To most Iranians, the thirteenth presidential election must have seemed like a rigged game. After a rigid selection process by the Guardian Council, which is responsible for the pre-selection, only 7 candidates remained out of 592 contenders. And of these, only one, the hardline cleric and chief of Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, who was clearly preferred by the revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, had a real chance of winning. And indeed Raisi, who is on both the EU and U.S. sanctions lists for human rights violations, was elected Iran's new president by a huge margin, receiving 62 percent of the vote. At the same time, electoral authorities recorded an all-time low voter turnout of 48 percent, the lowest since 1980, a major blow to the legitimacy and popularity of the regime, whose leaders since 1979 have placed great emphasis on their popular support as indicated by their turnout in parliamentary and presidential elections.
Most Iranians boycotted the elections due to widespread apathy, indifference, and resignation among the people, especially as the regime did not even give them the appearance of a real choice among different forces this time. Most Iranians are suffering from the economic crisis and have to fight hard for their existence every day. They are also disappointed with President Hassan Rouhani, a leader of the moderates, who has not been able to deliver on his promise of economic recovery despite the nuclear agreement with the West. Hardly anyone has any illusions that the regime will open up politically or reform. How could they? The brutal suppression of the social unrest of 2018 and 2019 ordered by the regime hardliners left no room for such hopes.
Despite the foregone conclusion of Raisi’s victory, however, the presidential election is significant because it marks an epochal change; in fact, it suggests that major changes are imminent in the Islamic Republic. For the first time, the hardliners will now control all elected (presidency and parliament) and non-elected institutions of the Islamic Republic, and they may pursue all of their domestic and foreign policy goals without friction or opposition from moderate or reformist forces. Khamenei has realized that the democracies of the West have seen through the deceptive façade of an Iranian hybrid democracy with republican and theocratic state institutions, prompting him to clear the democratic façade away once and for all.
But why did Khamenei favor Raisi, whose election is likely to further damage Iran's already battered image? The decisive factor seems to be the will of the aged 82-year-old revolutionary leader, who is in poor health, to preserve the domestic and foreign policy legacy of the Islamic Revolution as well as his own family's position of power beyond his death.
Four qualities distinguish Raisi: cold-bloodedness, refusal to compromise, loyalty, and dependability. These are qualities that Raisi has proven as he rose through the judicial system, leaving behind a trail of blood since 1979. In 40 years and in different positions, Raisi gained a reputation as a stone-cold bureaucrat who was absolutely loyal to the state leadership and the revolution, and as such willing to deliver countless death sentences. Raisi was appointed in July 1988 by then-revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini to a four member committee of clerical judges that ordered the execution of 3900-5000 imprisoned leftist opposition members on the basis of two death warrants written by Khomeini.
Khamenei expects further, even larger social revolts in the future that could seriously threaten the regime's existence. Suppressing the expected dissent will require the smooth interaction of the organs of repression under the supervision of a ruthless president. For this, Raisi was the only one. Furthermore, in foreign and security policy, Raisi is uncompromisingly committed to continuing Khamenei's confrontational course, particularly with regard to the nuclear program.
Another important factor is Raisi’s possible future selection as supreme leader, succeeding Khamenei. According to well-informed representatives of the democratic opposition in exile, such as Hassan Shariatmadari (secretary general of the Iran Transition Council in Berlin), in addition to Raisi's dependability and loyalty, his background in Mashhad is particularly important in Khamenei's eyes. This is because, among all Iran's political-economic power cartels, Khamenei has the greatest confidence in the cartel from Mashhad around Friday preacher Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Raisi's father-in-law. Khamenei, himself a Mashhadi, has had close ties of a familial, financial, and economic nature with this circle since 1979. Since 2005, Khamenei has transferred important offices to Raisi, including leadership of the immensely wealthy Imam Reza Foundation in Mashhad
Raisi has been considered one of the three most promising candidates to succeed Khamenei since at least 2017. As president, Raisi would be in the best position to succeed Khamenei in the event of his resignation or death. According to the constitution, a transitional council consisting of the president, the head of the judiciary and a clerical member of the Council of Guardians would take over the duties of the revolutionary leader for 40 days until the clerical Council of Experts agrees on the election of a successor. That would be time enough for Raisi to secure sufficient support for his election among the commanders of the powerful Revolutionary Guards as well as within the Council of Experts.
According to Shariatmadari, Khamenei's preference for Raisi suggests only one conclusion: that Khamenei has abandoned the plan to groom his own ambitious favorite son, Mojtaba Khamenei, for the position as revolutionary leader. Instead, all indications are that Khamenei has come to trust Raisi enough to strike a secret deal with him for the succession, paving the way for Raisi's succession to the throne in return for assurances that Raisi would not touch the Khamenei family wealth and would preserve Mojtaba's position. As a clever and prudent strategist, Khamenei is aware that in dictatorships changes of rulers often lead to bloody reckonings and power struggles.
Wilfried Buchta, who holds a Ph. D in Middle Eastern Studies from the university of Bonn, is a Berlin-based independent scholar and journalist, specialized on Iran and Iraq. Author of the seminal study Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic, he recently launched a bilingual website that includes extensive analysis of Iran and broader Middle East affairs in English and German.