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Ebrahim Raisi is just not who you suppose he’s

The Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will take part in an election meeting with teachers and athletes in Tehran on June 15. Meghdad Madadi ATPImages / Getty Images

In Iran, the last steps have been taken for a momentous seizure of power with potentially far-reaching consequences for the country and its relations with the rest of the world. As expected, the head of justice Ebrahim Raisi emerged victorious from the presidential election at the weekend and is therefore entitled to a four-year term of office. But he will also be widely recognized as the presumed successor to Ali Khamenei as the next supreme leader of the Islamic Republic – a position he may hold for life.

But when it is suddenly important to understand Raisi's worldview, it is not easy to get access to it either. Internationally, Raisi is widely referred to as a "hardliner," but that's a label that obscures as much as it reveals. Reducing Raisi to a zealot means missing out on the most important component of his political personality: his cunning opportunism. This is the quality that best explains his advancement – and best predicts his future leadership style.

Significantly, Raisi emerged as the overwhelming front runner in the presidential election, not because he rounded the public with a compelling vision, but in large part because the field was effectively cleared for him by close political allies. At the end of May, the twelve-member Guardian Council – Iran's election guard, many of whom are associated with Raisi – banned prominent moderate and reform-minded personalities from participating in the race. Some still held on to the hope that Khamenei would eventually step in, as he had done in 2005, to reinstate some of the disqualified candidates. Khamenei eventually called on the Guardian Council to make “redress” for his “unjust” behavior, but without calling for the reinstatement of any particular candidate; the Guardian Council's response to this appeal was a platitude with no real substance.

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a picture of him with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an election rally in Tehran on June 14. ATTA KENARE / AFP via Getty Images

The Purge of the Guardian Council was a great boon to Raisi's election offer in two ways. First, and most obviously, it freed the race from its fiercest rivals. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the disqualifications dampened public enthusiasm and demoralized those segments of the electorate whose participation has traditionally been critical to moderate or reformist candidates. This made it much more difficult for Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the only centrist and moderate candidates who were not filtered out of the election campaign, to mobilize the population and collect their votes on election day. Mehralizadeh would be eliminated from the race just two days before the vote.

None of this is meant to deny Raisi's very real and formidable support base. Not long after the defeat in the 2017 presidential election by then-incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi was appointed head of justice by Khamenei. Raisi also gained considerable popularity during his 2016-2019 tutelage of Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran's richest religious foundations that has thousands of employees as well as its own institutions, land holdings, and businesses across the country.

In the last few years of his tenure as chief of justice, Raisi built his political profile by launching a series of major judicial reforms that spanned penalties for crimes ranging from inability to pay a dowry to drug trafficking to issuing blind checks, converted. Such punishments enabled large numbers of convicts to evade imprisonment and even the death penalty – and increased Raisi's own popularity. His name and face have been featured regularly in public debates and national media, making him an easily recognizable figure across the country. This level of notoriety – not a reputation as a hardliner – put him at the top of the polls before the official campaign even began.

Iran's Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi speaks to the press after registering his candidacy for Iran’s presidential election on May 15 at the Interior Ministry in Tehran. Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The presidential campaign only hints at how Raisi is likely to rule as Iranian president.

Understandably, much of the commentary on Raisi focuses primarily on his reputation as a member of the aptly named "Death Committee," which oversaw the secret execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, named by eminent historian Ervand Abrahamian as " an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history – unprecedented in form, content and intensity. ”Thanks to an audio recording that went viral for the first time in August 2016, many Iranians today associate Raisi with this dark chapter in their country's history. In the infamous video, he and other committee members are severely attacked for their role in the executions of the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Raisi can be heard haggling with Montazeri, then Deputy Supreme Leader, to obtain permission to execute 200 more prisoners. An audibly scandalized Montazeri flatly refuses to admit any legitimacy to the deeds of the men and calls the executions the worst crime in the history of the revolution.

The executions by the “death committee” cannot be denied. But Raisi's participation reveals important insights into his political character beyond the specific brutality. It is fair to wonder what a young man of 27 did in the first place, thinking about the lives of dissidents. The leaked tapes show that he wasn't particularly invested in ideological passion or certainty. When Montazeri refuses to allow 200 prisoners to be transferred to their graves, what appears to be a voice from Raisi quickly accepts his superior's decision. Carefully, so as not to come into conflict with the then deputy leader Montazeri, the voice says: "Okay, we will obey." (Full details of the executions, including the exact schedule, remain unclear.)

About 800 portraits of victims will be exhibited on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris on October 29, 2019 to commemorate the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP via Getty Images

This loyalty attitude is the most consistent in Raisi's four decades of career. He is a man who is primarily driven by a deep devotion to taking power rather than a fanatical adherence to ideology. Whatever the political times demand – and whatever direction these demands come from – he is ready to answer. Thirty years later, after serving on the death committee, when his goal as a judiciary was to appeal to the public rather than his revolutionary superiors before running for president, he described himself as a criminal reformer by lowering the severity of sentences and increasing the number of pardons and makes public executions a rarity.

If elected, Raisi will rule knowing that his presidency is the result of an election designed to ensure his victory. Indeed, his reaction to the Council of Guardians' review of the candidates shows that he has already taken note of the embarrassing look of a race so blatantly rigged in his favor: Shortly after the final list of candidates was announced, Raisi claimed he was lobbying for the elections more competitive. (One cannot avoid questioning the veracity of this claim, as Raisi works closely with those responsible for the review process.) Given that it lacks the support of large segments of the population, so can a Raisi government Lack of confidence to stand up to censure, making it more likely that critics will be persecuted.

