Who Is Ebrahim Raisi: Presidential Favourite Of Iran’s Hardliners?
On March 7, 2019, after weeks of delay, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Iranian regime, appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the head of the judiciary. Raisi is a cleric known as a criminal for participating in the largest massacre and genocide after World War II, the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.
Before joining the judiciary, he was the Special Attorney General for clerics, caretaker of the Astan-e-Quds-e-Razavi charity foundation, and a member of the Assembly of Experts. During the presidential election of 2017, Raisi was nominated as Khamenei’s favored candidate. But as a result of persistent revelations by the Iranian Resistance and PMOI/MEK about his role as a perpetrator of the killing and massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, he faced serious obstacles in his goal to climb to power.
Ebrahim Raisi Background
Mullah “Ebrahim Rais-al-Sadati” known as Ebrahim Raisi, was born in 1959 in the Noghan neighborhood in the city of Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi province. After finishing elementary school, he studied in Mashhad’s seminary. In fact, his non-seminary education is only up to sixth grade. He was sent from Mashhad’s seminary to Qom’s seminary at the age of 15.
Raisi was eighteen at the time of the 1979 anti-monarchic revolution. In the first days of the establishment of the regime, at the invitation of Hadi Marvi, Ruhollah Khomeini’s representative in Masjed-e-Soleiman, Raisi went to Masjed-e-Soleiman, and his connection with the clerical court began.
A year later, after returning from the crackdown on Masjed Soleiman, Raisi was sent to the Karaj Prosecutor’s Office as a judge while he was just 19 years old. His job there was basically to interrogate detainees. At the age of 20, the then Revolutionary Prosecutor, the criminal cleric Ali Qoddusi, appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the Karaj Prosecutor. After a few months and after countless crimes in Karaj, Ebrahim Raisi was appointed as the Prosecutor of Hamedan while simultaneously retaining his position in Karaj.
Raisi continued to suppress the people until 1984 as the Prosecutor of Hamedan. In 1984, when mullah Ali Razini became the head of the Central Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office, he appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the deputy head of the Central Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office.
At the time, the Central Prosecutor’s Office had three deputies: an economic deputy, a drug trafficking deputy, and a so-called “grouplets” deputy. Raisi, then 24, became deputy for grouplets. Raisi, then deputy of the Revolutionary Court Prosecutor’s Office, actively participated in all the regime’s atrocities. Particularly, he played an active role as a member of the Tehran “Death Commission” during the 1988 massacre.
In the summer of 1988, on Khomeini’s orders, more than 30,000 political prisoners were executed in Evin prisons in Tehran, Gohardasht, Karaj, and other prisons across Iran. Ebrahim Raisi, then successor of the Attorney General of Tehran, along with Hossein Ali Nayeri (The judge of Shari’a), Morteza Eshraqi (Prosecutor of Tehran), Mostafa Pourmohammadi (Ministry of Information deputy), and Ismail Shooshtari (head of the Department of Prisons) was the central decision-makers of these executions, known as the Delegation of Death. The delegation was commissioned by Khomeini to clarify the situation of those political prisoners who did not change their opinions against the clerical dictatorship and in support of PMOI/MEK.
The speed and volume of executions were so terrible that this crime against humanity and genocide created divisions and disputes within Khomeini's own officials. The most notable case was Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was Khomeini's successor at that time. Montazeri objected to Khomeini's approach to dealing with the PMOI/MEK. Montazeri believed that the solution to the PMOI's actions was not executions and that PMOI should be suppressed in other ways. Montazeri said that the PMOI is an ideology that exists in society and would not cease with executions.
On August 9, 2016, Ahmed Montazeri, the oldest son of Hossein Ali Montazeri, published his father's meeting with “Delegation of Death” on August 15, 1988, on his website. In a critical remark of executions, Hossein Ali Montazeri addresses the “Death Committee,” saying: "We will be condemned by the history and our name will be recorded as criminals."
In the audio file, Montazeri says: "It was the first of Muharram; I called Mr. Nayeri, Mr. Ishraqi, Mr. Raisi, and Mr. Pourmohammadi, and told them that now it is Muharram. At least keep the executions at the minimum in Muharram; Mr. Nayeri answered: ‘We have executed up to 750 people in Tehran, we separated 200 people from the rest as well, when we get rid of those, then we will follow what you say.’"
