Raisi's Risky Bet On The Presidency
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday endorsed the election—some say selection—of Ebrahim Raisi as his next president. In a traditional ceremony—the thirteenth such gathering under the Islamic Republic—Khamenei was flanked by the heads of major branches of government—including Chairman of the Expediency Council Sadegh Larijani, Secretary of the Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi himself, Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, and Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher-Ghalibaf. Khamenei and Raisi wore almost identical clerical garb, and the room was filled with members of the Iranian establishment.
Khamenei boasted that the ceremony “shows not only the rationality, peace, and serenity ruling over the country, officials, and people, but also the political diversity.” But the soaring rhetoric stood in stark contrast with the daily reality of Iranians who have been protesting across the country over regime mismanagement. Despite the Supreme Leader’s best efforts at portraying harmony, the affair was hardly without tensions boiling beneath the surface.
Rivalries in the Imam Khomeini Husseiniya
Khamenei’s comments on Tuesday were aimed at showcasing unity. He was not incorrect to suggest a conservative consolidation within the governing elite of the country. As Raisi takes office, now the presidency, parliament, and judiciary will be dominated by hardliner devotees to Khamenei’s worldview. The Supreme Leader in recent years has made a concerted effort to shrink Tehran’s circle of power to control an eventual leadership transition when he passes from the scene. Thus, having the presidency under the control of a trusted and dependent lieutenant—as some elements of the Iranian system are already positioning Raisi to become the next Supreme Leader—is crucial for Khamenei’s legacy.
But this does not mean that tensions were not in the room and won’t persist into the new presidential term. Raisi was on the stage with Sadegh Larijani, whom he helped sideline and marginalize after he succeeded him as chief justice. Larijani’s brother Ali was also disqualified from running for the presidency in 2021. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani was also there—whom Khamenei has roasted in recent days in a speech, posters, and video produced by the Office of the Supreme Leader. In fact, Raisi appeared to criticize his predecessor during his speech saying, “the message of the people was the message of changing the status quo, and the dear people, with their vote, called on the government to achieve justice and the fight against corruption.” This is not to mention interpersonal tensions between Raisi and Iran’s new chief justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei as well reported resentments with Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who declined to run for president during the last cycle despite harboring grand technocratic ambitions for the office.
Will Raisi meet the same fate as his predecessors?
Without exception, every president who has served under Khamenei has left the office diminished and degraded. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose own revolutionary status enabled him to continue to occupy a kingmaking role among more pragmatic power factions in Tehran and chair the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts, gradually saw his own fortunes decline. His family was targeted by the judiciary, and in a final embarrassing blow, he was disqualified from running again for the presidency in 2013. Mohammad Khatami found himself the subject of a media blackout after leaving the presidency, was reportedly banned from travel abroad at one point, and never served on a state body again, in contrast to other members of the former presidents’ club. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite entering office as a Khamenei favorite, fell out of favor with the Office of the Supreme Leader after he began questioning the role of clerics in the Islamic Republic. He was disqualified from running for the presidency again in 2017 and 2021. Yet he did manage to secure a slot on the Expediency Council after his term ended.
Rouhani is leaving office humbled and humiliated after Iran’s Supreme Leader blasted his government’s performance during a speech last week. Khamenei said “others should use your experiences. This experience is a distrust of the West. In this government, it was shown up that trust in the West does not work.” But Rouhani won’t be disappearing completely into the political wilderness—he will still have a seat on the Assembly of Experts, and it is possible Khamenei will name him to the Expediency Council, as he did with other former presidents. Nevertheless, it is conceivable Rouhani will remain on the sidelines of real power in the Islamic Republic for the foreseeable future.
Despite Raisi entering office with a literal bang—attacks on foreign commercial vessels and temporary hijackings to name a few this week—it is likely he is paying close attention to what happened to his predecessors. This will drive him to be in complete alignment—publicly and privately—with Khamenei if he aspires to be his successor. There is already evidence Raisi is seeking to further promote himself as a natural heir to Khamenei. The Office of Iran’s President’s website now refers to him as an ayatollah, alongside discrete Iranian media outlets, despite the Office of the Supreme Leader dubbing him as a lower-ranked hojatoleslam. But he should be prepared to be held completely accountable as former presidents like Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani learned the hard way.
Khamenei reminded the world in his speech last week of why his rhetorical hedging matters in Tehran’s fractious politics. He approved the inking of the nuclear deal in 2015, but at the same time he repeated regularly through the years that he doesn’t trust the West. This strategic ambiguity enabled him to come out on top no matter the result with the nuclear deal—collapse or success. Raisi will therefore have to tread carefully if he aspires to emerge unscathed from Pasteur Street.