In late May, the 12-member Guardian Council—Iran’s election watchdog, many of whose members are associated with Raisi—barred prominent moderate and pro-reform figures from running in the race. Some still clung to the hope that Khamenei would eventually intervene, just as he had done in 2005, to reinstate some of the disqualified candidates. Khamenei eventually called on the Guardian Council to “make amends” for its “unjust” conduct, but without demanding any specific candidate to be reinstated; the Guardian Council’s response to this plea was a platitudinal statement devoid of any real substance.
The Guardian Council’s purge was an immense boon to Raisi’s election bid in two important ways. Firstly, and most manifestly, it rid the race of his most serious rivals. Secondly, but perhaps even more importantly, the disqualifications dampened public enthusiasm, demoralizing those segments of the electorate whose participation has traditionally been crucial for moderate or reform-minded candidates. This made it far more difficult for Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the sole centrist and moderate candidates not winnowed from the electoral race, to galvanize the populace and garner their vote come election day. Mehralizadeh would drop out of the race just two days before the vote.
None of this is to deny Raisi’s very real and formidable support base. Not long after losing in the 2017 presidential elections to then incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi was appointed by Khamenei as the chief of the judiciary. Raisi also gained significant popularity during his custodianship of Astan Quds Razavi from 2016 to 2019, one of Iran’s wealthiest religious endowments, which has thousands of employees as well as its owns institutions, landholdings, businesses throughout the country.
In the final years of his time as Judiciary Chief, Raisi built his political profile by initiating a series of sweeping judicial reforms that commuted punishments for crimes ranging from an inability to pay dowry to drug trafficking to issuance of dud checks. Such penal reforms allowed large numbers of convicts to evade imprisonment and even the death penalty—and bolstered Raisi’s own popularity. His name and face have featured regularly in public debates and national media, turning him into a readily recognizable figure across the country. This name recognition—not any reputation as a hardliner—vaulted him to the front of the polls before official campaigning had even started. [Continue reading…]