Thus, Raisi, who had been entered in the regime's killing machine when he was 18, took one of the main roles in the “Delegation of Death,” the most important role of this bloodshed committed by the religious fascism ruling Iran since 1979. Some of the survivors of those executions have reported that Akhund Raisi could be seen walking in the corridors and torture chambers of the prison without his religious attire and turban, overseeing executions.
After proving his cruelty during the massacre of 1988, Raisi earned Khomeini’s trust and was honored by him frequently.
On January 30, 1989, after considering the cruelty and devotion of Ebrahim Raisi, who was officially deputy of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, Khomeini promoted him to a two-member delegation along with Hossein Ali Nayeri, another member of the notorious Death Committee. The task of these two was issuing sentences of execution and cutting off hands and feet for the purpose of creating suppression and repression in the country "free of administrative obligations."
Khomeini was not satisfied with the brutality and cruelty of the judiciary system that had just disengaged from the killing of political prisoners. While expressing surprise at the stagnation of the judicial authorities, he appointed Raisi and Nayeri two weeks after the above verdict was issued in order to speed up his medieval laws.
"In the name of God, the merciful and the compassionate. Since the high judicial authorities of the country have no sensitivity over the current shocking issues, Hojatoleslam Nayeri and Raisi have been appointed to take necessary actions in the framework of dear Islam, according to the above cases. It is a surprise that such events occur in the Islamic system, but the execution of God's laws is shut down indifferently, and other judicial issues are preferable. "
Mousavi Ardebili, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council of the regime, saw his position in danger after Khomeini's letter to Raisi and Nayeri. As in that letter Khomeini had said that "The high judicial authorities of the country have no sensitivity," Ardebili decided to save his position and quickly went to Tehran's Friday prayer and said:
"The encumbrance of the judicial system prevented the sentences from being issued and recently it was informed to [Khomeini] that this task would be extended due to these problems. He considered the problem and sent us a letter that the execution of God's commandments should not be delayed. Once Imam had said this and we felt that we have the permission given by Imam himself, it was performed in 24 hours: Two people were executed, two hands were cut and three people were sent to jail. The tracking office is open all day long, and the issues can be informed by a telephone call. Just tell us that something has happened, we will quickly prepare courts using Imam's administration. In three, four, five days, we will end the problem." (Mousavi Ardebili - Friday prayer, January 19, 1989)
One day after the speech of Akhund Mousavi Ardebili announcing his public stand, Khomeini issued a new decree and in order to extend the authority of Raisi and Nayeri all the stagnant files in order to execute the death sentences, whipping, cutting off the hands and feet, and so on, as soon as possible.
Raisi only gained Khamenei’s trust and special attention after putting behind a violent history: Interrogator at the Masjed Soleyman Prosecutor's Office, prosecutor-general of Karaj, prosecutor of Karaj, prosecutor of Hamedan, prosecutor general of Hamedan and, after the massacre of summer 1988, prosecutor of Tehran, The head of the State Inspectorate, the First Deputy Chief of the Judiciary, the Special Prosecutor of the Clergy, the chairman of the Supervisory Council for Television and Radio (Seda va Sima), and the Attorney General.
During nationwide uprisings in 2009, Raisi was the first deputy of the judiciary and one of the main elements of the suppression against protesters. In one instance, when public opinion was against the Kahrizak detention center, a place where the physical and psychological torture of arrested youth was taking place during the uprising, the regime was forced to issue a response to the events. Raisi was selected by the head of the judiciary with two other people to examine the issue of sexual harassment in the prison. Despite the presence of eyewitnesses, on September 12, 2009, the three pretended the torture of detainees was a rumor. When Raisi, as one of the perpetrators of the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, was assigned to investigate torture in prison, the result was easily predictable. Ebrahim Raisi called the Kahrizak issue "marginal" and said that the main point is that this is great oppression of the Islamic system.
