There has been much speculation about the potential presidential candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi, a mid-ranking cleric whom many view as a potential challenger to President Hassan Rouhani in the May 2017 elections and also as a possible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader. This week, sources close to a hardline grouping made up of 17 different parties – the Front of the Followers of the Line of the Leader – reported that Raisi has secured the highest share of votes by members of the faction to become the list’s agreed 2017 consensus candidate. Later, a spokesperson denied that Raisi intends to run and is dedicated to his present role as the Custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, Iran’s holiest of religious sites.
Comment: Raisi is highly unlikely to run for the presidency in the May 2017 but such deliberate regime-engineered speculation about him is aimed to further elevate his stature as a leading figure despite the fact that he was a fairly obscure personality only a few years ago. The 57-year old has seen his political standing rise significantly since he was appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei in March 2016 as the Custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine. This is Iran’s most important shrine which is visited by millions of pilgrims each year and therefore also an important financial source. He replaced Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi, a man who was not only a very close personal friend of Khamenei going back to Khamenei’s youth but he had also been the head of the Imam Reza Shrine since the early 1980s. In other words, Raisi was about to fill some very big shoes. His appointment was the first instance in speculation in Iran whether this was a signal by Khamenei that he had handpicked the mid-ranking cleric to replace the Supreme Leader himself once he left the stage.