The 60-year-old, perceived to be close to the Supreme Leader, has held various positions in the establishment and was also part of the ‘death commission’ that oversaw executions in the 80s.
With the victory of Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative chief of Iran’s judiciary, in Friday’s presidential election, the country’s clerical establishment has tightened its grip on the Islamic Republic. When 90% of the ballots were counted, Mr. Raisi won 62% of the vote. Other candidates have conceded the race. Mr. Raisi would replace the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose tenure was marked by international diplomacy, pressure, regional tensions and growing protests and crackdown at home.
The 60-year-old Mr. Raisi, who traces his lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed (which allows him to wear a black turban), is a loyal, senior figure in Iran’s establishment. He contested the 2017 Presidential election, but lost to Mr. Rouhani, who secured a second term. But the defeat did not deter Mr. Raisi’s rise as one of the more important clerics in the country’s tightly held politico-religious system. In 2019, Mr. Raisi, reportedly close to the Supreme Leader, was appointed the Chief Justice. In the same year, he was named deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will pick the next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei departs.
A favourite of the clergy
In the presidential election, there were complaints that the establishment was clearly favouring Mr. Raisi. Mr. Rouhani, a popular figure among the reformists and moderates, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Other prominent moderate candidates, former Parliament speaker Ali Larijani and outgoing Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, were excluded from running by the Guardian Council. The 12-member Council, which vets potential candidates, allowed only seven contestants — two low-key moderates and five hardliners — to run. Mr. Raisi was the only prominent candidate on the list. Closer to the election, two more candidates dropped out, boosting Mr. Raisi’s chances. There were no surprises when the results were announced.
Born in 1960 in a village near the holy city of Mashhad, Mr. Raisi, as a teenager, studied in a Qom seminary. When Iran erupted against the rule of the Shah in the late 1970s, Mr. Raisi, like many other seminary students, liberals and leftwing activists, joined the protests. After the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown and Iran became an Islamic Republic, Mr. Raisi began his judicial career as a prosecutor in the city of Karaj. He moved to the capital in 1985 after he was appointed a deputy prosecutor of Tehran. It was this time Mr. Raisi got the attention of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
After the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Khomeini issued secret decrees condemning thousands of political prisoners (mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a dissident group backed by Saddam Hussein that carried out attacks after Iran accepted a ceasefire, and supporters of leftist factions such as the Fedaian and the Tudeh Party) to death. Then a four-man commission, which is widely known as the “death commission”, was set up to carry out the executions. Mr. Raisi was reported to be a member of the commission. A 2019 U.S. Treasury Department release, which imposed sanctions on top Iranian officials, including Mr. Raisi, “for advancing domestic and foreign oppression”, states that “as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, Raisi participated in a so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.” According to rights groups, including Amnesty International which released a report on the killings in 1990, thousands were killed after sham trials. Iran has never acknowledged the killings. Mr. Raisi has never talked about it publicly, even during his presidential campaigns.
Always a loyal ally of the establishment, Mr. Raisi has held several important positions in Iran’s judicial system. From 2004 to 2014, he was the First Deputy Chief Justice. In 2014, he was named the Attorney-General of Iran, a position which he held until 2016. Then Khamenei appointed him to run the Astan-e Quds-e Razavi (Imam Reza charity foundation), which manages a wide network of businesses and endowments. These foundations, run largely on donations or assets seized during the 1979 revolution worth billions, operate directly under the Supreme Leader. When he was appointed to the foundation, Mr. Khamenei called Mr. Raisi a “trustworthy person with high-profile experience”, a rare praise from the Supreme Leader that fuelled speculations that the Ayatollah could be grooming him as a potential successor.
After his election victory in the second attempt, Mr. Raisi could now claim some popular legitimacy. Mr. Khamenei himself was a two-term President before he was chosen as the Islamic Republic’s second Supreme Leader after Khomeini’s death in 1989. But as President, big challenges are awaiting Mr. Raisi. Iran’s economy is practically in shambles. Negotiations to restore the nuclear deal, which Mr. Raisi has supported, are under way. More importantly, the country has seen repeated mass protests in recent years, which the regime has put down using force. Mr. Raisi ran a campaign promising that he would tackle “poverty and corruption, humiliation and discrimination”. Now it’s time for him to deliver.