To see Ebrahim Raisi, newly elected to Iran's presidency, as a cleric heading a clerical regime would be a mistake. He is as much of a cleric as Saddam Hussein was a Field Marshal. It would also be a mistake to see him, as some American "liberals" have done, as more "open to the world" because he claims a PhD. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
Now what? This is the question Iranians ask these days as they try to absorb the shock of the latest elections which has propelled another turban into the presidency of the Islamic Republic.
Leaving aside the first two whose ephemeral career was too short to merit attention, the Islamic Republic has had five presidents.
Of these, only one, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did not pretend to be a man of the cloth. Of the remaining four two, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, wore white turbans that designated them as "common folk" (aam in Arabic) while two others, Ali Khamenei and Muhammad Khatami, donned black turbans and the title of "sayyed" which in Persian designates the descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatimah az-Zahra, thus regarded as "special".
The new president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, also wears a black turban, indicating the ruling elite's determination to close ranks under the flag of Bani-Hashem.
However, there are a number of differences in Raisi's case compared to his predecessors.
He is the first to win the presidency with the title of ayatollah. The other turbaned presidents entered the game as mere Hojat al-Islam, the title of mid-ranking Shiite clerics. One, Rafsanjani, promoted himself to ayatollahhood years after his presidency had ended. Another, Khamenei, started to use the title of Ayatollah two decades later when he had already reached the top of the regime as "Supreme Guide". The remaining one, Khatami never dared progress beyond Hojat al-Islam.
Not satisfied with the title of ayatollah, Raisi also becomes the second Islamic Republic president after Rouhani to use the title of Doctor (doktur in Persian).
None of the turban-wearing presidents had undergone an authentic theological training, a scheme that would demand decades of study and training on the job before a man could claim the title of Hojat al-Islam, let alone ayatollah. Khamenei had received perfunctory theological education before he became a political activist, ending up with four years of banishment from his home province. After the revolution, he had a decade of official activity, including years as president, and thus was unable to attend any theological classes. His self-promotion to ayatollah and later grand-ayatollah was a pure public relations operation.
For his part, before the revolution Rafsanjani had been a building contractor and businessman, transforming himself into a cleric by wearing a white turban and going around as a Hojat al-Islam. Before the revolution, Khatami, too, had not thought of pursuing a clerical career and tried to obtain a degree in chemistry from Tehran University.
As for Rouhani, he was working for a diploma in textile design when the rumblings of revolt persuaded him to wear a white turban and jump on the coming gravy train piloted by Khomeini. Later, to cover up for his lack of a theological education he promoted himself to "doctor" by claiming he has PhD from a college in Scotland.
Thus Raisi is the first to start his presidency with the triple title of "doktur", ayatollah and "sayyed". In other words, he has all that all his predecessors claimed and more. More importantly, having been in his teens when the Shah left Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived, he is a pure product of the new regime found by Khomeini; a bionic man put together by the infernal machine of the Khomeinist state and reflecting all its pretensions and contradictions. He is also closer to a new generation of nomenklatura than his turbaned predecessors.
These points merit attention because to see Raisi as a cleric heading a clerical regime would be a mistake. He is as much of a cleric as Saddam Hussein was a Field Marshal. It would also be a mistake to see him, as some American "liberals" have done, as more "open to the world" because he claims a PhD.
At the other end of the spectrum, many people see Raisi as an Iranian caricature of Judge Blood because, as a junior judge, he had been part of a group of mullahs issuing thousands, some say tens of thousands, of death sentences on dissidents and other opponents of the regime. However, to see Raisi as a mere puppet playing Judge Blood could also be misleading. Raisi has been created by a network of Mafia-like interests linked to the military-security apparatus that has embraced the Iranian-nation, sucking its vial energies, as a poison ivy that could kill a towering oak with a tight embrace.
Those who wish to deal with the Islamic Republic should know that they are not dealing either with the Shiite clergy as such or with Iran as a nation-state. Even those who see the Islamic Republic as an ideological vehicle for exporting "revolution" may have to revise their copy. Raisi's victory is the victory of a coterie that cares neither for Iran nor for revolution as long as it can advance its position of power and protect its ill-gained assets. Khamenei is the apprentice wizard that helped create this monster and, in time, is becoming its façade.
As the latest election showed the coterie in question still can depend on the support of some 30 percent of Iranians eligible to vote, mostly in small and mid-size towns. In almost all major cities, including Tehran, the official turnout was below 30 percent. All in all, the absentees and those who wasted their ballot papers, came second after Raisi, leaving the three other dwarfish candidates in freezing zones as far as the number of votes is concerned.
For those opposing the regime, the good news is that Raisi enjoys a lower degree of popular legitimacy than any of his predecessors while the regime, in dire straits as a result of economic meltdown and mismanagement under Rouhani, may not have the resources to embark on new domestic or foreign adventures.
There is also the possibility that the marginalization of "New York Boys" may enable the "Moscow Boys" to gain a bigger say which, in turn, could put the Islamic Republic on a tighter leash held by Vladimir Putin. It was no accident that Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate Raisi on his victory.
Even then, much depends on the Biden administration's decision whether to save the Khomeinist regime by opening the cash-faucets as President Obama did or to wait and see whether Putin could rein in the Khomeinist zombie as he did with the Assad clique in Syria.
Paradoxically, the concentration of power in the hands of the faction of which Khamenei is the face could mean that Tehran may be more likely to bend now than it ever was. If things go wrong domestically, as they are bound to if current policies remain in place, the clique won't be able to blame it on the "New York Boys".
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.