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Judiciary Chief, Backed By Supreme Leader, Wins Iran Presidency


World leaders are sending congratulations to Iran's newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi. As expected, Raisi won a four-candidate race in convincing fashion with the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi now has four years to try to turn Iran's depressed economy around. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Tehran and joins us now. Hi, Peter.


MCCAMMON: So how did Raisi manage such a convincing victory?

KENYON: Well, he's been known for some time as a prominent hardline cleric and judge. He's known to be close to the supreme leader. None of the other candidates were as familiar to the public, I think it's fair to say. But perhaps the biggest factor in Raisi's success was the candidate selection process. That's handled by a largely clerical group known as the Guardian Council. They're charged with vetting potential candidates. And critics say the council made sure to disqualify the most serious potential rivals to Raisi, including people like Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani or Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. So Raisi had an advantage going into this very brief campaign.

MCCAMMON: There was a lot of talk about low turnout and even a call to boycott the vote. How did that turn out?

KENYON: Well, there are strong signs that the boycott message was heard. I can tell you from going around to precincts in Tehran many were seeing far fewer voters than in previous elections. It made casting a ballot much easier for those who did turn out. But for a country that prides itself on big election turnouts, it wasn't really a strong showing. Independent groups put it at well below 50%, although the official estimate of turnout is higher.

MCCAMMON: And what can you tell us about Raisi? Who is he?

KENYON: Well, he's a judge. He's the head of Iran's judiciary, also a hardline cleric. The main criticism you hear about him regarding his time as a judge was in the late 1980s. There were mass executions ordered by the court that he was on. Thousands of political prisoners were killed. Beyond that, he's definitely seen as a protege of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. It's also well-known that Raisi has ambitions to succeed Khamenei as Iran's next supreme leader.

MCCAMMON: And moving forward, what are his political priorities?

KENYON: Well, at the moment, he doesn't have much room to maneuver there. The top priority has to be Iran's depressed economy. Years of U.S. sanctions have devastated household incomes. Every Iranian I spoke with this week said the No. 1 task of the next president has to be raising the living standards of ordinary Iranians. Now, how exactly he might accomplish that is another question not exactly clear. There are talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, bringing the U.S. back into the agreement and Iran back into compliance. That could lead to the lifting of sanctions and might give the new government a chance to work on improving the economy.

MCCAMMON: Peter, in the Iranian system, how much power does Raisi actually have to carry out his policies?

KENYON: Well, good point. The Iranian president is not the decider when it comes to policymaking. That's the supreme leader. One Iranian put it this way. He said the president's comparable to a general director who has a nice title but basically serves to carry out the wishes of the CEO. That would be the supreme leader in this case. On the other hand, Raisi's political views are said to be closely aligned with the supreme leader's own views. So they may wind up working with little friction, but there will be no doubt who's the boss.

One question world powers will be asking is how a Raisi government might engage with the outside world. For instance, Raisi is said to be in favor of getting the 2015 nuclear deal restored to full operation with the U.S. back in it. But to be safe, proponents of the deal say negotiators in Vienna trying to accomplish that would do very well to finish their job before August. That's when the post-election transition in Iran ends, Rouhani exits and Raisi takes office.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Tehran. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.