By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
LONDON, April 9 (Reuters) - Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, seen as pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani's main challenger in a May 19 election, is a close ally of Iran's supreme leader and despises the West.
The hardline faction in Tehran appears to have reached consensus on the candidacy of the 57-year-old cleric, hoping to avoid splitting the vote of those avid for what they see as a revival of the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Raisi is a mid-ranking figure in the hierarchy of Iran's Shi'ite Muslim clergy but has been a senior official for decades in the judiciary which enforces clerical control of the country.
The former prosecutor-general may struggle for recognition among voters, though analysts say Raisi, thanks to the support he enjoys from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could pose a real challenge to Rouhani's bid for a second term.
"His candidacy comes as a surprise and he definitely poses a challenge, a big one, to Rouhani," said Hossein Rassam, a former Iran adviser to Britain's Foreign Office.
"Chances are even greater now that we will be having a two-round election in Iran, with a very polarised second round."
Rouhani was elected four years ago in a landslide, avoiding a run-off by securing more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, on promises to reduce Iran's international isolation and bring more freedoms at home. No other candidate won more than 17 percent of the vote.
But this time around Rouhani could face a tougher challenge, if a single hardliner like Raisi unifies conservatives against him and forces a second round.
Rouhani's signature achievement, a deal with world powers to curb Iran's nuclear programme in return for lifting financial sanctions, has yet to bring the broadbased economic benefits that the government says are coming. Some supporters also say they are disheartened by the slow pace of domestic change.
Raisi has tapped into hardline criticism of Rouhani's record, saying the president bet too strongly on rapprochement with enemies and did too little at home to improve the economy.
"Our problems are not something to be resolved by Americans and Westerners," Raisi said in September. "They have not resolved a single problem of any country. They have brought nothing but misery to other nations."
Raisi announced his intention to run on Sunday. In a statement published on Iranian news agencies he said the first step to resolving Iran's economic problems was a change of leadership, asking voters to support a "competent and knowledgeable" government under his command.
Khamenei appointed Raisi in 2016 as the custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, an organisation in charge of a multi-billion-dollar religious foundation that manages donations to the country's holiest shrine in the northern city of Mashhad.
The religious conglomerate, whose economic arm lists 36 subsidiary companies and institutes on its website, owns mines, textile factories, a pharmaceutical plant and even a major oil and gas firm.
Even before the revolution, "those who led this endowment were very close to the head of state, to the supreme power of the country," a former senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Raisi has lots of power."
Insiders said Khamenei, who outranks the elected president in Iran's system, had approved Raisi's candidacy. Raisi resigned last week from the election supervision board, a position which would not have allowed him to run in elections.
"Without Khamenei's approval, Raisi could not resign from his current position to run for the presidency," said a senior official, who asked not to be named. "He is a very strong rival for Rouhani."
IN DARK CORRIDORS
Raisi's bid for the presidency alarms some reformists because of his long service in Iran's hardline judiciary. He was deputy prosecutor of Tehran in 1988 at a time when thousands of political prisoners were executed.
A 28-year-old audio tape surfaced last summer of a meeting between Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a founder of the revolution who was then deputy supreme leader, and the judiciary officials in charge of the executions, including Raisi.
In the recording, Montazeri, who would later become Iran's most influential internal proponent of reform, said the executions included "pregnant women and 15-year-old girls" and were the "biggest crimes committed by the Islamic Republic".
The son of Montazeri was arrested and sentenced to jail for release of the tape. Raisi prosecuted his case.
Raisi was deputy head of judiciary for ten years, before being appointed in 2014 as Iran's prosecutor-general.
"Raisi knows his way in the dark corridors of Iranian politics very well. But he is more used to grilling politicians in the comfortable shade of the judiciary than standing in the blazing sun of public eye," said Rassam, the former Iran adviser to Britain.
Some Iranian politicians believe Raisi is being groomed to succeed Khamenei, the 77-year-old supreme leader who has been in power since 1989, and the presidency is just a first step.
"Raisi is in Khamenei's circle of trust. He has been one of Khamenei's students and his thoughts are very close to the Supreme Leader's," reformist former lawmaker Jamileh Kadivar told Reuters. (Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Tom Finn in Doha, Yeganeh Torbati in Washnigton DC; Editing by Peter Graff)