A four-year project: The making of Iran's new hardline president, Raisi

A four-year project: The making of Iran's new hardline president, Raisi
Opinion: Iran's next president was not elected on his charm, vision, or intelligence. Rather, he is the product of political engineering, hardline influence, and voter apathy, writes Hossein Derakhshan.
7 min read
24 Jun, 2021
Turnout in Iran's presidential election was its lowest ever, at just 48 percent [Getty]

Ebrahim Raisi's ascent to Iran's presidency last week was the inevitable outcome of a four-year project by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and, ironically, its foreign adversaries. The hardline candidate won with the lowest turnout of any Iranian presidential election, with only 48 per cent voting, of which a record high 13 percent invalidated their ballots, mostly out of protest. 

In the four years since Rouhani's decisive victory against Raisi in 2016, the Iranian deep state, comprised of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Basij, and other affiliate organisations, have not shied away for a moment from undermining Rouhani's administration and disillusioning his 24 million supporters. 

"The Iranian deep state has not shied away for a moment from undermining Rouhani's administration"

Relying on its ever-expanding security arm, the deep state embarrassed Rouhani for every single one of his broken election promises. They prevented American businesses from investing in Iran to safeguard the nuclear agreement, arrested European dual citizens, plotted terror operations in Europe, gridlocked financial measures against money laundering and terrorism, imposed conservative cabinet ministers and staff and barred reformists and women as ministers. Not only that, they intimidated and arrested Rouhani's relatives, staff, and deputies, and even orchestrated street protests which backfired against the whole regime in 2018.

To make things worse, Netanyahu used his great influence on the Trump administration, assisted by Saudi, UAE, and his staunch ally, Mike Pompeo, to get Trump to leave the nuclear deal and wage a full-blown economic war against Iran. In the course of a few months in 2019, Iran's oil income nearly zeroed and all international companies and investments left. The government began borrowing and thus quickly raised the long-dreamt single-digit inflation to at least 30 percent, slashing Iran's currency value nearly 10-fold.

This in turn forced the government to cut fuel subsidies, leading to another wave of widespread protests in 2020 which faced a heavy-handed crackdown by the police and IRGC that left hundreds of mostly working-class young men dead, and the internet entirely cut off across the country.

As if things were not hard enough for the middle and working-class with fixed salaries, Covid-19 began to rip apart anything left of the Iranian economy.

The Iranian middle class was swiftly shrinking and thus growing extremely disillusioned with politics. When the IRGC shot down a civilian aeroplane with many young middle-class families on board, it further devastated the middle-class, as did subsequent failed attempts to cover up the disaster.

Iranian apathy and anger, coupled with a vast purge of nearly all moderate and reformist candidates, paved the way for the deep state to capture the parliament in 2019 in a similar fashion to the 2021 presidential elections. 

"The three TV debates did not change much. They were scheduled for a timeslot with low audience numbers and their 1980s quiz show format could not draw much excitement"

Biden's victory revived hopes for a quick end to the economic war. But that too posed a threat to the IRGC's plans to exploit the existing apathy and capture the government. Thus, it stopped Rouhani from achieving a breakthrough before the Persian New Year, knowing that would make it practically impossible to reach an agreement before Iran's elections.

The disqualification of all competitors to Raisi in 2021, and especially Ali Larijani's candidacy, was the final step in this four-year project. Despite a rare public rebuttal by Ayatollah Khamenei over Larijani's ban, the Guardian Council did not budge. An easy victory with a low turnout was still the plan.

The three TV debates did not change the stage much. They were scheduled for a timeslot with low audience numbers - 5:00 PM weekdays - and their 1980s quiz show format could not draw much excitement.

The more the uninspiring, unintelligent, and inarticulate Raisi spoke, the worse he did in the polls. Losing more than 10 percent of his lead in the final week worried the IRGC so much that they pulled two of their aligned candidates (Jalili and Zakani) out of the race in favour of Raisi after the third debate. Otherwise, there was no guarantee that Raisi could have the required 50 percent of the votes to avoid a second round.

He eventually won while his rivals Rezai and Hemmati were narrowing the gap in the final days so much that had the election been held a week later, it would likely have reached a second round.

Who is Ebrahim Raisi?

Ebrahim Raisi has always been a non-partisan 'yes' man. His rise to senior ranks within the judiciary has had more to do with his loyalty than his political acumen. His presence on what is now known as the "death commission" formed by then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini - which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands of leftist activists in prisons in 1988 - can be understood more as a consequence of his absolute loyalty to his seniors than ideological zeal. Throughout his life, Raisi has held non-partisan positions and avoided factional politics or personal economic gain. While this has made him popular among blue and white collar working class,  it has also made him vulnerable.

Since the 2009 political crisis, a group of extremist conservatives has gathered around Raisi, who at that time was the number two in the judiciary. The group, which later became a political party called Jebhey-ye Paydari (Resistance Front), had previously elevated Ahmadinejad to the presidency. But after he fell out with the Supreme Leader, they lost their best political instrument.

Rouhani's victory and the consequent international agreement over Iran's nuclear capabilities pushed the Resistance Front back for a few years. But in their search for Ahmadinejad's replacement, they found Raisi. 


They helped and sponsored him to run an intense campaign against Rouhani who sought reelection in a second term, during which Raisi was presented as the champion of the poor. Raisi, however, lost badly, in spite of a wide conservative coalition beyond the Resistance Front because the nuclear agreement still dominated the elections and those behind Raisi have been staunch opponents of the deal or other similar international structures.

This time around, the Resistance Front and its allies, including Ayatollah Khamenei and his office, made sure that foreign relations, revival of the nuclear agreement, and the sanctions did not dominate this election. 

They did everything they could to deter Javad Zarif from running. They made, and quickly aired a tv series showing Zarif influenced by western spies, and later leaked an informal interview with some off-the-record material where Zarif had criticised General Soleimani and forced Ayatollah Khamenei to publicly disavow Zarif, ruining his potential election chances.

This engineering of an election can only point to a longer game which the deep state finds worthy of such a political price. However, the competing factions within the deep state have different motivations, both with an eye on who will eventually replace Khamenei as Supreme Leader.

The internal dynamics of the next few months will show whether both deep state factions agree on Raisi to succeed Ayatollah Khamanei or not. If the more moderate faction - now in control of the parliament - allows Raisi to revive the nuclear deal, lift the sanctions, remove all obstacles for foreign trade and investment, and continue assisting him to remain a popular president, it will be clear that both factions want him to be the successor.

But if they give Raisi a hard time, it will become apparent that they have someone else ready to replace the Supreme Leader. Whatever the outcome, Iranians will have little faith in a system that has broken its promise of democracy, freedom, justice, and welfare after toppling the dictatorship in 1979.


Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian author and media researcher, as well as a pioneer of blogging, podcasts and tech journalism in Iran, over which he spent six years in prison. Now based at LSE, He spent 2018 on two research fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Media Lab.  

Follow him on Twitter: @h0d3r

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.