In 1988, at the age of 28, he became one of four people on the infamous Panel of Death that sent thousands of political prisoners to their deaths at the stroke of a pen.
It was more of a coronation than a contest. When you are the favourite candidate of the Supreme Leader, the virtual dictator of the country; when the Guardian Council, all of whose 12 members are picked by the Supreme Leader, leaves nothing to chance by disqualifying all of your notable rivals; and when your supporters count the votes, it’s small wonder that you win. So it was last week when the hard-line cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, already sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, came first in a rigged, pre-ordained election. As Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard, said after the election: “that Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
The most telling thing about the election, however, was the 28.9 million out of 59 million eligible voters who didn’t vote, or those 3.7 million people who either accidentally or intentionally voided their ballots, three times the numbers seen in previous ballots. It strongly indicated that they wanted none of the four candidates, as even former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had been disqualified from running this time, had called for a boycott of the election.
While Iran does not have mandatory voting, those casting ballots do receive stamps on their birth certificates showing they voted, causing some to worry that this could affect their ability to apply for jobs and scholarships, or hold onto their positions in the government or security forces. But even this didn’t stop vast numbers from registering their dissatisfaction by staying away in the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.
The election last week came at a most critical time in the Middle East since Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic 42 years ago. A strident critic of the West, the 60-year-old Raisi will become President on 3 August, just as Iran seeks to salvage the tattered nuclear deal and be rid of punishing US sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy. But who is this man, feared at home but largely unknown to the outside world, and what impact will his arrival have on the complex political situation in the region?
Born in 1960 to a clerical family in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, a place of religious pilgrimage with a mosque claiming to be the largest in the world by area, Raisi lost his father at the age of 5 and, like many cleric’s sons, joined the seminary at an early age. He was 15 when, donning his clerical garb, he headed to the city of Qom, the centre of Shia learning, where for 14 years he studied under his mentor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s lifetime Supreme Leader in 1989. Like Khamenei, Raisi’s family claims to be descendants from the Prophet Mohammed, thus earning the right to wear a black turban and enjoy the admiration of many of the faithful Shias who believe in the charismatic powers of the Prophet’s progeny. Had it not been for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which the 18-year-old Raisi is not known to have played any role, he would have probably dedicated his life to religious education and training.
Within a year of the new regime, as Iran’s judicial staff lost their jobs en masse, “revolutionary courts” were set up, their most pressing task often being mass executions of former regime officials and an ever widening circle of political rivals. At the age of just 19, Raisi was sent to help set up revolutionary courts in the south-western province of Iran, where he quickly became known for his steely determination and brutality. These were the days when the revolution was most brutal and violent, with thousands of political opponents being executed. You could be jailed for owning a video recorder, a violin, or a set of playing cards. Even wearing a short-sleeved shirt or a loose veil could get you into trouble. The ultimate system loyalist, Raisi was just the right man for enforcing such brutalities and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Teheran’s deputy prosecutor. In 1988, at the age of 28, he became one of four people on the infamous Panel of Death that sent thousands of political prisoners to their deaths at the stroke of a pen. This dour, shadowy cleric expressed pride in public hand and feet amputations, even for tiny infringements of the law.
With Raisi leading the Iranian government, all hope some had still harboured about reforms from within will be gone. He holds conservative views on social issues from dress code to Internet use, and appears determined to maintain, even cement, the status quo. All this will make any initiative directed at Iran’s domestic sphere more difficult to execute. Given that the Iranian leadership has refused Western vaccines and aid, while viewing foreigners with international contacts as potential spies, there is little room for the “constructive engagement” many are hoping for once the nuclear deal is back on track.
In his first remarks following his election, Raisi promised to salvage Iran’s nuclear deal with the West to secure relief from devastating US sanctions, but ruled out any limits to Iran’s missile capabilities and support for regional militias, issues that Washington viewed as shortcomings of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the Biden administration wants addressed. “It’s non-negotiable”, Raisi said of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, adding that the US “is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran”.
Since former President Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the hard won landmark deal, Teheran has abandoned every limitation on the enrichment of its uranium, now at 60%—its highest ever, though still short of weapons-grade 90%. The immediate concern is rather with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to inspect and verify Iran’s nuclear installations, as an interim agreement is expiring at the end of this month, threatening to severely curtail the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground. Given that the Iranian leadership appears to have banked on the eventual lifting of sanctions, however, this hurdle should be surmountable. It would be in Raisi’s interest to turn a blind eye to quick progress towards a solution before he assumes the presidency, as he will then be able to bask in the benefits of that decision while blaming any remaining faults on his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.
The arrival of Raisi has inevitably focused minds on the unavoidable power struggle that is bound to ensue upon the death of the Supreme Leader. With Khamenei at 82, and not known to be a healthy man, Raisi is now in a strong position for the top job. The clerically dominated establishment of Iran is mostly gathered in the Guardian Council and in the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body of mostly conservative clerics that is constitutionally mandated with picking the next Supreme Leader. For the past three decades, Khamenei, a masterful tactician, has been able to strong-arm his rivals out of all meaningful positions of power in such bodies. He has done so by relying on two major levers: reliable yes-men clerics, such as Raisi, and the military muscle of the men in khaki, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who have also led the project of Iranian interventions in the Arab world, a cornerstone of Khamenei’s claim to revolutionary legitimacy.
Khamenei is said to be suffering from prostate cancer and should he die in the near future, his likely successor as Supreme Leader would be the politically inexperienced Raisi, someone incapable of addressing the grievances and expectations of Iran’s citizens. Imagine the scenario: a mass murderer facing a mass uprising. The result would be a take-over by the IRGC, when the men with guns would dominate the men with turbans, leading to a host of unexpected consequences for the Islamic Republic. Not to mention the unstable region in which it operates with so much fanfare.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.