TEHRAN: A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency yesterday shows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) meeting with Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia in Tehran. – AFP

TEHRAN: 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 in a bid to win the hearts and minds of his people.

Since taken 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 unphased by growing pressure over the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, he has delegated this issue to his foreign minister. Indirect negotiations 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 Washington under former 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 technocrat 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. His domestic endeavours are backed by 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, coupled 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 praised Raisi for visiting Khuzestan in September, a sentiment 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. 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”. 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.” – AFP