Iran’s ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi has won a landslide victory in a presidential election that saw a record-low turnout after authorities blocked any formidable competition to the close ally of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the first U.S. comment on the result of Iran’s vote, a State Department spokesperson responded Saturday to a VOA Persian question by saying: “We’ve seen that the Iranian Interior minister announced Ebrahim Raisi as the winner of the Iranian elections that occurred on Friday.”
In a criticism of the system that enabled Raisi’s win, the U.S. official added: “But [we] also make note that Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process.”
Earlier Saturday, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said on state TV that Raisi, who campaigned on a pledge to fight Iran’s endemic government corruption, got 17.9 million votes, or about 62% of 28.9 million votes cast. Raisi’s three competitors, two fellow ultraconservatives and one relative moderate, were far behind, earning only about 1 million to 3 million votes each.
Many Iranians had expected Raisi to easily win the race after Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified hundreds of candidates from running against him, including prominent figures from the conservative to the reformist ends of the political spectrum of loyalists to the ultraconservative Khamenei. Guardian Council members are picked directly or indirectly by the supreme leader.
Government-reported turnout was 48.8%
Former Iranian Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, the only relative moderate among seven candidates approved to run in the election, won 2.4 million votes in the official results. Three of the seven candidates had dropped out of the race on Wednesday.
The government-reported turnout was 48.8% of Iran’s 59 million eligible voters, a record low for an Iranian presidential election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which Islamist clerics seized power. The previous low was 50% for Iran’s 1993 vote.
Many Iranians also had predicted a low participation in the election especially among opponents of the government, angered by its disqualification of candidates and its mismanagement of a shrinking economy afflicted by U.S. sanctions, a prolonged pandemic and official corruption.
The Iranian government said 3.7 million of the 28.9 million votes cast were ruled invalid, a record high for such an election in Iran. Some analysts said the invalid ballot total, which exceeded the tallies of the three losing candidates, suggested that many people who chose to vote decided to invalidate their ballots as a form of protest.
In one of several VOA Persian TV interviews on Saturday, Tehran University law professor and former Iranian lawmaker Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi accused the government of inflating the candidates’ vote tallies and called those numbers an “insult” to the Iranian people’s intellect.
There was no international monitoring of the Iranian election.
“The Iranian people have divorced this regime. They should continue with this struggle after succeeding in this round,” Sholeh-Saadi said.
U.S.-based Iranian journalist and rights activist Morteza Esmailpour said he believed Tehran had inflated Raisi’s vote numbers to counter criticism of the president-elect’s legitimacy and bolster Raisi’s stature as a potential future successor to Khamanei as supreme leader.
Raisi, who will replace outgoing President Hassan Rouhani in August, can serve a maximum of two four-year terms. Khamenei, 82, served as Iranian president himself before being appointed supreme leader in 1989.
Khamenei remains Iran's ultimate decision-maker in matters of foreign and nuclear policy. Raisi backed Khamenei's decision to engage in indirect talks with the U.S. in Vienna in recent months in the hope of reaching a deal for an easing of U.S. sanctions on the Iranian economy.
Alireza Kiani, an Iranian monarchist and member of the Farashgard organization living in the U.S., said Raisi is “very close” to the Iranian supreme leader. “I do not expect that Raisi’s government will be the source of many transformational changes if any,” Kiani said.
'Raisi’s absolute loyalty'
Raisi will be the first Iranian president to take office while under U.S. sanctions. Washington has sanctioned him for alleged involvement in Iran's mass executions of political prisoners in 1988.
Iraj Mesdaghi, an Iranian rights activist, writer and former political prisoner living in Sweden, said Raisi was a member of what he called a “death commission” that decided the fate of those prisoners. “He played a very active role in comparison to other member of the death commission,” Mesdaghi said.
Iranian leaders have refused to acknowledge the killings.
U.S.-based Iran analyst Rasool Nafisi, a sociology and philosophy teacher at IGlobal University, said he believed Khamenei had several reasons to push Raisi to an election victory despite the judiciary chief’s “notorious” reputation.
“One is Raisi’s absolute loyalty. Also, Raisi is well-suited to carry out a purge that would pave the way for Khamenei’s eldest son, Mojtaba, to succeed the supreme leader if Khamenei desires that,” Nafisi said.
Asked by VOA Persian if the U.S. would refuse to have any dealings with Raisi due to his U.S. sanctions designation, the State Department spokesperson said: “We strongly urge the Iranian government, regardless of who is in power, to release political prisoners and improve respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Iranians.”
The U.S. official said the Biden administration also would like to build on the “meaningful progress achieved” during the latest round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna.
President Joe Biden has said he could ease U.S. sanctions if Iran agrees to resume curbs on nuclear activities that could be weaponized. Tehran accepted those limits in return for relief from international sanctions as part of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But Iran began violating the nuclear curbs in 2019 in retaliation for then-President Donald Trump's decision the previous year to withdraw from the JCPOA and unilaterally tighten U.S. sanctions. Trump said the JCPOA did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — a goal it denies having — or engaging in other objectionable activities.
“We will continue discussions along with our allies and partners on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the U.S. official said.
Said Mahmoudi, an Iranian international law professor at Stockholm University, said the U.S. sanctions designation against Raisi would not bar the president-elect from traveling to the U.S. for U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. He said the U.S. permits such visits by Iranian officials under agreements with the U.N., although those officials are barred by U.S. authorities from traveling outside of the U.N. host city.
VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report. This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Iran analyst Rasool Nafisi's scholastic affiliation.