© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, on June 15, 2021. Majid Asgaripour / WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians vote on Friday in a race likely to hand over the presidency to a judge sanctioned by Washington for his alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners, a result that would encourage clerical leaders but stir Western rights concerns. humans.
The uncompromising Ebrahim Raisi, ally and protégé of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the favorite to succeed the pragmatic incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is prohibited by the Constitution from serving a third four-year term.
Raisi says that while the Islamic Republic does not need help from foreigners, it does back off talks with world powers aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal, a development that would bring a loosening of Western sanctions that have crushed Iran’s economy.
But the election of an Iranian head of government currently under US sanctions could alarm Washington and liberal Iranians, Iranian policy analysts said, especially given President Joe Biden’s sharp focus on global human rights.
“Raisi’s election will justify and legitimize US human rights sanctions against the Islamic Republic,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born expert on Iran at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.
Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to come and vote, but a record number of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic difficulties and frustration with the hardline government.
Another potential deterrent for voters is the disqualification of hundreds of potential candidates by a hard-line investigative body, including many who advocate for more political and personal freedoms.
For an overwhelmingly young population that is irritated by political restrictions, a lack of choice at the polls means a vote has little purpose, Iranian policy analysts say.
Followers of the core, religious devotees of the establishment, are expected to vote for Raisi, a middle-ranking Shiite Muslim cleric who lost to Rouhani in 2017.
“I will vote for Raisi because he is the most capable candidate to return our revolutionary values to the country,” said Mohammad Hosseini of the holy Shiite city of Mashhad.
But hundreds of Iranians, including prominent politicians and relatives of dissidents killed since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, have called for an electoral boycott.
“Why should I vote when it has no impact? Raisi will be the next president, whether we vote or not,” said an Iranian journalist who asked not to be named due to security concerns.
Raisi, whose main rival in the vote is the moderate former governor of the Central Bank Abdolnasser Hemmati, was appointed by Khamenei to the high-profile post of chief judiciary in 2019.
A few months later, the United States sanctioned him for human rights violations, including the executions of political prisoners in the 1980s and the suppression of riots in 2009, in which he participated according to human rights groups.
Iran has never acknowledged mass executions and Raisi himself has never publicly addressed allegations about his role.
A victory on Friday would improve Raisi’s chances of one day succeeding Khamenei at the top of power, analysts say.
PROTESTS ON THE STREET
If elected, Raisi is not expected to deviate from Khamenei’s anti-American stance, in contrast to Rouhani, whose comments in favor of openness to the world sometimes seemed to contradict the supreme leader’s intense suspicion of the West.
“Khamenei does not want dissent from the presidential office, especially now that he faces unprecedented challenges,” Javedanfar said.
Within Iran’s mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state affairs, including nuclear and foreign policy. But the president-elect will be in charge of tackling an economy hit by US sanctions.
More than 50% of Iran’s 85 million people have been pushed below the poverty line since 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions related to nuclear power that have reduced Tehran’s oil revenues.
The choice coincides with talks between Iran and six major powers to reactivate the nuclear deal, under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Aware of its vulnerability to anger over the economy, the leadership fears a revival of street protests that have erupted since 2017, in which protesters called for “regime change.”