In the Persian puppet theater known as Shah Selim Bazi, tragicomic tales of court intrigue gave audiences a glimpse into the mind of their ruler and the workings of his administration. Behind the screen, the strings were pulled by the “morshed,” or spiritual leader, who also served as narrator. This allowed him to manipulate not only the marionettes but also public opinion.
It is tempting to view Iranian presidential elections as a variation of this form, with the ruler himself playing the morshed. In the three decades he has been Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stage-managed the process by limiting the contest to candidates committed to the theocratic ideals of the Islamic Republic and personally loyal to him. Like Henry Ford, he has given voters the choice of any color — so long as it is black.
And not just in the metaphorical sense, either: Khamenei has tended to favor candidates in atramentous clerical vestments. The one exception to the rule, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, compensated for his lack of theological qualifications (and sartorial conformity) with even more performative piety than most mullahs.
But the Supreme Leader has never pulled the strings as tightly as he is for his ninth production of the presidential puppet show; the vote is on Friday. Khamenei has used his control of the Guardian Council, which oversees the election process, to eliminate any aspirants who might have challenged his chosen candidate — Ebrahim Raisi, the raven-robed, hardline head of the judiciary.
Even previous beneficiaries of such field-tilting have expressed concern that this time the puppet-master has gone too far. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani urged Khamenei to widen the field, and Ahmedinejad has said he will not vote on Friday.
There have been calls for a boycott, and turnout is expected to be very low. That would damage not only the credibility, such as it is, of the election, but also Khamenei’s legitimacy.
Why is the Supreme Leader prepared to risk all that in order to ensure Raisi’s victory? It’s not because Khamenei believes the judge is better qualified than the other candidates to mend Iran’s sanctions-stricken economy, revive its nuclear deal with the world powers and reduce tensions with its neighbors.
No, much more is at play here than economics, foreign policy or even the presidency itself: At stake is the future of the office Khamenei occupies and of the Islamic Republic as he wishes it to be.
Khamenei just turned 81, and is rumored to be in poor health. A body of Islamic jurists known as the Assembly of Experts will choose his successor; in the interregnum, a provisional council that includes the president, the chief justice and a representative of the Guardian Council will run the country. For years, Khamenei has been packing these positions with loyalists, to ensure the next Supreme Leader is cut from the same cloth as himself.
That means someone with a clerical background, with a reactionary worldview, with hands-on experience in the institutions of the Islamic Republic, with strong ties to the security establishment. In other words, someone very like Ebrahim Raisi.
Indeed, Iranian political circles have long assumed that Khamenei regards Raisi as his logical successor. For starters, the two have similar backgrounds. They both come from the countryside near the eastern metropolis of Mashhad, and received some education in the seminaries of the holy city of Qom, where they seem to have engaged more in politics than in theology.
As a result, their clerical credentials are somewhat suspect. In 1989, Khamenei was hastily elevated to the status of ayatollah to buttress his qualification as Supreme Leader; Raisi’s ascension may require the same legalistic legerdemain.
But their political qualifications are impeccable. Both rose through the ranks of the theocracy by demonstrating their loyalty to the 1979 revolution and to the interests of its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader.
Khamenei served the revolutionary government in a variety of capacities before rising to the presidency in 1981. Raisi was a low-level functionary in the judiciary in the early 1980s. By 1988, he had risen to the judicial panel that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners.
His career accelerated in the early 2000s when he became deputy chief justice and was elected to the Assembly of Experts. Even so, few Iranians had heard of Raisi when he was appointed attorney general in 2014. Two years later, Khamenei picked him to run the country’s richest religious foundation, a high-profile position with enormous potential for political patronage.
In 2017, Raisi overreached, running for president against Rouhani. Despite being marked as the Supreme Leader’s man, he was soundly beaten.
This setback didn’t diminish him in his patron’s eyes, however. Instead, Khamenei found him another prominent perch as head of the judiciary. In the public eye, Raisi conducted headline-grabbing anti-corruption campaigns. But he was careful not to poke too deeply into the affairs of the military establishment, which won him friends in the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Raisi’s standing with hardliners was burnished when the Trump administration recognized him as a member of Khamenei’s “inner circle,” and imposed economic sanctions on him. That’s another thing he has in common with the Supreme Leader.
When he threw his turban into the presidential race for a second time, Raisi was a household name in Iran. But other long-time regime loyalists like former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri were widely thought to be strong contenders. There was every chance Raisi would fall short of a majority on June 18.
That would trigger a second round of voting between the two leading candidates, with unpredictable consequences. In the last presidential run-off election, in 2005, the overwhelming favorite in the first round, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former two-term president, was beaten by the unlikely challenger, Ahmedinejad, a former mayor of Tehran.
The disqualification of Larijani and Jahangiri has cleared the path for Raisi to sweep the board on Friday. A shock even greater than that of 2005 would be needed to force a run-off. The Ahmedinejad role as long-shot contender would have to be played by Abdolnaser Hemmati, who stepped down as governor of the central bank to make a run for the presidency.
But Hemmati, a technocrat with no revolutionary or political credentials, is an even more unlikely challenger than Ahmedinejad had been. His faint prospects rest on the notion that Iranians, fed up with the parlous state of their economy, would want their next president to have some commercial, rather than clerical, training.
Hemmati is also counting on voters to see him as a better interlocutor with the world powers, and especially with the U.S., in negotiations to lift the economic sanctions that have contributed to their misery. While most Iranian politicians compete to demonstrate their intransigence toward America, Hemmati has said he would be willing to meet with President Joe Biden.
You might think Khamenei would want that, too. But the preservation of the theocracy is more important to the Supreme Leader than easing the pain of his subjects. As his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously sneered when asked about the state of the economy, “Iran’s Islamic Revolution was not about the price of melons.” –Bloomberg
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