Ebrahim Raisi is now the frontrunner in Iran’s June 2021 presidential election, all of whose credible conservative rivals have been disqualified by the Guardian Council. This report examines some of the more under-reported details of his life and career to date, from birth in a famous district of Mashhad to becoming a member of Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous death panel.
Sayed Ebrahim Raisol-Sadati was born in May 1960 in the Noghan neighborhood of Mashhad. His name alludes to the fact that both his father and maternal grandfather were clergymen, with the title "Seyed" used in Iran to connote people descended from the Prophet Muhammad. According to Raisi’s personal website, he is a "Seyed" from both sides of the family.
Noghan is one of the oldest and most populated parts of the holy city of Mashhad, itself home to the mausoleum of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Twelver Shias. The encyclopaedia of Mashhad goes so far as to describe Noghan as the oldest neighborhood in all of Iran. Its history can apparently be traced back 1500 years, when the wives of Noshan are said to have given up their dowries to be able to attend the mourning ceremony after Imam Reza’s death.
Raisi’s religious pedigree is a huge part of his appeal to conservatives. But his own family background is less well-known. In 2017, the first time Raisi ran for election, his Sistan and Baluchistan campaign manager Dadkhoda Khodayar said his father was originally from this deprived coastal province: a native of Dashtak, apparently, in Zabol County.
Raisi lost his father when he was five years old. He is said to have studied at Javadiyeh elementary school in Mashhad, going on to briefly attend the city’s Navab seminary before transferring to the Ayatollah Mousavinejad seminary.
At the age of 15, he travelled to Qom on the advice of his older brother, first taking classes at the Ayatollah Boroujerdi seminary and for some time at a school run by Ayatollah Pasandideh, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's older brother. Among his best-known professors were the deeply conservative clerics Ali Meshkini, Abolghasem Khazali, and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. The latter would go on to serve as Chief Justice of the Islamic Republic from 1999, with Raisi among his proteges.
Before 1979, there is no record of Raisi having taken part in especially revolutionary activities. But he has said that when Ali Khamenei was exiled to Iranshahr in Sistan and Baluchistan under the Shah, he and a number of other scholars visited him in secret. The group allegedly discussed “the correct way to continue the fight against the Pahlavi regime”.
Raisi says that he was one of the 70 seminary students that Mohammad Beheshti, a jurist and close ally of Ayatollah Khomeini, gathered together in the first months after the Islamic Revolution for a series of important closed meetings. As a result, Raisi, alongside other young clerics including Mostafa Pourmohammadi – later his colleague on the 1988 death panel – were then appointed to key positions in the new judicial and security institutions.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini also appointed Hadi Marvi, the son-in-law of hardline pro-Islamic Republic cleric Ayatollah Abolqassem Khazali, to “manage the situation” in the city of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan province, where unrest had broken out among those displeased with the change of regime.
Marvi took a number of young clerics with him to Masjed Soleyman, including Raisi. This was to be Raisi’s first taste of implementing repression through the court system. “Managing the situation”, it transpired, meant dispatching the remaining agents of the previous regime and neutralizing those groups that opposed the Islamic Republic. Together, Khomeini’s representatives took over the administration of the city.
By 1980, Raisi was still not 20 years old. But he was then named the assistant prosecutor of Karaj city in Alborz Province, and on the orders of Ali Ghodousi, the Islamic Revolution’s prosecutor-general, quickly became the city’s prosecutor-in-chief.
He retained this position two years later on also becoming the prosecutor of Hamedan, and carved up his time between the two cities more than 250km apart. During this period, he was involved with prosecuting known members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization and other opposition groups. Karaj's proximity to Tehran meant the opposition was active in this city, and the prosecutor thus had an important role to play.
Raisi served as the prosecutor of Hamedan from 1982 to 1984. This in turn lent him new authority, because the prosecutor of the provincial capital practically supervises the entire province. While in this role, Raisi is said to have issued extremely heavy-handed sentences against critics of the government.
In 1983, at the age of 23, he married Jamileh Sadat Alam al-Hoda: the first daughter of Mashhad’s Friday imam, Ahmad Alam al-Hoda. The pair have two daughters.
Raisi was transferred from Hamedan to Tehran in 1985. At that time, Tehran’s Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor's Offices were separate. Raisi first took on the task of dealing with political prisoners as an "opposition groups deputy", and shortly afterward became acting Revolutionary Prosecutor of Tehran.
In 1986, the third phase of the investigation into the 1981 bombing of former Prime Minister Javad Bahonar’s office was entrusted to Raisi. He handed over the responsibility for related interrogations to a branch of the Central Revolutionary Court under the command of Asadolah Lajevardi, his predecessor in the role in Tehran.
Finally, after the arrest of one defendant and the suicide of another, Ayatollah Khomeini summoned Raisi, then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdol Karim Mousavi Ardabili, and Attorney General Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, to his offices and ordered them to close the case.
But it was the year 1988 that would prove the most critical in Ebrahim Raisi’s judicial career. That year, he was appointed to serve on a four-member panel newly set up by Ayatollah Khomeini, officially with a view to carrying out an "independent inquiry into the structure of the judiciary".
In fact the panel, in partnership with related committees formed up and down the country, was tasked with rubber-stamping the state-sponsored executions Iranian political prisoners. That summer, thousands of people were rounded up in batches in the dead of night and shot where they stood, and buried in mass graves without their families being notiied.
At meeting of this panel, together with Ayatollah Montazeri, the main speakers are recorded as having been Hojjatoeslam Hossein-Ali Nayyeri and Mostafa Pourmohammadi. Raisi himself, and fellow appointee Morteza Eshraghi, reportedly said little. All the death panel’s members have since claimed that they had no choice but to carry out Khomeini's decrees – and even, that they tried to bring the numbers of the condemned down. Raisi has also criticized members of the Supreme Judicial Council for not trying to dissuade Khomeini from some of the rulings.
Regardless of what has since been said, however, part of the four-member panel’s purview included deciding the fate of political prisoners held in Karaj Central Prison. Raisi, who had former served as chief prosecutor in Karaj, knew some of the prisoners personally and may well have played a decisive role in their execution or sparing.
With this bloodstained early career, Raisi was one of the few young clerics in the Islamic Republic to have entered the senior ranks of the regime without a serious education in the seminary. He claims that in the first year in post in Karaj he attended another jurisprudential course, and has since been present in classes taught by Ali Khamenei since 1991.
Raisi's biography also states that after completing the basic seminary course, he completed a Master’s degree in civil law in 2001 with a dissertation entitled Inheritance Without Inheritors. Since then, he has continued his education while on the job at Tehran’s Shahid Motahari University.