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The surprising rise of the head of Iran's most influential charity

Ebrahim Raisi, head of one of Iran’s wealthiest organizations, appears to be using his position to put himself in the national spotlight ahead of presidential elections.

When Ebrahim Raisi was appointed a year ago to lead Astan-e Quds Razavi, Iran’s wealthiest and most influential charitable organization, few would have predicted that it could have ramifications for the country's next presidential election, scheduled for 14 months later.

Before Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei selected Raisi to succeed Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi as head of Astan-e Quds Razavi, there had been little coverage of him by national news media outlets, despite his having a long history of working in the judiciary, dating back to the 1980s, including serving as attorney general (2014-16). Since his appointment, Raisi appears to have received a clerical promotion — with some media now referring to him as ayatollah rather than hojat al-Islam, a lower rank — and his every appearance or statement gets a featured spot in news agency reporting.

On March 29, Raisi visited a poor, rural village near Mashhad. Images of a somber Raisi walking among the dilapidated homes and talking to the villagers were shared widely across conservative media. According to reports, the directors of Astan-e Quds Razavi had traveled to the village for an up close look at the lives of the economically deprived.

Astan-e Quds Razavi is linked to the shrine of the eighth Shiite imam, in Mashhad, which is the holiest site in Iran for Shiites. The organization, in addition to its endowments, has numerous investments and holds real estate around the shrine. It is not terribly uncommon that comments by the head of Astan-e Quds Razavi would receive widespread media coverage. With economic concerns looming large over the May presidential election, however, it appears that Raisi is using his organization's functions to raise his profile, particularly among the poorer classes.

Given that Khamenei has made economic improvement a focus for the Iranian year that began this month, it makes sense for Raisi to stress his credentials in this regard. With the nuclear deal more or less a settled matter, conservatives are hitting President Hassan Rouhani on the economy, which appears to be where he is most vulnerable. Raisi, by being in charge of a foundation valued in the billions of dollars, is in a position not only to make notable public appearances, but also to address the needs of the poor and destitute, particularly in his province of Khorasan.

According to reporting on Raisi’s latest outing, he has made a number of visits that have the feel and appearance of the “listening tours” conducted during American presidential campaigns. Raisi is not yet officially a candidate; registration will not take place until April 28. It is possible that Raisi may ultimately not be running this year, and instead is using his visits to raise his profile on the national level while gauging a future run for office. Regardless, momentum for a Raisi candidacy is picking up among his supporters.

According to a March 27 article, 50 out of the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, tasked with electing the supreme leader, signed a letter expressing support for Raisi’s candidacy. Raisi is himself a member of the assembly. The petition letter did not contain the names of those who signed it, but there are rumors that Raisi’s father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, an influential conservative cleric, was behind it. In addition to sitting on the Assembly of Experts, Alamolholda is the Friday prayer leader in Mashhad.

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