Raisi is, however, a protégé of Ayatollah Khamenei. The supreme leader appointed Raisi to the key position of custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, the mausoleum of the eighth Shia Imam, and the beneficiary of large religious endowments. Many observers think Khamenei’s intention all along was to raise his political profile and position him as the leading presidential candidate in the 2021 elections if he fails to win this time. He may also be grooming Raisi as a potential successor, no doubt much to the chagrin of Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, who also aspires to the office of supreme leader.
So far, however, in the three scheduled and televised presidential debates, and in campaign speeches, Rouhani has outshone Raisi with his superior command of both domestic and international issues. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis (and Sadeq’s brother) and the leader of the moderate conservatives, this week announced his group would support Rouhani for president, as did former president Mohammad Khatami, Faezeh Hashemi, the outspoken daughter of the late former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the Green movement leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, both of whom remain under house arrest.
Although Khamenei, as supreme leader, is Iran’s ultimate decision maker, the president still wields considerable influence in shaping economic, social, and other domestic policies. Except for the ministries of information, intelligence, and foreign affairs, where final say on appointments lies with the supreme leader, the president is generally free to select his own cabinet. However, the national broadcasting services do not answer to him; and like other recent presidents, Rouhani has exercised little authority over the military and the security agencies. He has largely failed to improve the human-rights situation in Iran. The number of executions rose during his tenure, as have the number of political prisoners—men, women, and dual nationals—arrested, tried on flimsy charges, and imprisoned.
While Rouhani did conclude a nuclear agreement with world powers—a clear success—his influence on Iran’s foreign policy has been limited. Iran’s policies and its role in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Lebanon, are the prerogative of the Revolutionary Guards, and particularly of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force, who reports directly to the supreme leader. The Revolutionary Guards are also the channel for Iranian support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen—support that has greatly aggravated Iran’s relations with the Arab states. Rouhani may have wished for better relations with America and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. But his intentions have been undercut by the Guards, with the support of the supreme leader.