The iron fist of Iran’s next president
Iran’s presidential election will be held in less than two weeks and Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the country’s judiciary, appears to be the top contender. This raises the question: Who exactly is he?
Born in 1960 in the city of Mashhad, Ebrahim Rais Al-Sadati attended a Shiite seminary in his home town during the era of Mohammed Reza Shah. He later moved to Qom’s seminary. As an ambitious teenager amid the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Raisi began cooperating with Ayatollah Khomeini’s political party. He seized the opportunity and proved his loyalty to the revolutionary ideals of Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic.
By showing that he would not hesitate to suppress those who oppose the Islamic Republic or pose a threat to its survival, Raisi was appointed a judge in the Karaj Prosecutor’s Office at the age of just 19, even though he had no formal university education. A year later, he was appointed as prosecutor for Karaj, the fourth-largest city in Iran. In addition, he was also appointed as the prosecutor for Hamadan Province in the west of the country, holding both positions at the same time.
From Khomeini’s viewpoint, Raisi was successful at proving his loyalty as a prosecutor in the first few years after the revolution. He reportedly silenced many dissidents and oppositional groups. Raisi later wielded even more power and would directly communicate with Khomeini.
At age 24, Raisi was appointed deputy of the Revolutionary Court’s prosecutor’s office, where he would be known for and implicated in one of the world’s largest mass executions, as a member of the “Death Commission.” More than 30,000 people were executed, including children and pregnant women, during the 1988 purge. A 2016 US draft resolution stated: “Over a four-month period in 1988, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran carried out the barbaric mass executions of thousands of political prisoners and many unrelated political groups… According to a report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the massacre was carried out pursuant to a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.”
The late Hussein-Ali Montazeri — one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, a human rights activist, Islamic theologian and the designated successor to Khomeini until the very last moments of the latter’s life — said of the massacre: “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the (1979) revolution and history will condemn us for it… History will write you down as criminals.”
From Khomeini’s viewpoint, Raisi was successful at proving his loyalty as a prosecutor in the first few years after the revolution.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Montazeri pleaded with Raisi and his colleagues to stop the executions. In his memoirs, he stated: “It was first of (the Islamic month of) Muharram; I asked Mr. Nayyeri, Mr. Eshraqi, Mr. Raisi and Mr. Pourmohammadi and said, ‘Now is Muharram. At least stop the executions in Muharram.’ Mr. Nayyeri told me: ‘We have so far executed 750 in Tehran and separated 200 as those persevering on their position. Let us finish them and then, whatever you say, we shall do it’.”
After a decade of successfully cracking down on the opposition, obeying Khomeini’s orders, facilitating executions, and consolidating the power of the Islamic Republic, Raisi further proved his loyalty to the regime and climbed the political ladder through a series of promotions and appointments by the supreme leader. He was appointed to positions including the prosecutor of Tehran, chairman of the National Television Supervisory Council, head of the General Inspection Office, and attorney general.
When the so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani assumed office, he was aware of Raisi’s deep connections to the regime and the supreme leader. Raisi was subsequently made the head of the Astan Quds Razavi foundation, which has billions of dollars in revenues and is exempt from paying taxes. Under Rouhani’s presidency, other members of the Death Commission have been promoted, including Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the former representative of the Intelligence Ministry to the notorious Evin Prison, who was made justice minister.
Finally, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2019 appointed Raisi as the head of the regime’s judicial system. After his appointment, Raisi said out in a speech to the 23rd national assembly of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and officials: “We will not cut the fingers of those who are corrupt; we will cut off their entire hand.”
The US Treasury Department placed Raisi on its sanctions list in November 2019.
In a nutshell, having never held elected office, Raisi has made his way to the top through his use of an iron fist.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh