Conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi enters Iran's presidential race

Close ally of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes surprise declaration that he will challenge the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani

Iran is bracing for a heated and divisive election season after a powerful conservative cleric threw himself into the presidential race to challenge the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani.

Official registration for candidacy begins on Tuesday but Ebrahim Raisi, who is a close ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has upended the race with a surprise declaration that he would put his name on the list.

He said in a statement on Sunday he had been reluctant to seek office but had made the decision to run after he deemed it to be his “religious and revolutionary responsibility”.

Over the past year, Raisi has been touted as a frontrunner to become Khamenei’s successor, a higher position than that of the president. His bid for presidency has puzzled Iranian political commentators about his intentions and what his candidacy would mean for Rouhani, who is expected to seek re-election.

Rouhani’s four predecessors have all served two consecutive terms, which is allowed under the Iranian constitution, but Raisi’s candidacy is an indication that the current president will not have an easy ride ahead. Elections are scheduled for 19 May.

It also comes amid serious concerns about attempts within the Iranian establishment to disqualify Rouhani in the pre-elections vetting process, in effect blocking him from running. While disqualifying a sitting president would likely create a huge backlash, authorities have succeeded in preventing other influential figures from running in recent years.

A statement posted on Sunday on Raisi’s official website to announce his bid said he has sought to tackle Iran’s economic troubles. “The Islamic establishment is four decades’ old and while we have had achievements and progress, people are still suffering from chronic structural problems and mismanagement which are preventing the government from responding to people’s demands and fulfilling constitutional aims.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, waves to a crowd in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Photograph: AP

“Can’t we resolve issues such as recession, unemployment and obstacles in the way of businesses? ... I deeply believe that this can change.”

A group of influential conservatives in Iran, operating under the umbrella coalition known as the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, or Jamna, held party conferences in the past weeks to shortlist their favourite nominees. Raisi received more votes than any other figure in their list of top five nominees, which also included the Tehran mayor, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. While all five might register as candidates, many are expected to drop out later in favour of Jamna’s final favourite.

Meanwhile, Iran’s former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been blocked by Khamenei to run, has formally backed his ex-deputy, Hamid Baghaei. Baghei was arrested in 2015 on unspecified charges and it is not clear if he would be allowed to run if he registers as a candidate. The Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists close to Khamenei, would have to vet all candidates before any election in Iran.

Reformists, who have been sidelined in recent years, are expected to back Rouhani. Former president Mohammad Khatami, the leader of the reformist movement who is banned from any media coverage, has indicated that Rouhani is the reformists’ favourite.

The Guardian understands that many reformists believe that they should nominate a second candidate to shadow and ultimately server as a substitute for Rouhani in case he is disqualified or otherwise drops out. Sources said Rouhani was opposed to the idea and believed more reformist candidates would increase the possibility of him being disqualified. The establishment would be reluctant to block him if there were no other reformist candidate because the system usually avoids holding elections that are lackluster.

Raisi, 56, is the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest charity in the Muslim world and the organisation in charge of Iran’s holiest shrine. He had barely reached adulthood by the 1979 Islamic revolution but rose quickly through the ranks. In the summer of 1988, he was one of the four sharia judges behind the mass execution of leftists and dissidents. More recently he was Iran’s prosecutor general.

Hassan Rouhani
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, could face an attempt to disqualify him from seeking re-election. Photograph: Handout/AFP/Getty Images

Mohammad Taghi Karroubi, an Iranian political analyst and the son of an opposition leader under house arrest, Mehdi Karroubi, said May’s elections were important because “whoever wins will undoubtedly have a role in the appointment of the next supreme leader”.

He said: “That’s why many are thinking of blocking Rouhani because without his presence they will have an upper hand in choosing the next leader when the time comes. That’s why I fear Rouhani may be disqualified.”

Karroubi said various scenarios have been explored about Raisi’s candidacy. One theory is that he is registering to increase his public profile for a possible succession and would ultimately drop out.

Others think he is running to win, which will increase the possibility of Rouhani’s disqualification because the president is believed to have more popular support if the two went head to head. “Raisi hasn’t come for an easy defeat,” Karroubi said. If Raisi runs and loses, analysts say that would scupper his chances of succeeding Khamenei.


Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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