Iran's hardline presidential frontrunner could take the country back to a dark past, just as Iranians are itching for change

Ebrahim Raisi, an ally of the Supreme Leader, has played a decades-long role in a crackdown on Iranian dissidents.

(CNN)The list of challenges facing Iran's next president would confound the most capable of leaders.

Iran is in negotiations with the United States over how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, and in talks with regional nemesis Saudi Arabia. The country is in the throes of an economic crisis and is under mounting pressure to reform. And there are growing questions about succession plans for the 82-year-old Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Amid these tides of change, Iran's political elite has decided that the next face of the Islamic Republic should be a figure steeped in its conservative roots and directly linked to some of the darkest chapters of its history.
    Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judiciary chief with a brutal record on human rights, is running virtually uncontested in this week's presidential election, after Iran's clerical rulers barred most of his rivals from the race to replace outgoing Hassan Rouhani.
      While the outcome of the vote appears to be a foregone conclusion, what his election will mean for the country is far from clear. Analysts said the election of Raisi, a close ally of Khamenei, could signal a clampdown on dissent domestically, and a return to a more closed off Iran globally, at a pivotal moment.
      Women supporters of Raisi hold up his posters during a campaign rally in Eslamshahr, outside Tehran, on June 6.
      Raisi has played a decades-long role in a bloody crackdown on Iranian dissidents. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has accused him of crimes against humanity for being part of a four-man "death committee" that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988.
      Raisi has never commented on these allegations, but it's widely believed that he rarely leaves Iran for fear of retribution or international justice over the executions.
        More recently, his two years as Iran's chief justice were marked by the intensified repression of dissent and human rights abuses, according to CHRI. Among the many hardline moves of his tenure was the first execution in decades of a man for alcohol consumption.
        Late last year, a young wrestler was hanged in what human rights groups have described as a "travesty of justice" suspected to be linked to his participation in 2018 anti-government protests.
        "Iran is becoming an even more repressive state and with somebody who has blood on their hands like Ebrahim Raisi [as President], you could see things going in a darker direction than we've seen in recent memory," said Holly Dagres, Iran expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
        "Iran is heading in a North Korea-like direction of isolation," she added. "Iran has just two friends in the international community [Russia and China] and the path it's choosing is boxing up a very talented and educated populace."

        A selection or an election?

        While Raisi has drawn the ire of Iranian activists, so has the way in which he has emerged as the likely next president.
        The country's Guardian Council, an influential leading body that supervises the election, last month disqualified all major reformist and centrist contenders, whilst leading conservatives bowed out in order to boost the chances of Raisi winning.
        The process has been widely criticized, even by Khamenei, who called the disqualifications "unjust." The remarks were dismissed by many as an attempt by the Supreme Leader —the country's final arbiter in all matters of state — to play "good cop" in a brazen bid to engineer the race.
        "Elections in Iran have never been free nor fair but they have tended to be competitive and quite decisive," said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. "This time around, however, the degree to which the Guardian Council has reduced the spectrum of acceptable options is beyond what we have seen in the past."
        "As a result, we have voices from within the system itself urging for a boycott of the vote. That is a completely new scenario," Parsi added.