Iran’s ultraconservative top judge, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president in an outcome that surprised absolutely no one as many Iranians chose to sit out a vote they saw as rigged in his favor. The 60-year-old close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei won 17.9 million of the 28.9 million ballots cast and will be inaugurated in August. The voter turnout of 48.8 percent marked the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. And many of those who did show up to vote appeared to express their displeasure by voiding their ballots. Some 3.7 million people didn’t choose any candidate and while some of those may have been accidental, the number is far higher than in previous elections, suggesting they didn’t want to choose any of the candidates in the race.
Iranian state television blamed the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. sanctions for the low participation. But many moderate and liberal Iranians had made clear they would not take part in the election after many prominent candidates were disqualified. Raisi, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, is seen as a possible successor to Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader, who has the final say on all major decisions.
Amnesty International called on Raisi to be investigated for crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 and his role in granting impunity to other perpetrators of human rights abuses. “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard said in a statement. Human Rights Watch sent out a similar message. “As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary, Raisi oversaw some of the most heinous crimes in Iran’s recent history, which deserve investigation and accountability rather than election to high office,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said in a statement.
Despite his background, Raisi is not expected to be an obstacle to ongoing talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal to lift sanctions on Iran. Raisi has said he hopes to see a lifting of the sanctions that were reimposed under former President Donald Trump in 2018, and those types of issues are decided by the supreme leader anyway. Beyond that one issue, though, Raisi’s hardline views make it unlikely that the United States and Iran will be able to reach many significant agreements.
Domestically, there is likely to be a stronger push toward a more puritanical Islamic government that could lead to more control on social life and new restrictions on social media and the press. With Raisi’s victory, “the hardliners will have taken all the centers of power: the executive branch as well as the legislative and the judiciary. Iran will be a more closed society,” writes BBC Persian’s Kasra Naji. “Freedoms will likely be curtailed even more than before.” And some analysts warn his views may keep foreign investors at bay. “Raisi’s hardline political and economic beliefs will limit the scope for significant foreign investment if a deal is reached and further isolate Tehran from the West,” Henry Rome, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, said.