April 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hardline Iranian Cleric Announces Presidential Run

April 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

Hardline Iranian Cleric Announces Presidential Run

A hardline Iranian political coalition announced its updated slate of candidates Thursday for the May presidential election. Radical cleric Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi emerged at the top of the list and formally declared his candidacy.

Raisi spent much of his career in the Iranian judiciary, widely criticized for its systematic human rights abuses. He was part of the notorious “Death Commission” in the 1988 prison massacre that killed thousands of regime opponents. Currently, Raisi is trustee of the Imam Reza Holy Shrine Foundation in Mashhad, Iran’s wealthiest endowment, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Most recently, Raisi’s name has been floated as a possible contender to succeed Khamenei. Much like the current supreme leader, he lacks scholarly credentials. Tellingly, hardline, state-affiliated outlets have been referring to Raisi in recent months as “Ayatollah” in an attempt to bolster his religious credentials.

Raisi’s presidential bid is a gamble, putting in jeopardy his chance to become the next supreme leader. If he wins, his odds of succeeding Khamenei significantly increase. Unseating the incumbent president – which has not occurred since the early 1980s – would boost his influence and public standing. Rejection at the ballot box, however, would be a major blow to his credibility, diminishing his influence in Iranian politics. Indeed, every Iranian politician who has lost a presidential race (like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf) has subsequently declined in influence.

Raisi’s rise could prompt more pragmatic electoral factions to drive voters to the ballot box to counter him. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani could also use the prospect of a Raisi presidency to rally support for his reelection.

If Rouhani can do that, Raisi may require covert meddling to win the election, as the clerical establishment did in the 2009 elections that secured the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term. That time, however, election meddling led to large-scale protests – a scenario that the regime risks repeating this time around as well.

As a hardline candidate, Raisi has the best chance to challenge Rouhani. Until now, the majority of so-called principlists – those professing commitment to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary creed – were unable to agree on a candidate. Raisi’s announcement will help move this fractured camp towards consolidation. Ahmadinejad, however, has also crept back into Iranian political life. The ex-president can still erode principlist unity with his backing of Hamid Baghaei, a former advisor to his administration who was briefly jailed in 2015.

For Washington, a Raisi victory will mean a president more stridently opposed of U.S. policies, vocally supportive of Tehran’s regional destabilization, and likely more willing to jeopardize the 2015 nuclear deal. Such a scenario is a real possibility, and the United States should prepare accordingly.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Amir Toumaj is an Iran research analyst. Follow Amir on Twitter @AmirToumaj.