This uncertainty is made even more inflammatory by Raisi's punitive nature. Significantly, he is the first Iranian president whose leadership background is overshadowed by nearly forty years of experience in the prison system. While trying to highlight this during the 2017 election, Rouhani memorably described Raisi as one of those who have known nothing but executions and imprisonment. This aspect of Raisi's résumé is likely to influence how he responds to public unrest – namely, using the punitive tools he is most familiar with. It is important to note that as president, Raisi could draw on his allies in the judiciary, many of whom owe their professional success to Raisi himself. As a foretaste of what awaits him under his presidency, activists and journalists have recently been contacted by the judiciary and warned against expressing critical views on the top candidate in the presidential election.

The Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will vote for the elections on May 19, 2017 at a polling station in southern Tehran.

Raisi supporters wave national flags and raise their portraits as they take part in an election rally at the Imam Khomeini Mosque in Tehran on May 16, 2017. ATTA KENARE Photos / AFP via Getty Images

Should the current Supreme Leader Khamenei, now 82, die during a Raisi presidency, the cleric will be in a unique position to heavily influence the process of selecting the next leader – so much so that he himself will be one of the favorites, to be successful Khamenei. He will be kingmaker and potential king at the same time. This reality is likely to humiliate the various political actors to meekness and dampen the resolve of potential dissidents. And with the prospect of succeeding the current leader, the future president will have every incentive to fight by all means to consolidate and expand power, making it all the more likely that he will rule with an iron fist.

The manner of Raisi's rise to the presidency, his severely punitive temperament and the question of Khamenei's successor create a fertile political environment for a future Raisi government, and with it Iran, to sink deeper into the quagmire of authoritarian tendencies.

An Iranian man in a fresh produce store in Tehran watches candidate Ebrahim Raisi during the first televised debate between presidential candidates on June 5. STR / AFP via Getty Images

A Raisi presidency will also have an impact on Iran's international relations – though not always for the reasons that outsiders envision.

Iran's public diplomacy will be one of the first victims of a Raisi presidency. For many inside and outside Iran, his name is forever tarnished by the 1988 executions. If an anti-Iran axis similar to that of former President Donald Trump emerges again in the coming years, it will find a powerful propaganda tool embodied by the Iranian President himself. Demonizing the country and building international consensus against it will be much easier than it was in the Rouhani years.

This is not a mere guess. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency from 2005 to 2013, his bellicose speeches on issues such as Israel and the Holocaust proved extremely useful in isolating Iran on the world stage. Ahmadinejad's utility as Israel's most popular scarecrow was so pronounced that former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy called it "our greatest gift." "We couldn't do a better operation on the Mossad than bringing a man like Ahmadinejad to power in Iran," Halevy said. Ahmadinejad, he was pleased, had “proven to everyone that today's Iran is an Iran that one cannot live with. (Ahmadinejad) unites the whole world against Iran. "

A similar dynamic will play out with Raisi as president. The Iranian rivals will have an absolute bogeyman. Mojtaba Amini, the producer of a TV series aimed at discrediting chief diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif and his diplomatic efforts, is a clear sign for the future. It can therefore be assumed that with Raisi in power, Iran will most likely lose one of its most effective national security instruments – namely Zarif. The US-trained foreign minister played a key role in the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with Iran or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His diplomatic prowess was clearly felt during Trump's maximum pressure campaign. During this time, the agile, quick-witted and articulate foreign minister was a constant thorn in the side of the Trump-led axis, which wanted to isolate Iran and dissolve the nuclear deal. Iran's rivals and enemies will no doubt let out a collective sigh of relief following Zarif's removal. A powerful weapon in their enemy's armory was decommissioned without a single shot having to be fired. When Zarif announced his resignation in 2019, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could hardly hold back his enthusiasm. "Zarif is gone," he tweeted at the time, "good liberation."

Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi hold up his posters during an election rally in Eslamshahr, Iran, June 6. AFP via Getty Images

Even if Raisi's inauguration will most likely be followed by a change at the top of Iranian foreign policy, a certain continuity can be expected at the level of the grand strategy. For example, during the last round of televised presidential debates, Raisi explicitly reiterated Iran's commitment to implement the JCPOA: "We are committed to the JCPOA … but the JCPOA needs a strong government to implement it." that government is not the sole determinant of foreign policy. The Iranian leader wields immense influence on national security issues, including foreign policy.

But the very existence of a strategy, JCPOA or otherwise, is one thing. A completely different matter is their successful mediation, which requires competent diplomats and technocrats. Regardless of Raisi's team's foreign policy perspectives, the lack of qualified diplomats in key positions could potentially disrupt the country's diplomatic career. This very scenario became a reality during Ahmadinejad's presidency, when Manouchehr Mottaki, currently a foreign policy advisor to Raisi, took on the role of Iran's top diplomat. During this time, a lack of technocratic literacy could sometimes undermine the very strategy that was being implemented.

If Raisi's career proves anything, it is that he has carefully formed powerful allies and has been denied a path to power, even if it disrupts the existing political order of Iran. A crucial question is what will happen if the ultimate custodian of the current system, Khamenei – the man Raisi might one day hope to succeed – tries or is able to get in his way.

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