On February 26, 2019, Raisi, who was the Attorney General of the country, was appointed as the leader of Astan-e-Quds of Razavi by the order of Ali Khamenei. Astan-e-Quds is one of the largest economic empires in Iran, which holds a large part of the capital and companies in the northeast of Iran. Astan-e-Quds is a financial contributor to the Revolutionary Guards and is only accountable to the supreme leader.
On April 14, 2017, and during the elections for the presidency of the regime, Raisi introduced himself as an ideal candidate for Ali Khamenei’s faction. Immediately after his candidacy was announced, because of the deliberate revelations of the Iranian Resistance, the issue of the massacre of 1988 became fresh on people’s minds and the people and the hatred towards Raisi was renewed. As it aroused a wave of disgust and hatred in the society, people made slogans against Raisi such as "killer of ‘88". This made him face many difficulties on his election campaign and caused him to lose the election on May 19, 2017.
After losing the presidential election and looting the property of the people of Iran in Astan-e- Quds, Khamenei appointed Raisi as the head of the judiciary on March 7, 2019. Therefore, despite a life full of slaughter and cutting hands which he calls his honor, he has been positioned in a place with more freedom to suppress and loot.
The people of Iran have responded to Raisi’s appointment as judiciary chief by burning his pictures alongside those of Khamenei and Khomeini.
Key positions of power
Like the supreme leader, Raisi comes from the holy city of Mashhad, in northeast Iran. It was no coincidence that, in 2016, Khamenei appointed him to head the powerful religious foundation Astan Quds Razavi. The foundation manages the shrine of Imam Reza – the Prophet's eighth successor according to the Duodecimal Shiites – and is located in the same city of Mashhad.
This major Shiite pilgrimage site attracts billions of euros in donations, funds which the Astan Quds Razavi organization controls. The foundation, which functions as both a charity and a holding company, owns a multitude of real estate properties, farmland, and businesses in fields as diverse as construction, tourism, agriculture and food. To head this foundation is to run an economic empire. Raisi did this for three years, before being summoned by Khamenei to pursue a different role.
In March 2019, he was appointed head of the Iranian Judicial Authority. This was another influential appointment for Raisi, who was entrusted by Khamenei with the task of aggressively fighting "corruption".
Khamenei's loyal soldier, Raisi has multiplied the number of widely publicized corruption trials since he took office. He has targeted state dignitaries and also, in a new development, judges.
These trials have enabled him to oust some major political opponents, such as his predecessor at the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, whose close adviser was involved in one of these corruption scandals. Larijani is also the brother of Ali Larijani, whose own candidacy for the presidential elections was banned by the Guardian Council, probably as a result of this family affair.
Raisi has made the fight against corruption one of his central campaign slogans. In a statement, he presented himself as "the opponent of corruption, inefficiency, and aristocracy" and promised to fight relentlessly "against poverty" if elected.
Raisi officially entered the presidential race on 6 April 2017, stating that it was his “religious and revolutionary responsibility to run”. He expressed his willingness to consider a “fundamental change in the executive management of the country”. He is neither charismatic nor well-spoken, and in the first televised presidential debate, his performance was judged to be weak and monotonous. Despite the fact that he was the main conservative candidate, Raisi was upstaged by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s conservative mayor and a backup Principlist in the race.
The week before the election, Ghalibaf withdrew his candidacy in favor of Raisi. Nonetheless, Raisi, who was believed to be Khamenei’s preferred choice, stood little chance against the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, who was supported by popular reformist figures such as Mohammad Khatami. The moderates and reformists have historically been successful in mobilizing social groups around elections. On this occasion, all the important players in the reformist camp effectively rallied behind Rouhani.
During his campaign, Rouhani promised to open up the political space and adopt a rational foreign policy. Raisi primarily focused on pro-poor economic programs. In many ways, his visions and ideas echoed those of the supreme leader: anti-Western sentiment, social conservatism, and a ‘revolutionary’ approach to both the economy and foreign policy.
Prior to the election, rumors circulated about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its support for Raisi. Memories of the 2009 election, when the IRGC helped to get Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected, raised concerns among Rouhani’s supporters of vote-rigging. Despite rising tensions, however, the election was declared fair, transparent, and peaceful.
