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Tehran, Iran CNN —  

Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judiciary chief with a brutal human rights record, will be the next president of Iran following his win in an uncompetitive election that most of the country sat out.

Raisi, who has long opposed engagement with the West and is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sailed to victory in a poll that saw all of his serious rivals barred in the runup to the race.

The 60-year-old won almost 18 million of the nearly 29 million ballots cast, Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli announced Saturday. But many reform-minded Iranians refused to take part in an election widely seen as a foregone conclusion. Overall voter turnout was 48.8% – the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Many activists accused Iran’s clerical establishment of “selecting” rather than electing the next president in a poll designed to further entrench the power of the country’s hardline clerical rulers, despite the public’s calls for reforms.

The historically low turnout came despite numerous pleas from Khamenei urging people to vote. On Friday, he warned that low turnout would “increase the pressure of the enemies.”

Raisi, the frontrunner, asked all Iranians to come to the polls "to solve the problems."
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Raisi, the frontrunner, asked all Iranians to come to the polls "to solve the problems."
A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Tehran on Friday.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Tehran on Friday.

President-elect Raisi will officially take office in 45 days, at which point he will become Iran’s eighth president. Until that time, Hassan Rouhani will remain acting president of Iran. Rouhani visited Raisi on Saturdayto offer his congratulations.

The election comes at a pivotal moment for Iran. The next government will have to confront an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and calls for constitutional reform. Tehran is also currently locked in negotiations with the United States about how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

The election of Raisi will further heighten speculation that he is being groomed to one day succeed 81-year-old Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. Under Iran’s political system, it is ultimately the Supreme Leader, not the president, who makes the final call on all major matters of state.

Raisi largely campaigned on an anti-graft platform – an apparent bid to appease voter frustrations with a flailing economy blamed on crippling US sanctions and government corruption.

For most of his career, however, he played a leading role in the prosecution of Iran’s political prisoners.

Khamenei cast his ballot on Friday and called on Iranians to get to the polls.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Khamenei cast his ballot on Friday and called on Iranians to get to the polls.

In 1988, Raisi was part of a four-person “death panel” that allegedly oversaw the mass execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners, according to rights groups. His two years as Iran’s chief justice were marked by the intensified repression of dissent and human rights abuses. Amnesty International demanded on Saturday that he be investigated for alleged crimes against humanity over the deaths.

Raisi has never commented on the allegations, but it’s widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retribution or international justice over the executions.

Raisi is no fan of the West, and has repeatedly extolled the benefits of Iran’s so-called “resistance economy,” which promotes economic self-reliance in the face of Western sanctions.

However, experts said his election was unlikely to affect the course of indirect negotiations with the United States on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Saturday he expected that talks on returning to the terms of the deal would “most likely” conclude before the end of Rouhani’s term in August.

“The Vienna talks are going well and it’s likely that there will be an agreement before the month of August, but there are still obstacles,” Zarif said.

If talks spill over into Raisi’s tenure, they will largely rely on who the incoming president appoints as his foreign minister. In 2015, the success of the deal, which saw Iran place limits on its uranium enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief, was largely attributed to Zarif.

Many experts see this election as one of the by-products of former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, when the US pulled out of the nuclear deal even though Tehran had complied with the terms of the pact.

From 2018 onwards, Trump unleashed a torrent of sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy and emboldened hardliners. The tiny window of opportunity granted by the clerical class to the moderate government of President Rouhani to engage with the US and Europe began to quickly close.

Trump had proven the hardliners’ skepticism about the West correct, Iran’s conservatives repeatedly said. The country’s reformist camp was undermined and conservatives swept a parliamentary election in 2020. Raisi’s election means Iran’s conservatives will now control all three branches of government.

Experts say Iran is unlikely to engage with the West beyond returning to the nuclear deal, satisfying itself with bolstering relations with Russia and China. It could also drop any pretense of democracy as it becomes less susceptible to Western criticism of its rights abuses in the aftermath of the possible restoration of the nuclear deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Raisi on Saturday. He expressed “hope for the further development of bilateral constructive cooperation in various fields, as well as interaction on international issues, noting that this is in the interests of the two countries,” Russian state media Ria Novosti reported.