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Iran judiciary chief stages first campaign rally despite virus

Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, widely expected to win June 18 race, addresses thousands of supporters in crowded stadium amid rising infection count and scorching temperatures

Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iran's judiciary, waves to media as he attends at the Interior Ministry to register his candidacy for the June 18 presidential elections at the elections headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Tehran, Iran, May 15, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iran's judiciary, waves to media as he attends at the Interior Ministry to register his candidacy for the June 18 presidential elections at the elections headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Tehran, Iran, May 15, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Iran’s leading presidential candidate staged a mass rally in the country’s southeast that drew thousands of supporters late Wednesday, the first such gathering amid the raging coronavirus pandemic that has largely halted traditional election campaigning.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, toured the oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province and addressed some 5,000 supporters at a sprawling soccer stadium in the city of Ahvaz. Despite the rising infection count and scorching temperature of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), crowds mobbed the stadium to hear Raisi speak.

Although government officials claimed the city’s mass event was held in “full compliance” with coronavirus measures, there were no signs of social distancing on the field. Some supporters wore masks while others did not.

Raisi, the candidate who analysts suggest is the front-runner in the June 18 race — other popular candidates were disqualified by the regime’s Guardian Council — took the stage just before midnight amid pounding Farsi pop music. “Raisi, Raisi, we support you!” the crowds thundered, waving signs.

File: A young supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds up his poster during an election campaign rally in the city of Eslamshahr, about 25 kilometers south of the capital Tehran, on June 6, 2021. (AFP)

During his speech, the cleric, wearing a black turban, opined on the country’s grievances. He described Khuzestan as “very deprived” and promised that if he becomes president, he would focus on solving the province’s problems.

His supporters delivered him handwritten personal letters about their economic hardships at the event, state-run IRNA news agency reported, continuing a trend popularized by former hardline populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The rare rally comes as candidates hope to reignite flagging enthusiasm in the presidential vote and boost turnout, viewed by officials as a sign of confidence in the theocracy since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The typical election frenzy has been subdued by the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East and public disillusionment amid a series of mounting crises.

Raisi’s close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his popularity — due partly to his televised anti-corruption campaign — have made him a favorite in the election, particularly after only a small number of relatively unknown candidates were allowed to run against him.

Posters of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi are seen hanging at a campaign office in Tehran on June 7, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

He garnered nearly 16 million votes in the 2017 election and lost that race to Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration struck the 2015 nuclear accord.

Analysts already believe that hardliners enjoy an edge as Rouhani is term limited from running again. The public has widely grown disenchanted with Rouhani’s administration after 2018, when then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal and reimposed crushing sanctions.

Iran is struggling with successive COVID surges and a slow vaccine rollout. Authorities recorded 157 deaths from the coronavirus in the last day, bringing the death toll to 81,519 out of nearly 3 million infections.

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