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Elections in Iran: Ebrahim Raisi becomes president as rivals give in

TEHERAN – Iran’s ultra-conservative judiciary Ebrahim Raisi appeared to be the country’s next president on Saturday after leading rivals in the presidential election – many Iranians believed were manipulated in favor of Mr Raisi – admitted that he had won.

Although the official results have not yet been released, Abdolnasser Hemmati, a former central bank governor considered moderate in the race, congratulated Mr Raisi on Instagram, calling him “the 13th President of the Islamic Republic”. Another candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also congratulated Raisi.

With huge crowds of moderate and liberal Iranians holding the elections and saying they were aiming to get Mr Raisi into office – or that the elections would make little difference – it was expected that he would be despite the reformists’ late attempts would easily win to cement Mr. Hemmati’s support.

Mr. Raisi, 60, is a preferred hard line cleric by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is believed to be his possible successor. He has committed grave human rights violations, including allegations of direct involvement in the mass execution of political opponents, and is currently under US sanctions.

His background could confuse renegotiations between the United States and Iran to re-establish an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in exchange for lifting American sanctions, though some analysts said Raisi’s reputation as a hardliner gave him more flexibility could push through a deal with the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Raisi’s close identification with the Ayatollah and thus also with the Islamic revolution that brought the spiritual leaders of Iran to power was part of his appeal to his supporters. Election posters showed the face of Mr Raisi next to that of Ayatollah Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or that of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in an American air strike last year caused an outbreak of grief and anger among the Iranians.

But Raisi’s supporters also cited his résumé as a staunch conservative, his promises to fight the corruption that blames many Iranians for the country’s deep economic plight as well as the American sanctions, and their commitment to redressing inequality among Iranians.

Turnout on Friday appeared to have been low, despite the Supreme Leader’s admonitions to participate and an often shrill election campaign: A banner waved a picture of General Suleimani’s bloodstained severed hand, still bearing his trademark deeply. red ring and urges the Iranians to vote “for his sake”. Another showed a bombed street in Syria, warning that if voters stay home, Iran is in danger of turning into this war-ravaged country.

Elections were presented less as a civic duty than as evidence of belief in the Islamic revolution, also because the government had long relied on high voter turnout to underpin its legitimacy.

Although Iran was never a democracy in the Western sense, Iran allowed candidates of various factions and political positions to run for office in a government whose direction and main policy were determined by the unelected clerical leadership. During the election season, the country was full of debates, rival rallies, and political clashes.

However, since protests erupted in 2009 over allegations of manipulating the presidential elections that year, the authorities have gradually eradicated the limits to freedom of choice in Iran, leaving almost no election this year. Many prominent candidates were disqualified by the Iranian Guardian Council last month, leaving Raisi a clear frontrunner and discouraging moderates and liberals.

However, analysts said the Ayatollah’s support for Raisi could give him more power to drive change than outgoing President Hassan Rouhani had. Mr Rouhani was a pragmatic centrist who eventually angered the top leader and disappointed voters who hoped he could open the Iranian economy to the world by signing a permanent deal with the West.

Mr Rouhani won a deal to lift the sanctions in 2015 but ran into President Donald J. Trump, who unilaterally pulled out of the deal and reinstated the sanctions in 2018.

Paradoxically, the prospects for a renewed nuclear deal could improve now that the elections are over.

Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to halt ongoing talks as the elections approached, but American diplomats and Iranian analysts said there could be movement in the weeks between Mr Rouhani’s departure and Mr Raisi’s rise. A deal then final could blame Mr Rouhani for unpopular concessions and allow Mr Raisi to seek credit for economic improvements once the sanctions were lifted.

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