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The Iranian Presidential Election: Pick Your Poison

Soona Samsami, The Hill, 14 April 2017


Last week, Ebrahim Raisi, a potential successor to the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, announced his candidacy for the May presidential elections. At this stage, therefore, the two main contenders for the post appear to be current president Hassan Rouhani and Raisi.

Though former firebrand Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered as a candidate this week, he did so in defiance of the Supreme Leader, and it is unclear whether he will remain a viable candidate or survive the watchdog Guardian Council screening.

Some analysts in Washington and elsewhere tend to introduce Raisi as an ally of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Rouhani, they argue, may be a less desirable choice for Khamenei, which means he could act as a counterbalance and, therefore, be a better candidate for the West.

This notion is fundamentally wrong. In 2013, when Rouhani was first elected, he was seen as heading down a path that could lead to internal reforms and change of behavior by Tehran. Touted as a “moderate,” he was someone with whom the West could work. Those hopes were dashed.

Under Rouhani, the situation of human rights has dramatically worsened. Last year, a scathing U.N. report condemned the “alarmingly-high” rate of executions, which had reached the highest levels of the last 25 years. At least 5,000 young people between the ages of 20 and 30 are on death row and Iran continues to be one of the world’s remaining executioners of children.

Rouhani has also gloated about “deceiving” western governments during the nuclear talks, according to his own biography.

The bottom line: Rouhani is no moderate. For the past 35 years, he has been a fixture of the regime’s security and suppressive circles. That is why he received, and continues to enjoy, Khamenei’s backing as president. In fact, Rouhani recently told his inner circle that, in a meeting with the Supreme Leader, he received Khamenei’s blessing to run for a second term.

Meanwhile, more than 50 members of the Assembly of Experts wrote a letter to Khamenei, promoting Raisi as a candidate for president. For his part, Raisi, made his candidacy contingent on Khamenei’s approval. Now that he has it, he has announced he will run.

Raisi, 56, is the chairman of the Astan-e Quds Razavi, an economic giant with a multi-billion-dollar turnover. The institution oversees revenues from the holy Shiite shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Astan-e Quds is one of 14 top economic powerhouses, which control the Iranian economy on behalf of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC).

Like Rouhani, Raisi has been a permanent fixture of the regime’s security apparatus where, like Rouhani, he has proved his loyalty by engaging in suppression and bloodshed, targeting opponents of the regime.

Raisi is also a notorious member of the Death Commission, the group responsible for the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in the span of a few months in 1988. Some of the victims included pregnant women and teenage girls.

According to an audio tape released last year, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri told Raisi and other members of the Death Commission that “the greatest crime committed during the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you.”

Rouhani picked another prominent member of the Death Commission, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, as his justice minister. In other words, the most senior positions of the current regime continue to be filled by the most ardent and criminal elements of the theocracy.

It would be a mistake to think that Raisi has been prodded into the elections as Khamenei’s pick against Rouhani. In truth, Khamenei supports both. The two are equally dangerous to the safety and security of the Iranian people and other nations. Both have track records of executions, killings, exportation of terrorism and plundering of the Iranian people’s wealth.

They do not have the slightest disagreement when it comes to the broad outlines of the regime’s policies. Neither is the choice of the Iranian people. Nor should they be acceptable to the international community.

What the West should focus on is that Tehran, and particularly Khamenei, is weak. Factional feuding has accelerated by recent domestic and foreign crises. The regime has spent tens of billions of dollars in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad, with no real prospects of victory there or elsewhere in the region. At the same time, the economic situation in Iran continues to worsen despite the lifting of sanctions.

In the run-up to the elections in May, the West should not fall into the Raisi vs. Rouhani scenario. Instead, the ruling theocracy as a whole should be seen as a vulnerable regime hard-pressed to suppress its own population.

Washington should see the elections as a timely opening, not to the regime but to the people of Iran. It is time for a firm policy that no longer tolerates Tehran’s malign regional intransigence and its suppression of millions of Iranians aspiring for change in Iran.

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