anti-Western attitudes and chaotic policies, his deliberately unfashionable appearance, his hypocrisy, and the way in which he flaunted his superstitions.

All in all, these factors make it extremely unlikely that Iran’s middle class – apparently disappointed by President Rouhani, moderates, and reformists alike – will view Raisi and his policies as their salvation. Raisi’s votes are therefore likely to come primarily from loyal supporters of the regime. As a general rule, these voters support the candidate that is assumed to enjoy the support of the Supreme Leader, even though the latter is officially neutral. As in 2017, it seems probable that Raisi will be able to perform especially well in religiously conservative provinces like Qom and Khorasan.


The End of the Power Duo

If Raisi does win the upcoming elections, which seems likely at this point, the technocrats and pragmatists who have led the country for the past eight years are likely to withdraw from politics.

At present, Raisi and his circle appear to have no ideas at all on how to free the country from the blight of the pandemic and from economic hardship. Although the 61-year-old makes grand promises in his campaign program, he does not explain how he intends to realize them. That means (at least) four years of chaos in domestic and economic policy can be expected, coupled with an (even) more aggressive foreign policy.

The balance of power within the Islamic Republic would also change. A Raisi presidency is likely to take the wind out of the sails of moderates and reformists for the time being. The conservatives, on the other hand, who already have a large majority in parliament, would end up controlling all key positions of power. That would put an end to the previous “power duo” of the government and non-elected centers of power.

However, this kind of sea change would also mean that the conservative hardliners would bear full responsibility for the situation in the country. There would be no longer be a “too moderate” government to scapegoat for the country’s ills. The last time that scenario played out in Iran, the country was rocked by mass protests that shook the entire system; they were directed against allegations of electoral fraud during the presidential elections in 2009.

Tellingly, Raisi has no track record in government, not even at the provincial level. Instead, the hallmark of his political interventions has been repression of any form of political dissent.

Today, in an era of frequent mass protests, when the Islamic Republic has reached a temporary nadir in terms of popularity and legitimacy, it seems Khamenei and the hardliners want to maneuver someone with no scruples about crushing protests into the presidency.

Meanwhile, one question remains. Will the majority of those Iranians who actually go to the polls on June 18th be persuaded by Raisi’s fashion experiments, his flipping between the modern labbade and old-school qaba, and vote for him as president? That would be enormously significant in the light of the ambitious goal pursued by Raisi and his supporters: for him to become the supreme leader’s successor – in a qaba, of course.



Omid Rezaee is a freelance journalist. He lives and works in Hamburg, where he studied Digital Journalism at Hamburg Media School.

On Twitter: @Omid6887



About the blog

Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.


David Jalilvand is an Analyst, running the Berlin-based research consultancy  Orient Matters

Achim Vogt heads the FES project Peace and Security in the MENA-Region.




Achim Vogt

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