Iran's ultraconservative Raisi: 'anti-graft' poll favourite

Dressed in a black turban and long religious coat, Ebrahim Raisi casts himself as an austere figure and an anti-corruption champion of the poor ahead of Iran’s presidential election.

The 60-year-old ultraconservative, widely seen as the favourite to win the June 18 poll, heads the judiciary and is a “hodjatoleslam”, one rank below that of ayatollah in the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

His campaign centres on a promise to “battle unrelentingly against poverty and corruption”.

He operated on a similar platform for the 2017 election, when he won 38 percent of the vote, well short of the margin needed to prevent moderate President Hassan Rouhani securing a second consecutive term.

Born in November 1960 in the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, the republic’s second biggest urban centre, he rose to high office as a young man.

Aged just 20, Raisi was named prosecutor-general of Karaj, which neighbours Tehran, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For the exiled opposition, his name is indelibly associated with the mass executions of Marxists and other leftists in 1988, when he was deputy prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, although he has denied any involvement.

Raisi has decades of judicial experience, serving as prosecutor-general of Tehran from 1989 to 1994, deputy chief of the Judicial Authority for a decade from 2004, and then national prosecutor-general in 2014.

– Student of the guide –

In 2016, supreme leader Ali Khamenei put Raisi in charge of the powerful Astan Qods Razavi charitable foundation, which manages the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and controls a colossal industrial and property asset portfolio.

Three years later, Khamenei appointed him head of the Judicial Authority.

Raisi is not renowned for any great charisma.

He studied theology and Islamic jurisprudence under Khamenei and, according to his official biography, he has been teaching at a Shiite seminary in Mashhad since 2018.

Many Iranian media outlets see him as a possible successor to Khamenei, who will turn 82 in July. 

Raisi is also a member of the assembly of experts who select the supreme leader.

Married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, an educational sciences lecturer at Tehran’s Shahid-Beheshti University, Raisi is the son-in-law of Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer imam and supreme leader’s representative for Mashhad.

He and his wife have two daughters, both of whom hold advanced degrees.

He is one of five ultra-conservative candidates approved to run for the presidential poll.

But he has received strong backing from the two main coalitions of conservative and ultra-conservative parties, and is the only runner able to count on broad support across what is a very diverse and even fragmented conservative scene.

He has also sought to extend a hand beyond his traditional support base, in a nation that is deeply torn over personal freedoms.

Raisi has pledged to defend “freedom of expression”, the “fundamental rights of all Iranian citizens” and “transparency”.

– ‘Uproot sedition’ –

But such promises ring hollow for reformists and even moderate conservatives, who view Raisi as a bogeyman ill-equipped to govern.

He says he wants to assemble a “government of the people for a powerful Iran” and to eradicate “corruption hotbeds” — a theme he’s already pursued in his latest judicial role, through a spate of highly publicised corruption trials against senior state officials.

Even judges have not been spared by his much trumpeted anti-corruption drive; several have been sentenced over the past year. 

Asked in 2018 and last year about the 1988 purge, Raisi denied playing the slightest role, even as he lauded an order he said was handed down by the Islamic republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomenei to proceed with the purge.

And when the Green Movement in 2009 protested against populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning a disputed second term, he was uncompromising.

“To those who speak of ‘Islamic compassion and forgiveness’, we respond: we will continue to confront the rioters until the end and we will uproot this sedition,” he said.

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