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Popular justice chief stands against reformers in Iranian presidential election

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Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi has announced that he will run in the June 18 presidential election.

Once lambasted for his alleged involvement in mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, Raisi has recast himself as a populist, campaigning against corruption, talking to ordinary people about their court cases and travelling to deprived provinces during the pandemic.

Raisi is seen as the leading candidate but will be challenged by pro-reform politicians on a list that will be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog.

Before officially registering his nomination at the interior ministry on Saturday, the 60-year-old cleric said incremental changes in the country had not helped it achieve the goal of becoming a strong Iran.

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“The result of the election should be real development to bring back hope and enthusiasm to society,” he said. “In the near future, the bitter feelings of injustice . . . will turn into the sweet and desirable taste of implementation of justice.”

President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist politician who gambled on agreeing the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers, will step down this summer after two terms in office.

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the nuclear agreement in 2018 and impose tough sanctions on Iran was a huge blow to Rouhani and the pro-reform forces who had supported his candidacy.

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Reformists must win the support of Iranians who backed Rouhani in his 2017 landslide victory over Raisi, but who have said they will never vote again in protest against the economic hardship caused by US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

Many Iranians believe having a hardliner such as Raisi as president would make no real difference as pro- and anti-reform politicians are all the same.

First vice-president Es’haq Jahangiri is the main reformist candidate. He acknowledged on Saturday that public trust in the ruling institutions had declined and that many people no longer believed their votes could make a change.

He warned Iranians that the country’s situation was alarming and could get worse if they remained passive.

“I understand that many compatriots are upset about misgovernance and have no hopes in the elections,” he said. “We have no other choice but to revive the ballot boxes.”

As a member of the outgoing government Jahangiri is held responsible by many Iranians, including business figures, for their suffering and Rouhani’s poor economic record.

Ali Larijani, a 63-year-old centrist politician and former parliamentary speaker is another top candidate who registered on Saturday morning. He is mostly known internationally as Iran’s former nuclear negotiator.

Larijani backed Iran’s president during previous nuclear negotiations and his role in the legislative body was crucial. By standing against hardline forces he enabled Rouhani to strike the accord with world powers.

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The biggest challenge of the election is the expected low turnout, which would be seen as a rejection of the Islamic republic.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that his first priority was a high turnout that would “help increase the country’s deterrence power, give it security and credibility”.

Raisi, widely believed to be backed by the elite Revolutionary Guards, could benefit from a pro-reform voters’ boycott because he appeals to lower middle-class Iranians who tend to vote in all elections and usually favour populist politicians.

He is also close to the supreme leader and as the top judicial official is identified with the focus on promoting domestic production rather than better international relations.

Raisi nevertheless backed nuclear talks in Vienna and said he would pursue “smart and innovative diplomacy” and would not “waste a second to have the cruel sanctions lifted” if elected.

The Guardian Council will announce the names of those permitted to run in the election ahead of the three-week campaign that begins on May 28.

Dozens of politicians and military figures have registered. Most are expected to be barred.

The list includes Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former political prisoner, who has broken social and political taboos by demanding an end to the obligatory Islamic cover for women and has challenged the absolute authority of the supreme leader.

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Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s former hardline president who remains popular among the poor but has fallen foul of the regime, registered his candidacy on Wednesday. He said he would not vote for any candidate if he were to be barred from running, a move that could weaken support for Raisi among the poorest segments of society.

Larijani said on Saturday “the economic field is neither a garrison nor a court to be managed with orders”, clearly targeting the guards’ members as well as Raisi and his anti-corruption campaign. “It is naive to think a couple of populist moves can help resolve [Iran’s] problems.”

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