Ebrahim Raisi: Iran’s proxy president

If Raisi manages to stay in Khamenei’s good graces, he could succeed him as the next supreme leader.

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Less than a decade ago, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s newly elected president, was unknown to most Iranians. His story is one of a stalwart cleric and bureaucrat who has gradually risen through the ranks of Iran’s unelected institutions, all the while building important relationships with the clerical establishment, the security and intelligence apparatus, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and, most importantly, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

Following an intense period of US sanctions, international pressure and confrontation, this election brings to power a Khamenei loyalist alongside a conservative consolidation of elected and unelected branches of government that together will enable the political establishment to prioritize domestic stability, economic development, and the looming issue of who will succeed Khamenei.

Raisi’s ascent to power

Throughout his ascent, Raisi has been tipped by many to be a potential successor to Khamenei as the next supreme leader. 

Raisi advanced through Iran’s judicial system as a prosecutor in the early 1980s, overseeing the deaths of thousands of political prisoners before becoming attorney general in 2014. He was also elected to the Assembly of Experts in 2009, a clerical body tasked with monitoring and selecting the supreme leader. In 2016, Raisi was appointed head of Astane Qods Razavi, Iran’s economic conglomerate that manages the investments of the Mashaad-based Imam Reza Shrine. As only the second person to hold this position since the 1979 revolution, his appointment signalled that he was trusted by Khamenei.  

Raisi became a household name in 2017 when he ran for president against Hassan Rouhani, garnering 15.8 million votes. Two years later, he was appointed head of Iran’s judiciary where he began a targeted anti-corruption campaign designed to cleanse the judiciary and the political establishment of graft. He also oversaw a brutal government crackdown following the November 2019 protests. 

Throughout his ascent, Raisi has been tipped by many – myself included – to be a potential successor to Khamenei as the next supreme leader. 

A flawed election

Three interconnected trends made Raisi’s entry into the 2021 presidential race a foregone conclusion: deep economic and political frustration over the mismanagement and impact of US sanctions; the COVID-19 pandemic; and disappointment with the Rouhani administration. These trends have fuelled political apathy, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in over four decades at only 48 per cent. In Tehran, the middle class-heavy capital, only 28 per cent came out to vote. 

Only a handful of presidential candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, the body tasked with vetting candidates, who also disqualified a number of regime insiders and notable reformists, thus engineering the election heavily in favour of Raisi. Growing calls for a boycott came not only from activists in the diaspora but also from reformists inside the country. Interestingly, blank or spoiled ballots received more votes than the three other candidates.  

This election was critical for the ageing supreme leader who is looking to cement his legacy and manage the system’s next generation transition. To do so, he needs a pliant president in the executive branch. Khamenei was himself president between 1981-89 but since becoming supreme leader in 1989, he has had trying relations with each of his successors. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was essential in Khamenei’s promotion to supreme leader, the reformist Muhammad Khatami and even the populist Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad, all had fraying ties with Khamenei. Each of them, as well as Rouhani, have butted heads over factional tensions, international relations and, ultimately, the lack of independent presidential authority.  

What to expect from a Raisi presidency

Raisi has yet to show any flicker of independence or provide detailed policy pronouncements. He is expected to be the first president under Khamenei’s rule whose views and statements have thus far mirrored those of the supreme leader.

Like Khamenei, Raisi has called for greater unity between government, parliament and judiciary, needed to align domestic policy and usher through consensus. On economic issues he is an anti-corruption populist who supports bolstering the supreme leader’s vision of self-sufficiency, or the resistance economy. 

In terms of regional relations, he sees Iran’s regional trade relationships as critical economic supply chains. He also believes that nations sharing the same religion, values and thoughts must have warm relations to expand regional consolidation. During a visit to Iraq he stated ‘there are no states closer to us than Iraq’. He has been a supporter of Iran’s regional forward defence policy seeing this strategy of proxy support as beneficial for the security of the state. 

While there is optimism that the JCPOA can be revived, it remains unclear if broader talks needed to unlock regional issues can be agreed upon.

He has also argued in favour of reviving the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) through the talks currently underway in Vienna. The successful revival of the deal would return Iran to nuclear compliance while the United States would remove a cascade of sanctions impeding Iranian trade, financial access and oil exports. The removal of sanctions would give the economy a much-needed boost, necessary to stem economic protests and challenges from within while the broader agreement would also reduce nuclear tensions with the US and Europe.

Despite this, it is important to note that Raisi, like Khamenei, is suspicious and sceptical of Western intentions vis-à-vis Iran and will be cautious about future Western engagement. In his candidate statement, he outlined that ‘relationships with the West nor the East must not be a priority for the future government, but a pragmatic move to preserve the national interest’. He supports the strengthening of ties with China as set out in the recent Iran-China 25-year cooperation agreement. Taken together, this foreshadows a continued pattern of anti-American resistance, economic nationalism and internal repression, punctuated by moments of pragmatism.

In the weeks and months ahead, more will become known about Raisi and his mandate as he makes speeches and cabinet appointments.

How the government seeks to address growing economic cleavages, rising poverty levels and deep governance and environmental challenges remains equally ambiguous, as does the issue of how to mobilize and engage the country’s disaffected youth.  

Above all, it is uncertain if Raisi – as Khamenei’s proxy president – will avoid the fate of his predecessors and manage to promote the supreme leader’s agenda while staying in his good graces. If he can, he could be the next supreme leader.