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With nuke talks on hold, Iran’s Raisi tours countryside to boost image

Elected in vote marked by record low turnout, former judiciary chief takes step back from international stage, while working to win the hearts and minds of his people

Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to win Iran's presidential election, waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to win Iran's presidential election, waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

TEHRAN (AFP) — While the world impatiently awaits Iran’s return to nuclear talks, ultraconservative new President Ebrahim Raisi has instead turned his sights inward, campaigning to build support in the provinces.

Elected in a vote marked by a record low turnout, the former judiciary chief has taken a step back from the international stage while working to win the hearts and minds of his people.

Since taking office in August, he has made seven domestic trips, in what state media has hailed as an outreach campaign to the common people.

On a visit to the southern province of Bushehr last week, Raisi declared he had come to “get to know the problems of the local people.”

“In the provinces, we want to find solutions for creating jobs, restarting production and resolving problems, particularly those of the most deprived,” he said.

Appearing unfazed by growing pressure over the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, he has delegated this issue to his foreign minister.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi attends a live televised interview with state-run TV, at the presidency office in Tehran, Iran, September 4, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Indirect talks had begun in April to restore a 2015 nuclear deal that offered Tehran relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for major curbs on its nuclear program, but which was abandoned by former US president Donald Trump.

Raisi’s election in June put those talks on hold, and pressure has since been mounting for Iran to go back to the negotiating table.

In the interim, Raisi has cultivated his image as a leader on the ground, close to the people — in contrast with his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, who was favored by the west, but sometimes viewed as detached from the populace.

Raisi “travels to the provinces because he wants to project an image of a pragmatic senior official looking for solutions on the ground,” Iran specialist Bernard Hourcade told AFP.

‘Feel the temperature’

If Iranian television painted a picture of Rouhani as a politician who mainly met allies in Tehran, Raisi is by contrast shown as being in dialogue with different segments of society.

“He knows that a nuclear deal risks taking a long time because there is no unanimity among those in charge of the issue in Iran,” said a Western diplomat who asked to remain anonymous.

“He prefers to prove himself in domestic politics.”

Raisi’s tour has taken him from the western province of Khuzestan, where tensions have run high due to water shortages, to Sistan-Baluchistan province in the east, which has long suffered from poor infrastructure.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament to defend his cabinet selection in the capital Tehran, on August 21, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

His domestic endeavors are backed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who, upon Raisi’s inauguration in August, charged him with restoring the people’s “damaged” trust in the government.

The crushing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, combined with mounting economic pressures and political crackdowns, all contributed to voter apathy.

“His primary preoccupation is to put out fires before they start,” said Hourcade of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

“And he knows that in an economically tenuous situation, fires start with local sparks that spread if we’re not careful. He must therefore be very attentive and visit those places to get a feel of the temperature.”

Deliver on promises

Khamenei has praised Raisi’s trips, declaring that “being popular has obligations, including going out and listening to the people.”

The sentiment has been echoed by many of the state’s media mouthpieces.

Official news agency IRNA carried a poll on its website, showing the “positive impact” of Raisi’s tours.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi, center, listens to a man during an unexpected visit to a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tehran, Iran, August 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The conservative daily Kayhan also celebrated Raisi’s common touch.

“We see today a president who doesn’t need an armored vehicle to understand the situation in the country,” it said. “He goes from province to province to familiarize himself with the realities and problems of the people.”

But praise for the new leader is not unanimous.

Majid Nasserinejad, an MP from Khuzestan, described the trips as mere “spectacle,” noting that “a day-long trip will not solve the problems of the province.”

The reformist paper Etemad similarly suggested that such tours are the bare minimum, but alone are “insufficient for governing.”

“Moreover, the solution to the problems is not in the hands of one person, not even the president.”

Muhammad Sahimi, an Iran analyst at the University of Southern California, suggested that the government must follow through with economic results.

“People may like what they hear, but if what is promised is not delivered, then they will be angry down the road,” he said.

“If the economy does not improve soon, the same people will turn on him.”

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