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Iranian hard-liner Raisi wins presidential vote

A woman held a poster of Iran's newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi, with text in Persian reading "government of the people, strong Iran," as supporters celebrated his victory in Tehran.
A woman held a poster of Iran's newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi, with text in Persian reading "government of the people, strong Iran," as supporters celebrated his victory in Tehran.ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s ultraconservative judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president after a vote that many Iranians skipped, seeing it as rigged in his favor.

The Interior Ministry announced the final results Saturday, saying Raisi had won with nearly 18 million of 28.9 million ballots cast in the voting a day earlier. Turnout was 48.8% — a significant decline from the last presidential election, in 2017.

Two rival candidates had conceded hours earlier, and President Hassan Rouhani congratulated Raisi on his victory, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported.

Huge swaths of moderate and liberal-leaning Iranians sat out the election, saying that the campaign had been engineered to put Raisi in office or that voting would make little difference. He had been expected to win handily despite late attempts by the more moderate reformist camp to consolidate support behind their main candidate: Abdolnasser Hemmati, a former central bank governor.

The Interior Ministry said Hemmati came in third with around 2.4 million votes, after the second-place finisher, Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander in chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard who won around 3.4 million votes.

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There were also about 3.7 million “white” ballots, or ballots cast without any candidate’s name written in. Some Iranians said they turned in white ballots as a way of participating in the election while protesting the lack of candidates who represented their views.

Raisi, 60, is a hard-line cleric favored by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and has been seen as his possible successor. He has a record of grave human rights abuses, including accusations of playing a role in the mass execution of political opponents in 1988, and is currently under U.S. sanctions.

His background appears unlikely to hinder the renewed negotiations between the United States and Iran over restoring a 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in exchange for lifting American economic sanctions. Raisi has said he will remain committed to the deal and do all he can to remove sanctions.

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Key policies such as the nuclear deal are decided by the supreme leader, who has the last word on all important matters of state. However, Raisi’s conservative views will make it more difficult for the United States to reach additional deals with Iran and extract concessions on critical issues such as the country’s missile program, its backing of proxy militias around the Middle East and human rights.

To his supporters, Raisi’s close identification with the supreme leader, and by extension with the Islamic Revolution that brought Iran’s clerical leaders to power in 1979, is part of his appeal. Campaign posters showed Raisi’s face alongside those of Ayatollah Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander whose death in a U.S. airstrike last year prompted an outpouring of grief and anger among Iranians.

But Raisi’s supporters also cited his resume as a staunch conservative, his promises to combat corruption, which many Iranians blame as much for the country’s deep economic misery as American sanctions, and what they said was his commitment to leveling inequality among Iranians.

Voter turnout was low despite exhortations from the supreme leader to participate and an often strident get-out-the-vote campaign: One banner brandished an image of Soleimani’s blood-specked severed hand, still bearing his trademark deep-red ring, urging Iranians to vote “for his sake.” Another showed a bombed-out street in Syria, warning that Iran ran the risk of turning into that war-ravaged country if voters stayed home.

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Voting was framed as not so much a civic duty as a show of faith in the Islamic Revolution, in part because the government has long relied on high voter turnout to buttress its legitimacy.

Though never a democracy in the Western sense, Iran has in the past allowed candidates representing different factions and policy positions to run for office in a government whose direction and major policies were set by the unelected clerical leadership. During election seasons, the country buzzed with debates, competing rallies and political arguments.

But since protests broke out in 2009 over charges that the presidential election that year was rigged, authorities have gradually winnowed down the confines of electoral freedom in Iran, leaving almost no choice this year. Many prominent candidates were disqualified last month by Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, leaving Raisi the clear front-runner and disheartening relative moderates and liberals.

Yet analysts said that the supreme leader’s support for Raisi could give him more power to promote change than the departing president, Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani is a pragmatic centrist who ended up antagonizing the supreme leader and disappointing voters who had hoped he could open Iran’s economy to the world by striking a lasting deal with the West.

Rouhani did seal a deal to lift sanctions in 2015 but ran headlong into President Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018.

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The prospects for a renewed nuclear agreement could improve with Raisi's victory. Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to be stalling the current talks as the election approached. But U.S. diplomats and Iranian analysts said that there could be movement in the weeks between Rouhani’s departure and Raisi’s ascension.

A deal finalized then could leave Rouhani with the blame for any unpopular concessions and allow Raisi to claim credit for any economic improvements once sanctions are lifted.