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An Executioner Fond of the Gallows: Who Is Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's New President

The controversial cleric received praises from Iran's allies following his election; human rights groups and Israel meanwhile point to Ebrahim Raisi's bloody past

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A supporter of Ebrahim Raisi displays his portrait during a celebratory rally for his presidential election victory in Tehran, Iran 2021.
A supporter of Ebrahim Raisi displays his portrait during a celebratory rally for his presidential election victory in Tehran, Iran 2021.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president has now placed all the regime’s institutions in the hands of hard-liners. Following last year’s parliamentary election, in which the conservatives won a large majority, the presidency will now also become the executive arm of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who, even before the election of departing President Hassan Rohani, had to contend with contrarian presidents such as Mohammad Khatami, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the end of his second term.

This is a regime that will welcome “recommendations” by the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, and that will have no problem in passing its policies through parliament and in its dealing with Khamenei. Under his guidance, Raisi has already stated that he supports the nuclear accord “as long as it serves Iran’s interests.”

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The accord is expected to reopen foreign investment channels and renew the flow of Iranian oil to the world, lining the pockets of Iran’s political and economic elites. It’s still too early to assess how Raisi will manage Iran’s foreign relations, an area that is under the absolute control of Khamenei and his close advisers.

Until recently, Iran showed a willingness to resume its relations with Saudi Arabia. It needs stable relations with European countries in order to realize the benefits of the nuclear accord. Its relations with Russia have been strengthened and China enjoys the status of a landowner after signing a strategic economic pact with Iran last March. The deal is worth $400 billion, spread over 25 years.

It seems that U.S. President Joe Biden, who hoped to turn the nuclear accord into a lever that would lead to further deals for cooperation with Iran, may now find a regime headed by a conservative and determined president who will be in no rush to melt the iceberg that has characterized the relations between the two countries since the Islamic revolution.

Biden will have to contend not only with Iran’s regime. With the lifting of sanctions, it will be China – and to a lesser extent, Russia – that will be challenging Biden’s policy of curtailing their power. Opening Iran to its two rivals may be the heavy price Washington needs to pay to block the development of Iran’s nuclear program.

Biden will find it difficult to even dream about changes in Iran’s internal policies or reforms in human rights or economic liberalism that might appear right after sanctions are lifted. The incoming Iranian president is not a founding member of Amnesty International and his understanding of economics requires much upgrading. At the start of his career, he was discovered to be fond of executions, based on the belief that human rights are a Western invention.

Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate after he won the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 2021.Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

“I believe this to be the greatest crime committed by the Islamic Republic since the revolution, and history will condemn it for this … we’ll be marked as criminals by history,” said Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in accusing the committee of executions that was set up by Iran’s prosecutor general in 1988. In the summer of that year, thousands of political prisoners were executed, most of them members of the Mujahideen al-Khalq, others being members of the Communist Party or other opponents of the regime. With great brutality, groups of four or six prisoners were hanged on cranes or shot by regime members.

Montazeri, one of the most prominent and senior clerics in Iran, was appointed earlier as the heir of the revolution’s leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. Some of the latter’s authorities had already been transferred to Montazeri, but this sharp rebuke led to the cancellation of his appointment, and he was removed from the small group of decision-makers crowded around Khomeini, a group that included Khamenei, the current supreme leader, and Rafsanjani, who later became Iran’s president. Rafsanjani was put under house arrest in 1997, remaining there until his death in 2009.

One of the members of the committee for executions, who represented the prosecutor general there, was Ebrahim Raisi – who, with other committee members, bears responsibility for the executions. Raisi, who was just elected president, admitted that he was present at the meeting that decided on the executions, but added that as the youngest person there, he had no say in determining committee decisions.

Raisi had ample opportunities to demonstrate his forceful arm against regime opponents and demonstrators later, while serving as head of the court system. He was responsible for prosecuting hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets in 2019. In his 60 years, Raisi, who lost his father at the age of five, has managed to fulfill many roles in Iran’s judiciary system, even heading one of Iran’s richest charity organizations, a job which gave him a firm economic base and control over one of the most important and unregulated sources of revenue in Iran.

Four years ago, he was already marked by Khamenei as someone worthy of being president and possibly as someone who will take Khamenei’s place one day. In 2017, he was approved as a candidate in the presidential election against Rohani. He failed, garnering only 38 percent of the vote. Two years later he was placed at the head of the court system, replacing Sadeq Larijani, the brother of former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. This was part of Khamenei’s planned move to take political power away from the Larijani family.

Iran's outgoing President Hassan Rouhani meets with Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, Iran June 2021. Credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL WEBSITE/

Ali Larijani, who wished to run in the recent election, was disqualified by the council of constitutional guardians, which determines who is permitted to run for the lofty position of president, mainly due to his close support of outgoing President Rohani.

Raisi is not a religious cleric of the highest order. For a long time, he prided himself with the title of ayatollah, but after an investigative report that looked into his studies and the decision of senior clerics not to give him that title, he stopped using it, making do with a lower rank. This will make it difficult for him to replace Khamenei, unless conditions are relaxed for his benefit.

Until he is instated on August 3, he will start forming his government while removing senior members of Rohani’s government, as well as planning his policies in internal, economic and foreign affairs in collaboration with Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. In the near future, Rohani and the negotiating team will continue conducting talks around the nuclear accord, with the intent of finishing them before the end of his term, but he will do little else.

Rohani leaves behind a frustrated public, disappointed and impoverished. This public expressed its lack of trust in the regime last Friday by largely refraining from voting at the thousands of voting booths scattered around the country. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters bothered going to vote, the lowest rate since the revolution.

Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate after he won the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 2021.Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

The numerous promises made by Rohani during his two terms remained mainly on paper. The economic reforms that were meant to cut into subsidies and build an industrial infrastructure that would absorb millions of unemployed, who make up more than 20 percent of young adults, did not overcome the opposition of his rivals. Inflation, which soared to 48 percent, and the tanking value of the rial, going from 50,000 to the dollar to 250,000 to the dollar, raised the extent of poverty and the threshold of poverty to 70-80 percent. The hopes for some change in the status of human rights and freedom of expression were quickly quashed.

The nuclear accord, which was meant to generate the most important economic revolution, did start to bear fruit when international companies began operating in Iran. But this process froze instantly when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the accord in 2018.

This string of failures caused internal disputes among reformist movements regarding participation in the recent election. Some of them believed that massive participation was needed to try and elect Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former governor of Iran’s central bank, a senior economist with a reformist worldview. Others preferred to stay at home in order to erode the legitimacy of the government formed after the election, with the argument that even when reformist presidents such as Khatami or Rohani were elected, it did not bring about a change in the nature and character of Iran.

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