Raisi’s rival won in a landslide, with 23,549,616 (38.3 per cent) of the 42,382,390 votes. Raisi received 15,786,449 votes. He reacted by asking the Guardian Council to investigate ‘violations of the law’ before and during the election, suggesting that irregularities had benefitted his rival. He also refused to congratulate Rouhani on his win.
In December 2018, Iran’s supreme leader began making consequential personnel decisions that would affect Raisi’s career trajectory. After the death of former Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Khamenei elevated Sadegh Larijani, then chief justice, as his successor. The Expediency Council is a body that resolves differences between parliament and the Guardian Council. Larijani was nearing the end of his term at the helm of the judiciary in August 2019, after spending close to a decade in the powerful position. But Larijani would not occupy both positions for long. In March 2019, Iran’s supreme leader appointed Raisi as Larijani’s successor as chief justice. Such a move raised eyebrows as it came months before Larijani’s term was scheduled to end. If that promotion wasn’t enough, days later Raisi became deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, beating out Larijani himself.
Raisi has thus positioned himself well in the battle for succession as Khamenei ages. He controls one branch of government while commanding a leadership post in the body that is formally vested with the authority to select Iran’s next supreme leader. While Larijani was once thought to be a leading contender to become supreme leader, Raisi has systematically tarnished his brand, launching an anti-corruption case against his former deputy Akbar Tabari. Indeed, Larijani himself argued the revelations—the trial has been broadcast on state television—were part of a “pre-planned scenario” to sully his image. Raisi also claimed credit for the firing of at least 60 judges from the Larijani era. Raisi has additionally used anti-corruption as a political weapon against the Rouhani administration, with the president’s brother, the son-in-law of his labor minister, the daughter of his former industry minister, and his former vice president for women and family affairs being targeted under the watch of the new chief justice.
At the same time, Raisi has attempted to win plaudits from more pragmatic power centers in Iran—instituting stricter financial transparency measures for senior officials and ordering an investigation into “possible negligence” surrounding the death of a social media activist in prison. That’s not to mention the temporary release of prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak and the judiciary’s decision in July 2020 to order a retrial after outrage spread over the death sentences of three protesters detained after the unrest surrounding the new gas policy in November 2019.
The position of chief justice brings added advantages for Raisi as he now sits on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) as well as the Supreme Economic Coordination Council (SECC). Both positions enhance his resume as prior to 2019, Raisi had never served on either. The SNSC has given him firsthand experience in national security policymaking and the SECC has grown into an important political body, which, at times, has circumvented Iran’s legislative chamber. He has also courted members of the broader Axis of Resistance—for example, calling Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, in April 2020. Raisi has played a leading role in mobilizing Iran’s legal response to the strike which killed former IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, and was prominently pictured at Khamenei’s side at the late commander’s funeral. The optics spoke volumes.
Ebrahim Raisi’s career has been advanced by steady promotion by Iran’s supreme leader, an influential family base of power, and a shrewd ability to maximize his visibility and image. Raisi has developed a political brand base focused on anti-corruption and populism. Raisi is an important figure to watch as he checks a number of boxes, such as ties to military security forces to be a contender for the next Supreme Leader. It is worth mentioning again, however, that the Supreme Leader has not made his decision about his successor.
Raisi has now thrown his hat into the ring again for the June 2021 presidential election. As such, he is the first sitting chief justice to run. But his candidacy brings risks, as he could lose for a second time, potentially hurting his chances to succeed Khamenei. While the regime has stacked the deck in his favor, winning the presidency may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Dissatisfaction with the regime is at an all-time high due to continued economic stagnation, increased repression of protests, and the government’s lack of transparency and inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Iranians plan on boycotting the election and, as a result, have lost faith in Iran’s republican elements to address their grievances.
Should Raisi win the presidency, he will probably look to promoting his brand of populism and anti-corruption. He inherits massive economic problems compounded by decades of structural issues and mismanagement. The president is constitutionally disempowered to meaningfully alter the course of Iran’s public policy trajectory but often has more discretion in economic policy and thus receives more blame. The Islamic Republic’s core foreign policy trajectory, which is ultimately decided by the Supreme Leader, will probably continue.
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